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Olympic fever has overshadowed the build-up to the second Test but England captain Andrew Strauss will not be distracted from trying to save the series
August 1, 2012
Preview : A marked improvement needed
News : Smith focused after paternity dash
Features : South Africa aim for new script
News : Flower hopes Taylor solves No. 6 issue
Matches: England v South Africa at Leeds
Series/Tournaments: South Africa tour of England
The appearance of a pastoral English cricket scene in Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony went down so well in one cricketing outpost that it has been reported that it could be turned into a musical stage show in Beijing this Christmas, complete with the farmyard animals and some Beatles songs thrown in.
After England's innings-and-12-run defeat against South Africa in the first Test, "Help!" is the track that springs most readily to mind.
Confirmation of a musical in China involving village cricket could yet represent one of the highlights of a bedraggled summer, so making it the first occasion when the cricketing slur "that's village" became something to aspire to rather than an England player's favourite putdown.
Presumably any impresario taking on the job would have to rely on Chinese sheepdogs, which might bring difficulties in translation, but after England's capitulation at The Oval, a ready supply of ducks should be easier to find.
Since that Oval defeat, the Olympics has dominated the news agenda to such an extent that if England are about to lose their No. 1 ranking by succumbing again to South Africa at Headingley now is as good a time as any, as in many media outlets news of their demise will come somewhere below the handball results.
The defeat, according to England's offspinner, Graeme Swann, was "a public humiliation," a lesson in how a slack session can set in motion an irreversible pattern. England's captain, Andrew Strauss, was at his most diplomatic, talking of the need to retain perspective and of "a steely determination among the troops" but the somewhat spiky mood of the director of cricket, Andy Flower, is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the uncertainty within the England set-up.
England have lost five of their last nine Tests, since they thrashed India last summer. If that does not say much for England, it says even less for India, but it is England who have lost impetus since ascending to the No. 1 ranking, their form as dismal in south London against South Africa as it had been in the UAE against Pakistan's attack. And it is England, barring a remarkable turnaround in the last two Tests, who will go to India later in the year with their confidence shaken.
Strauss rightly views the Olympics as "pretty irrelevant", waving aside suggestions that there might be a feel-good effect if Great Britain start winning medals; a negative effect if it is felt that nobody outside Yorkshire takes much notice of their efforts over the next five days; or any sort of knock-on effect at all.
"It is an important Test and the fact you only get one page at the back of the paper rather than four is of no consequence to us," he said. "It's rightly the case that everyone's attention is on the Olympics, and we are rooting for British medals with everyone else, but we have to divorce the two completely. If someone gets a gold medal it is not going to help me get a hundred tomorrow unfortunately."
Headingley is a good place for a defeated side to seek to recover lost ground. It is a ground with a mind of its own, determinedly unwilling to follow a pattern set earlier in the series. Victors and vanquished alike arrive at Headingley as potential playthings. It is a Test that often exists independently, wilfully following its own mood. It is a ground, much like many of the more traditional Yorkshire folk who attend it, that does much as it pleases, wilfully turning from swing-bowling haven one minute to flat batting track the next.
Strauss, who much prefers Lord's, conceded that it was, "a slightly intriguing ground". As concessions go, this might entirely please the Yorkshire populace, many of whom view it more mystically. Some people may even feel slighted. They may feel more slighted at 10.30am on Thursday morning if England, as they are tempted to do, omit the local favourite Tim Bresnan in favour of Steve Finn
"Maybe there are slightly more unique challenges that it does throw at you," Strauss added. "There are times at Headingley when bowling looks unplayable and there are times when it looks very flat. Conditions are going to be different here, the challenges are going to be different and we obviously need to make sure we react well to those challenges and overcome them."
The fact that Bresnan is on his home turf did not appear to be working heavily in his favour. Strauss has been inspired time and again by Lord's, not only his home ground for Middlesex, but also the headquarters of the English game, a ground that feeds his sense of self-worth. But on Bresnan he did not draw similar comparisons, saying: "You just select the best XI to win the game of cricket, regardless of where people are from. Obviously Bres knows the wicket well and the lengths to bowl and he will be feeding that information to the other bowlers."
Bresnan's Championship appearances at Headingley are a rarity, in any event, and he has not often looked at his sharpest this summer. The same could be observed of Stuart Broad, but for Broad to be omitted would be the selectorial shake-up of the summer.
It is England's final batting position that has given the selectors uncertainty. Moving on from Paul Collingwood has been a difficult task. Eoin Morgan's emphasis is too centred upon one-day cricket for comfort, the gamble on Jonny Bairstow misfired and has set him back ever since, and Ravi Bopara's Test career remains a sea of troubles.
It can be debilitating for anybody when personal issues intrude upon a sporting career. Bopara, it should be stressed, has not been emotionally broken by any cricketing failures, but has issues outside cricket that are having a debilitating effect. England, in their desire to protect Bopara's privacy, should not allow false assumptions to take hold.
Strauss recognised this. "I feel for Ravi," he said. "He is going through a bit of a hard time personally. It was a big call on his part to say 'look, I'm not in the right frame of mind'. I think that is quite a brave thing to do and we are all behind him and will offer him any support that we can."
In place of Bopara, James Taylor steps in for his Test debut. His move last winter to Trent Bridge, where batting is no picnic, was a brave one, and his technique has benefitted from it. His chance has perhaps come a year earlier than England would have liked.
"He is a proper batter at six who can play really long innings," Strauss said. "For a young guy, he knows his game very well. His temperament looks very solid. He has always played well for the Lions so that suggests that he can handle the step up. And you can see by the way he holds himself that he has quite an old head on young shoulders. Those are all the constituent parts you look for in a young player."
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala