England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval July 19, 2012

Sluggish South Africa lack innovation

South Africa's much-vaunted bowling attack endured a tough opening day of the series that left them scratching their heads for inspiration

Not since 2001 has Jacques Kallis been given the new ball for South Africa. Today, he was presented with the second one. As incongruous a sight as it was, it was an act that summed up the day for the visitors and emphasised their need to innovate as compensation for having their plans being pulled out of shape.

Do not mistake that for confirmation of the suspicion that they were undercooked. South Africa did not come into the match underprepared. They were short of match time but long on tactics and research which initially paid off.

Morne Morkel took the new ball for the first time in eight Tests, since Vernon Philander made his debut, solely because of his record against Andrew Strauss. He had dismissed Strauss six times before today and it took him only four balls to do it for a seventh time. Allan Donald confirmed that it was a strategy South Africa specifically prepared because Morkel "wanted to front up to Strauss. He knows that he has got a little bit of a psychological advantage over him."

By pairing Morkel with Philander, South Africa also avoided using Dale Steyn against the left-handed opening pair. Steyn's average against southpaws is 31.50, considerably lower than his 18.94 against right-handers.

What it did not do was stop South Africa from being exposed against left-handers. Donald had discussed with his attack ways of "suffocating the left-handers" but admitted that at times, their execution of those plans was not entirely correct.

Even with the situation not entirely under control, the thinking was still evident. A short midwicket was put in place for Jonathan Trott, who has a habit of dragging balls from outside offstump to the leg-side. He does not have a habit of doing it rashly though, but South Africa were hopeful as Smith kept the close catcher in place.

That was where the South African scheming erred. Trott bats in a bubble as dense as a diamond and the idea of being able to pierce that with mind games proved naïve. Instead, South Africa should have tried to remove him in the most literal way rather than through a complex and multi-layered strategy that involved frustrating Trott into getting himself out.

It would have meant better use of the short ball, which South Africa stayed away from with alarming regularity. Morkel, the seamer with the most deadly bouncer of the pack, bowled his first at the end of his fourth over. By mid-way through the second session, South Africa had only bowled a little more than an over worth of short balls.

Tahir had developed a defensive side to his game before this match but abandoned it in the quest for wickets.

They allowed the batsmen to get on the front foot too often and to leave comfortably on too many occasions. Donald said they knew "width was not an option". Still, they continued to bowl wide of offstump, making the opening pair's powers of judgement appear precision perfect as they left with ease. By the time Cook had scored his half-century, he had left just under half the balls he had faced.

Despite the dry, unresponsive surface which offered South Africa almost nothing, their attack also lacked the intensity and aggression that Allan Donald has been infusing in them since he took over.

Steyn was battling with either a physical niggle or a bruised ego, although Donald was adamant it was not an injury which appeared to affect the way he bowled. On previous tours, and most recently in New Zealand, he unashamedly showed his annoyance when he did not see immediate success and glimpse of that emerged again today. During his first spell, he constantly and perhaps even desperately clutched the advertising boards in between overs, he had his ankle strapped later on in the day and conducted a publicly-viewable animated chat with Gary Kirsten in the changing room shortly before the second new ball was taken.

Philander lacked dynamism. He plugged away with line and length and was able to keep the run-rate under control but the small bursts of magic he produced to capture his 51 Test wickets were missing. The subtle seam movements and nip was not there. Increasingly, he also grew frustrated and it showed when he flung the ball back to Cook a spell after the England centurion had driven him down the ground for four.

Imran Tahir could not have been expected to produce much on a first-day flat deck but he did less than that with an assortment of full tosses and long hops that became free runs. Tahir had developed a defensive side to his game before this match but abandoned it in the quest for wickets. He got some turn which could be promising for later on in the match but did not result in too much today.

Kallis and Morkel stood out as the most effective bowlers on the day, the former with late swing and the latter with the way he accepted greater responsibility. Kallis had to bowl more than his quota of overs, which has stood at between 10 and 12 a day in recent times.

Morkel was the man that "stood up" as Donald put it. He grew in confidence as the day went on and was the only one actually deserving of wickets. For the rest, it was the day of tough Test cricket they needed to remind themselves of exactly what it will take it to dethrone the No. 1 ranked team in the world.

