England v South Africa, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley August 2, 2012

England should not talk of misfortune

England might be forgiven for considering themselves unfortunate after the first day of the Headingley Test. But great teams do not trust to luck, they shape their own fortunes.

England might be forgiven for considering themselves unfortunate after the first day of the Headingley Test. They might bemoan the dropped chances, the catch from a dead ball and the lack of assistance they found from the green-tinged surface on which they inserted the opposition. They might curse that fact that Alviro Petersen got off the mark with a four edged past the slip cordon, that the sun came out shortly after South Africa started to bat and that the alignment of Jupiter in the house of Orion made this a tough day for bowling.

But great teams do not trust to luck, they shape their own fortunes.

So, while it may be tempting to curse their luck, England would be ill-served in the long run by doing so. It is not poor luck to drop catches; it is not poor luck to select an unbalanced side; it is not poor luck to gamble on inserting the opposition and then wasting any assistance that might have been available because some of your bowlers have failed to maintain a good line. And it not poor luck for a leading bowler to go into a Test match with a flaw such as bashing into the stumps that might be considered an accident waiting to happen.

Indeed, England might consider themselves fortunate to have ended the first day of this game just about still on level terms. They might consider themselves flattered by the close of play scorecard and fortunate to have taken as many wickets as they did. After all, one (Graeme Smith) came from an innocuous leg stump delivery, one came from a run-out (Hashim Amla) and another came when a bastman (Jacques Kallis) cut to slip. England would be deluding themselves if they hid behind excuses

It all combined to leave the game just about in the balance. But England will know that, for long periods, their bowling was again rendered close to innocuous - they had, taking into account their experience at The Oval, spent three minutes over 10 hours in the field without claiming a wicket when Smith clipped the ball to square leg - and that the problems with their slip catching are now too frequent to be dismissed as an aberration.

It was not all negative from an England perspective. James Anderson bowled tidily, Steven Finn added a degree of hostility to the attack and, in the last hour or so, Stuart Broad finally rediscovered some of the intent that had made him such a dangerous bowler over the last year or so. Every one of the attack bowled appreciably better after tea when South Africa added 99 runs in 35 overs for the loss of two wickets.

In some ways, though, that just rendered so much of what went before all the more frustrating. Why did it take a second new ball and an increasingly daunting scoreline to summon the best out of Broad? And, while Finn's pace was an asset, he still conceded close to four-an-over which was the reason he was dropped from the side after the Adelaide Test on the Ashes tour of 2010-11. England, who for so long have made consistency their greatest strength, are suddenly becoming inconsistent.

Afterwards Anderson insisted that England were "pretty pleased" with their day, though he confessed to having "no idea" why England's slip catching had deteriorated.

"We created chances all day," Anderson said. "They played a missed a lot against the new ball and we had a few catches go down. We were pretty pleased with the way we fought all day and the new ball burst by the two big lads could have swung it back our way.

"We didn't really get frustrated. We knew there was a lot more encouragement in this pitch than there was at The Oval. We knew if we stuck at it, the wickets would come. We didn't really let them get away and we created some pressure.

"I really can't explain the issue with the slip catching. We've put a few catches down, but our work ethic with our slip catching is as hard as ever. We work flipping hard at it. We worked on it on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But we're putting chances down and it's really frustrating. We'll be striving very hard not to do it in future."

Anderson appeared to distance himself from the decision to omit Graeme Swann, however, underlining how unusual it was for England to enter a Test without a speiclaist spinner. The last occasion was also at Headingley in 2003.

"Obviously the captain and the coach thought the pitch lent itself towards four seamers and didn't think spin would play a massive part on it," Anderson said. "I imagine it was a very difficult decision. He - Graeme Swann - has been an integral part of team for a couple of years now. It's not often you see a team going into a Test without a spinner."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Temuzin on August 3, 2012, 12:59 GMT

    Excellent article. I loved your following lines: " that the sun came out shortly after South Africa started to bat and that the alignment of Jupiter in the house of Orion made this a tough day for bowling. Simply superb sattire. couldn't stop laughing. Lol....

  • SurlyCynic on August 3, 2012, 12:26 GMT

    @ jmcilhinney: Firstly, other batsmen did complain about Finn hitting the stumps, the Australians in fact. Secondly, the fact that Smith hit one to the boundary doesn't mean he wasn't distracted. Perhaps the chance of that stroke going wrong is 5% normally but 10% with a distraction - should Smith have to put up with this just because Finn can't bowl slightly wider? Noone is forcing Finn to run into the stumps, the fault lies with him.

