South Africa v England, 5th Test, Centurion, 2nd day January 22, 2005

Predictably unpredictable

The Wisden Verdict from Andrew Miller at Centurion

AB de Villiers: just how good will he be? © Getty Images

As game-plans go, it was simple enough. Win the toss, bowl first on a juicy greentop, and restrict South Africa to less than 250 in zippy seaming conditions. And, in essence, that is more or less what happened. Michael Vaughan did indeed call correctly, and England did end up with the opening-day honours. But, predictably enough in this most unpredictable of series, the day's events veered considerably from the prescribed route.

Vaughan has now won two tosses in quick succession, but both here and at Johannesburg, one suspects that he would have been quite happy to leave the decision-making to his opposite number, Graeme Smith. For on this very ground 12 months ago, West Indies won the toss on another supposed seamer's paradise, only for South Africa to rack up 604 for 6 declared - an effort that included an opening stand of 301 between Herschelle Gibbs (192) and Smith (139), and a further century for Jacques Kallis (130 not out). It was not the most auspicious of backgrounds against which to insert the opposition.

South Africa's has been a much-fluctuating side over the past year, but remarkably, they have ended up with just two changes of personnel from the team that took the field on that occasion - Nicky Boje is a not-exactly-like-for-like replacement for the vastly experienced Gary Kirsten, while AB de Villiers takes over from Neil McKenzie. But somewhere along the line, South Africa's middle order has misplaced its backbone. Today, they had an opportunity to give Vaughan and England the runaround, much as they had done to the West Indies. But they blew their opportunity in a rash of poor strokes.

South Africa had made a concerted effort to stiffen their resolve as well. Regardless of Smith and Gibbs's triple-century stand against West Indies, the selectors chose instead to spread their assets all across the batting order, with de Villiers returning to the role he first played at Port Elizabeth, and Smith slotting in at the troublesome No. 5 position. The move may have been related to the concussion Smith suffered at the Wanderers, but as a student of the school of hard knocks, he was better equipped than the hapless Boeta Dippenaar to hold the middle of the innings in place.

At the start of play, even the PA announcer was caught unawares by this switch, but de Villiers soon made his presence felt. In a recent interview with Cricinfo, he claimed to prefer batting in the middle order, so goodness knows how good he'll be when he finally gets his own way. England's initial plan had been to pitch the ball up and make it talk, but such was the purity of de Villiers's cover-driving that even Matthew Hoggard soon resorted to the bang-it-in-and-hope approach that had served England so badly at Cape Town.

At 114 for 1 in the 33rd over, with the two local lads, de Villiers and Jacques Rudolph, cruising along in an 87-run stand, the signs were pretty ominous for England, and they were even beginning to shell their catches as well. But, once Rudolph's patience against the short ball had run out, South Africa's middle order followed suit in a variety of manners. Kallis received the ball of the day, an immaculate yorker from Andrew Flintoff, but there was nothing immaculate about the wafts to first slip that accounted for Smith and Mark Boucher, nor the impatient paddle that ended de Villiers's superb effort when a century was begging to be taken.

If South Africa let themselves down, then England ought to be equally self-reflective this evening. If ever there was a need for the fielders to back up their bowlers, it was in the morning session, when Steve Harmison's now-standard mix of lines and lengths could have resulted in the wickets of both Gibbs for 4, and de Villiers for 34. Instead, the chances went begging, and so did his confidence, as his figures of 0 for 79 will testify. But England also managed to throw in a glut of no-balls as well - 19 in all, including one which led to a catch from what turned out to be the very last ball of the day. If Andrew Hall converts his overnight 11 into something substantial tomorrow, it will be rough justice well served.

And so the final Test of the summer has begun much as the first Test at Port Elizabeth had done, with one flawed performance out-flawing another. On that occasion, the conditions had been even more favourable for batting, but though England bowled without a huge amount of inspiration, they still managed to whittle away seven wickets by the close - and from that point on, victory was more or less guaranteed. With the batting conditions expected to ease as this match progresses, England have taken a significant step towards sealing their first series win here since 1964-65. But South Africa will rightly rue a day that did not go according to precedent.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He has been following England's tour of South Africa.