"The only thing that really lacked was the moment that we could pounce," Donald said. To succeed over the next 14 days in the series, they will have to create, not wait, for those moments.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on July 21, 2012, 18:37 GMT

    You've gone really quiet, Buggsy. First SA knocked out the England middle order fairly easily and now they are cruising on 400+ for 2. Still believe their batting is average? That they should be 4 or 5 in the rankings? That England will take the series 3-zip? Two Saffie centuries so far, Kallis cruising to one too and AB yet to be unleashed. Mmm, mouthwatering. An innings defeat on the cards for England first up?

  • mahjut on July 20, 2012, 16:58 GMT

    i think this s pretty harsh (well, the title anyway, and leading sentence) - SA have not played real cricket in a fair while and Cook is a good opening bat. So, really they've done ok. if they don't collapse into a heap and have to follow on i think this test is still looking good. yes, they didn't bowl well on the first day and one should be critical, but not overly so ... as i said it's early days

  • Gavin on July 20, 2012, 15:20 GMT

    OK now the SA attack has showed up in the match, time for the batsmen to show up. Eng are lucky the deck was so flat yesterday, if this had been the first day they would have been lucky to get 200. Eng will rue scoring so slowly, they should have gotten 350 yesterday the way SA were bowling and how flat the wicket was.

  • Martin on July 20, 2012, 12:11 GMT

    Strong words, Buggsy, and an interesting view on the SA team. I'd remember those words of yours and go buy yourself some seasoning for when you have to eat them. The Test series was one day old and already you have pronounced them dead and buried. Look at the score now.

  • Luke on July 20, 2012, 10:10 GMT

    I still don't know what the fuss is over South Africa, no. 4 or 5 is more suited to them in the rankings. Lately they just haven't been that good - the batting is average at best, the bowling propped up by Steyn who doesn't deliver as often as he should and Smith's captaincy is only getting worse. England 3-zip, assuming the rain doesn't ruin the party.

  • Daniel on July 20, 2012, 9:52 GMT

    @Shameek Khaled Egok: He is actually a she. I dont think she is saying that they should bowl short all the time, merely that Trott could plant his front foot every ball because nothing was bowled short enough to push him back. That said, there was a lack of intensity and aggression, and the South Africans, especially de Villiers were very quiet in the field. I think they looked both undercooked from way way too little time in the middle leading up to this test, and short on both meaningful game plans and the patience to bowl to the few idea's they did have. Very disappointing, and not a good sign for this series; starting to think SA will only be fully prepared by the time the series has been lost

  • Marcio on July 20, 2012, 9:28 GMT

    @pranavfzrider, a bowler has little direct control of whether a ball swings or not. Saying Steyn couldn't swing it like in SA has no meaning. The bowler points the seam in the direction he wants, & its physics & atmospheric conditions do the rest. I should know. I used to swing the ball both ways. It's actually very simple. I leaned it by reading a cricket book at 14, going down to the nets with a new ball. The reason why the SA bowlers didn't swing the ball was because it was sunny & there was a lack of humidity. Philander is a swing bowler in the same mold as Anderson (similar pace). It is inevitable that when conditions don't suit, such bowlers are going to struggle - & the reason why many of the English bowlers struggle in India. It's also the reason why Philander will have many hard days ahead (m/b not in Eng). He has been extraordinarily fortunate to have bowled every test on greenish wickets in drizzling rain - up till yesterday. All he can do it put it on the spot & wait.

  • Rakesh on July 20, 2012, 9:10 GMT

    @Firdose - The opening pair was broken in the first over.

  • Dummy4 on July 20, 2012, 8:58 GMT

    Better use of the short ball ? Does this guy actually understand cricket ? The pitch is slow, offers some sideways movement, the ball swings, and SA should bowl short ? SA just bowled too wide and the English batsmen were able to let too many go. Otherwise the bowling wasn't that bad. England just batted very well.

  • Dummy4 on July 20, 2012, 8:56 GMT

    SA can stil turn around the game infavor of dem.....dey hve quality bowlers...We cant say anything in 1st day itself....let sit out nd wait for dat....

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