  • jmcilhinney on August 3, 2012, 1:42 GMT

    @SurlyCynic on (August 02 2012, 20:45 PM GMT), personally, I'm not at all concerned with sportsmanship with regards to dead ball being called. I didn't see any specific evidence of the batsmen telling the umpire that it was a distraction but, if that did happen, then I have no issue with dead ball being called. I'd hope that the umpire warned the bowler that it would happen but I doubt that even that is absolutely required by the laws. My issue is with consistency. The first two times it happened there was no call. If a batsman was out to one of those, what would have happened? Would they have complained to the umpire and had it called dead ball retrospectively? What happens in future games? Does any broken wicket get called a dead ball in any game from now one? These are questions for umpires and administrators though, not players. Also, Smith had no trouble hitting a later dead ball to the boundary so was he really distracted, considering no other batsmen has complained this summer?

  • Peterincanada on August 3, 2012, 1:23 GMT

    England were in a slightly stronger position after day 1 at the Oval than SA are today. With Dumminy and the tail to come SA should be out for less than 400. England wil not score 600 to put SA under pressure. So, they will need a strong second innings bowling performance to have a chance to win. I see the match as being well set up.

  • Rahulbose on August 3, 2012, 1:14 GMT

    Well England is not a great team, so what great teams do or don't doesn't apply to this case. What does apply is that English media, players and fans are Grade A whiners and this team is no different.

  • Cropper03 on August 2, 2012, 23:11 GMT

    As an England fan I would have to say that in general England have been their own worst enemies in this series so far and have not really played percentages. To a degree, luck is also about percentages. In this test, they decided to bowl first, which was a gamble, have messed around with their slip cordon, a gamble, and dropped their spinner, a gamble. Each one of those gambles may or not work - you can't really blame luck for that, because its not 50/50 - time will probably show that they should have batted first, kept swann, dropped bresnan or broad - to me these would all be logical decisions, with the need for luck minimised.

    Teams do not win by being lucky, they win consistently by minimising any reliance on luck.

    As an aside, I personally think that SA have better players, any stats would back this up, so I would be disappointed to lose, but sometimes you have to accept a team is better.

    Andy murray was no1 in the world for awhile, we didnt all think he was a great just decent

  • Nutcutlet on August 2, 2012, 22:59 GMT

    Some things can be planned, the rest just happen. The winning of the toss usually means that you plan to bat, especially if you have an attack of 4 quicks. Yet Strauss (& others involved in the decision) puts SA in! This seems to me to be the product of muddled planning. Tahir is the only spinner in the game and England will bat last! Leaving Swann out looks to be the upshot of more muddled planning. (It may already have gifted Petersen a healthy ton from a non-specialist 2nd slip.) It may, however, be a tacit admission that either Swann isn't fit &/or he's not bowling effectively (the pre-match nets would have shown this up). Where was the call up for Tredwell (who I believe to be a much underrated cricketer)? Unless you are the WIndies 30 years ago, you don't rely exclusively on pace! Leaving a spinner out in any match is rather like meat without veg: an unbalanced diet. All in all, England has gambled and unless the weather is v kind to Eng, the lack of clear thought may cost dear.

  • Beertjie on August 2, 2012, 22:44 GMT

    It's not "luck" to win two tosses and perform as they've done (and I agree with @Unomaas that we should "wait till the Saffa's bowl and field on this wicket before we write off the POM's"). Funny how it's only when England and India feature that we read about how coveted the #1 ranking is. Anyway, as an Oz fan I doff my cap to the Saffers. Their experience and self-belief will make them harder to beat than England - that's for sure.

  • StaalBurgher on August 2, 2012, 22:11 GMT

    SA certainly did gift a few wickets. Hopefully that trend won't continue because that has been the primary reason we only managed to draw against India and England at home over the last few years.

  • subbass on August 2, 2012, 21:44 GMT

    Is the writer suggesting luck plays no significant part in sport ? Perhaps he is not saying it is as black and white as that but it is clear that SA have enjoyed the better luck thus far in the series with the 'non playing' variables such as weather conditions, ie: The muggy morning on day 2 where the ball did loads for them in the 1st Test. However they have took full advantage of that in impressive fashion and would have won the 1st Test even without the good fortune they had I just don't believe it would have been such a thrashing.

    Anyway before anyone has a go at me FWIW I do agree they do look the best side on the planet now, and I would be very surprised if they did not take the series and the coveted number 1 ranking. And Dale Steyn is just such a legend along with Kallis, not forgetting the brilliance of AB and Amla, they are some team and it would be no disgrace to lose this series.

    Still, sport can change like the wind, so who knows !

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