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When South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, said on the eve of the Lord's Test that the English public were "in for a treat" this summer, this possibly wasn't the scenario he had in mind
July 11, 2008
When South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, said on the eve of the Lord's Test that the English public were "in for a treat" this summer, this possibly wasn't the scenario he had in mind. After six sessions of fruitless toil on a flat and slow wicket, the pace trio of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini has been well and truly tamed, and all the hype that had surrounded South Africa's pre-series prospects is starting to look somewhat hubristic.
"It's been helluva disappointing," said Arthur. "We came here full of expectation and we haven't delivered. We probably didn't assess conditions correctly up front, we didn't get our lines and lengths right, we bowled both sides of the wicket, and it hasn't been great. The positive is that England have seen nowhere near the best of us, but I am going to write off this innings."
South Africa can write off this Test as well. Thanks to a career-best 199 from Ian Bell and an emotionally charged 152 from Kevin Pietersen, the best they can now hope for is a draw, and even that might prove hard to come by if the extravagant swing that Ryan Sidebottom found with England's new ball is translated into early wickets on the third morning. The torrential rains that hampered South Africa's build-up might yet return to aid their escape, but after three thumping wins in three visits to Lord's since readmission, the most they are going to get out of this game are pointers for the remainder of the series.
"Our execution was poor, the players have admitted it themselves," said Arthur. "Our strategising and planning was 100 percent correct, it was just our execution that was lacking. But we've started the remedial process. We'll become really battle-hardened after this first innings and I am sure we can turn it around."
South Africa were undoubtedly suckered by the conditions. Michael Vaughan admitted that he too would have bowled first had he won the toss, but whereas England's seam and swing attack has had the entire summer to hone their techniques, not least at Lord's, Graeme Smith's eagerness to unleash his young guns was fatally undermined by their lack of preparation. They were forced into the indoor nets on each of the three days before the game, and so had no time to acquaint themselves to the vagaries of the slope, and had only two rather diffident warm-up games at Taunton and Uxbridge to call upon for middle practice.
"We did say before the start of the summer we were worried about a lack of hard, intense cricket," said Arthur. "Makhaya [Ntini] and Jacques [Kallis] are the only ones who've played at Lord's, and with the buzz of playing there, after the end of the day I affectionately said the tourist day was over because we were like tourists around the ground. You could see England have been playing hard Test cricket for the last couple of months and we haven't had that since Kanpur [in April]. That took its toll, but there's three days to go and it's a long series."
Although Morkel emerged from the ordeal with credit, and four first-innings wickets to his name, his fellow quicks endured a rougher time. Steyn entered the match as the No. 1 fast bowler in the world with 78 wickets in the last 12 months, and though he showed his capabilities with a searing legcutter to bowl Vaughan for 2, he struggled with his line and length thereafter, repeatedly straying onto the pads as if trying to re-create that delivery every ball.
"He is still young," said Arthur. "Everybody is allowed to come in and out of form but I certainly wouldn't suggest Dale is out of form. It's been one innings. Hopefully it's refocused them [all the quicks] on the challenges of bowling in England which are totally different to bowling at home. I'm just hoping he learned from it, which I'm pretty sure he did. I've got every confidence he's going to bounce back hugely."
Ntini, on the other hand, may require something rather more dramatic to lift his performance. His build-up to this match was muted in the extreme, given that he took 10 for 220 in the corresponding fixture five years ago, but after two tough days it was clear to see why. The spring and snap in his wild and hostile action simply wasn't in evidence, and he bowled in much the same ghostly manner that Jason Gillespie had brought to the 2005 Ashes. For those who remembered him in his pomp, it was a shock to see the contrast between then and now.
"Makhy's had a little bit of a topsy-turvy year but I'm confident he'll get it right," said Arthur. "He's slowly got some rhythm in the practice games and I've got full confidence in Makhaya delivering and becoming a threat in this series. But unfortunately we bowled both sides of the wicket, our lines and lengths were wrong and we couldn't seem to build any pressure, and as a bowling unit you've got a problem if you do that. Sometimes it makes the captain look a little bit stupid with the fields he sets."
The man who capitalised the most on the South African errors was Bell, whose brilliant performance was the perfect riposte to Arthur's mindgames. On the eve of the match, Arthur had suggested that "England's No. 5 and 6" would be ripe for the picking in this match, although he was honest enough to admit that his plan had backfired.
"I put the kiss of death on him didn't I?," said Arthur. "Ian Bell showed his class. We wanted to put him under pressure, we discussed a length to bowl to him and we gave him four half-volleys to kick-start his innings. That wasn't part of the script. But hats off to him, he came into the game under pressure and he delivered."
Those four-balls kept on coming, however, and worryingly for South Africa, there have little in the way of variety in their ranks. Andre Nel, the reserve seamer, is very much of the same aggressive bent, and the one man who could be relied upon to stem the tide of runs in English conditions, Shaun Pollock, has moved up to the commentary box since retirement. Arthur, however, is adamant that improvement is just around the corner.
"It is going to be really interesting to see how we bat and interesting to see how England bowl and what we can take out of that," he said. "We'll certainly be looking and watching with interest, because these guys can change their lengths. They've done it in practice. We've set targets for what an English length is and they've invariably hit them, but if a trend develops through the series then it will become a worry."