England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day July 20, 2012

South Africa awake to their task

The difference in South Africa's fast bowling Thursday to Friday was startling

Underdone? We can do better than that. Undercooked? Dreadful misused word. Short of a gallop, then? Yup, that will do it. South Africa were short of a gallop on Thursday. Too often, this is the story of the modern tour. Fly, land, train, play a couple of gentle county games and then it is lights, camera, action: Test match time.

The smartest thing England have done in years was to get to Australia early the winter before last and play hardcore matches against the states. The least smart was to cruise into the UAE last winter and expect a similar result to the 3-1 beating they had given the Australians. Graham Gooch loves to say: "If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail." Such are the schedules these days that long tours are long gone. But the principle that bowlers need to bowl and batsmen need time in the middle will never change.

Thus, you reasonably wonder what the South Africans were doing up a Swiss mountain on an outward bound course a fortnight back when they might have been in the ring with England Lions or Durham. I get the bonding thing but there is a time and a place. You would think Graeme Smith's fellows had never met. Whatever, someone who matters thought it a good plan and now they are where they are, behind but hanging in there.

The difference in the fast bowling Thursday to Friday was startling. This is not to say it was bad on Thursday, far from it - just that it liked bite and, while we are at it, the usual bark too. Dale Steyn is such a splendidly nasty fast bowler that we rather missed his snarl. Friday was more fun as those thin lips pursed, the eyes narrowed and the follow through extended into the batsman's face. The animal in him was back and with it came the late swing that has paid the bills these recent years.

Swing is the most unfathomable thing. If it happens early, from the hand, the really good batsmen quite like it. There is something to work with, angles that allow fielders to be beaten with delayed, crisp strokeplay. But if it goes late anyone can fall foul, even the best, and especially when released at Steyn's fair lick. A beautifully light and balanced approach leads to the whip of an action that fires the ball to a full length before it moves just enough and mainly away from the right-hander, kissing the surface en route to the top of the off stump. There is a wicked, skidding bouncer in there too - ask Ravi Bopara who was stuck betwixt and between. Good bloody luck when Dale Steyn is at his best.

Another thing to ponder upon was the absence of Mark Boucher. What is a team without its engine room? Boucher knows these bowlers like they are his family but he is a world away, desperately hoping to get that unlucky eye fixed up. AB de Villiers snaffled five in his stead but three of them were after the horse had bolted. It is hard to imagine the South Africans cruising through such a toothless first day with gritty little Bouchy in their ear.

Maybe he called from the Cape on Thursday night. Someone called out loud because the fire was back come Friday. First Alastair Cook, then Ian Bell, then Bopara, all gone for 17 runs in ten searching overs of riposte that said yesterday was history. This was the cricket we had expected, no quarter given. Twice the bails were skimmed, once by Jacques Kallis, again by Vernon Philander.

Kallis gives South Africa many options, not just within the balance of the team but also through his diverse ball skills that adapt so effectively to the many corners of the world. One minute he is powering yorkers and slower balls at the death stage of the Kolkata Knight Riders' winning IPL campaign; the next he is bouncing out Kevin Pietersen and bowling out Bell.

Philander is an interesting one. From no apparent threat comes an examination every ball. The seam hovers, tantalisingly close to the batsman's reach, and then when it pitches, spits this way and that. He is a temptress - smart, persistent and the perfect foil to the flair around him. Philander the foil, not to be trusted.

And finally to Morne the Monster. Ask Andrew Strauss, who has been on the wrong end seven times in nine Tests. All awkward arms and legs, Morne Morkel is a living nightmare - unplayable one ball, unreachable the next. Tall, strong, fast and bouncy, a trump card if on song, a sleeper if not.

The bare facts are that on a dry, flat, slow pitch the awakened South Africans took seven English wickets for 118 runs on Friday. This does not happen to England in England, not any more. The green and pleasant land has become a fortress. England are unbeaten at home since 2008 and guess who got them then? Spot on: South Africa. This will be a cracking series, Switzerland or not.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Christopher on July 22, 2012, 2:23 GMT

    @Muhammed Moose...you manage,albeit inadvertently to support my exact point.Cricket's success during the period that you've named was due to it being less accessible,not more.There were 3 avenues to cricket then.The radio,the papers or going to the game.Despite their being little money to be made from cricket,its popularity was undimmed.Stories abound of people enduring hardship to see their favourite players.Bradman who on meeting a man outside the ground who had no money,but had walked many miles to the game,went up to the players dressing room & took a collection to get the man in.In your world,this doesn't happen.Those who pursued it,did so with the intention of displaying the highest qualities of character on behalf of their country.Cricket was always required to compete for print media space but it remains the dominant summer sport where it is played.It offers rare opportunities for self development in life,not just cricket.That you fail to grasp this essential element is evident

  • Christopher on July 22, 2012, 2:05 GMT

    @Muhammed Moosa..pre-20/20 data shows that cricket at club level in Australia has never been more popular & membership is at an all time high.It's populated by the same youth that goes to traditional games.The premise used by CA to introduce 20/20 was manifestly incorrect & misleading.Warner relevance?His ave has fallen far.His game only works on one level.I opposed his selection.NSW couldnt select him on his record.He was selected after success in Zimbabwe.Many lesser players were also prolific.I opposed Cummins selection on the premise he would be injured,having been so at a young age following the Shield Final.At each point,your response uses tv & money as the rationale.When do you plan to argue on behalf of cricket?The proof of a 'talented young kid'is in results in the traditional set up.Those are the ones that promote,endurance,courage,game plans,integrity & concentration.20/20 is its dilution.Only the capacity to observe everything exactly as it is motivates the road to solution

  • Christopher on July 22, 2012, 1:20 GMT

    @Muhammed Moosa..If you wish to retain credibility,you will confine your rebuttal to facts and not generalised opinions.I suggest you read on Bradman more carefully.Of the dozen or more books I've read,his interest in earning money was entirely separate from cricket.His battles with the board in the early 1930's were in the pursuit of private employment predominantly in the print media which his contract opposed.This was despite other Test players being excused.Excerpts of a book he had undertaken to write in England were indiscreetly leaked and printed ahead of agreed release dates initiating the furore.Bradman always believed that the advent of money would cause the harm that it has.His conversations to that end with Ian Chappell while Australian Captain undoubtedly spurred the arrival of WSC.The pursuit if wealth by WG was not systemic but private.It had no influence on crickets values.Boxing is replete with corruption & a poor example.You have provided no supporting evidence.

  • Jay on July 21, 2012, 23:13 GMT

    SA have a better bowling attack than England, though some English supporters would never accept that. England have been good the last 2 years given they mostly played at home in front of passionate fans and against some undercooked visitors. Their performances away from home still leaves a lot to be desired. But I am sure they will work around that. South Africa have always prided themselves on their fast bowling unit. From Donald and Pollock to Steyn and Morkel, it's all about precision and venom. England never stood a chance and there is more to come. England's bowling on the third day was miserable and pathetic. Sure the pitch is flat but even SA's bowlers used the same pitch. The difference in quality is there for all to see.

  • Dummy4 on July 21, 2012, 19:57 GMT

    @hyclass Disagree on everything you say.Unlike the 1920-40's of the Bradmanesque era,the name of modern sport is t.v.Guys like Bradman and W.G Grace were champions of their times and drove an enormously hardline towards money.W.G is said to be amongst the most mercenary of all cricketers.Also cricket did not have to compete for t.v and newspaper inches nor was football and other sport as mainstream as today.Floyd Mayweather wants $50m to fight Pacquiao.Money talks.Why should a talented young kid play cricket when he can earn 10 times more in another code?Thats where 20/20 is so vital,in driving t.v audiences,getting more youngsters to play the game and cricketers to earn more.Look at David Warner,a specialist 20 over hitter now a test cricketer.Instead of bickering and compalining we should all applaud cricket's efforts to increase its profile in all aspects of the game

  • Christopher on July 21, 2012, 15:45 GMT

    Of all the cricket writers & observers,I regard your work to be the pinnacle & have the highest respect for your acumen.Cricket is being enacted at one of histories great pivotal moments.The financial animating forces are threatening the fabric of a game that claims among it's many traits,the capacity to instil the great virtues of character,courage & integrity in its youth.Traditions are at the beck & call of branding & advertising.The arrival of T20 to meet the demands of visual media & diminishing attention spans removes endurance as a character feature.Players may now abjure the courageous pathways to a traditional career and earn independently.There is compelling evidence that CA has spent the last 5 years undermining traditional cricket in Australia to make 20/20 seem preferable.That which the mighty Bradman feared money would inevitable do to Test cricket is abundantly in evidence.It was Bradman who subscribed to playing as much against any kind of ball to improve,not mountains.

  • anu on July 21, 2012, 6:51 GMT

    Welll writen Mark..flair with substance. In the cricket part.....SA's bowling is superior......because, Eng pick their bowler for their batting skills......else a geniunely faster and more potent Finn will be playing ahead of dibbly dobbly Bresnan.

  • Nadeem on July 21, 2012, 6:30 GMT

    This is by far the toughest english tesm test at home in last 4 years. Both teams are equally good in all departments. I hope to see a result out of this series. This is cracker. Just want some body to beat england in england now. It's been a long time and it will be great for cricket in general. England please don't act like aussies.

  • Randolph on July 21, 2012, 2:06 GMT

    Dominant day for South Africa. Loving it how all the poms have gone quiet. Expect it to continue.

  • Dummy4 on July 21, 2012, 0:20 GMT

    Having talked about how South Africa were under-Cooked (or possibly over-Cooked, by Alastair), and that their bowlers were short of a gallop, surely you missed a trick by neglecting to say that they needed to be running in at more than a Trott...

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