South Africa rewarded for patience
Seen in isolation, this was a pitifully dull day, the kind that can be used to illustrate why the longer form is an anachronism in these pacy times. Runs were scarce, wickets scarcer. Fifty-four runs came in the first session, 61 in the second; fours were occasional and there was no hint of a six. But Test cricket is all about context, and in the context of this match, and the series, it was a compelling day: slow, but always simmering; lacking in action, but not plot and intrigue. It was just the kind that makes watching Test cricket a varied, rich and rewarding experience. If South Africa manage to draw this Test, it will be counted among the greatest of escapes in the history of the game, and this seemingly dull day will be regarded as the one that made it possible.
Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie mounted the most monumental of fightbacks. The wicket remained benign but the pressure was so enormous that it tested the character of these batsmen to the limit. Batting is only half about skills; it was the mental aspect that made the contribution of the opening pair remarkable. All through their vigil, they played with the knowledge that their team was only a mistake away from disaster, and they fashioned their response accordingly.
Smith's application was particularly remarkable. And in some ways, he owed it to his team even more than what would be expected in normal course. He would have consulted the team management for sure, but ultimately, the decision to insert England was his; and his captaincy on the second day, when he didn't choose the right bowlers or place the best fields, had been diffident and tentative. South Africa didn't merely need runs from Smith: they needed him to bat and bat.
Smith is no stranger to long innings. He batted for more than five hours while scoring each of first four Test hundreds, three of which were doubles. In fact, two of those were back-to-back doubles scored on his first tour to England and on both occasions he batted for more than nine hours. But he had then batted imperiously, repeatedly muscling balls from on or outside off-stump to the midwicket boundary and scoring virtually four runs an over throughout. The situation today demanded him to bat against his natural instincts and he tempered his game admirably. The product was an industrious hundred, and perhaps the most valuable of his career.
Smith had spoken of his maturity before the start of the Test, and this innings stands as an eloquent confirmation. Last evening, he even exchanged a smile with Kevin Pietersen after Pietersen, in his new role as England's opening bowler in the dying light, had cheekily appealed for a catch off Smith's pad. And he was still smiling when he walked off the ground in the dying light, his side with a mountain left to climb. The image was of a man who had come to terms with his job and to the realisation that life doesn't begin and end on the cricket field.
So out of character was his innings today that it shone with character. Against the quicker bowlers he resisted playing across the line, focussing on scoring his runs square of the wicket on the offside, watching the ball late. But against Panesar, who was turning the ball sharply into him from the rough outside the offstump, he was quick to jump outside the line, almost exposing all three stumps to negate the possibility of a leg-before. Most of his runs against Panesar came on the leg-side. But more than scoring runs, his innings was about denying England a breach, and Smith stuck to task with the solemnity it demanded. The stroke - a cross-batted swat against the new ball -- that brought about his dismissal didn't do justice the rigorous application that preceded it.
Smith was only half of the story though and mercifully for South Africa, the other half is unfinished yet, and in a sense, it is even more stirring. Turning 33 later this year, few would have blamed McKenzie had he taken the easy route to join the multitude of South Africans in taking the Kolpak route to England after four years of wilderness. But, as demonstrated by his latest hundred - the third since his comeback seven Tests ago - patience is a quality he has in abundance.
And on the evidence of his run so far, it would seem he was an opener trapped in a middle-order batsman's role. Sometimes, awareness of one's own strengths eludes you until an unfamiliar challenge presents itself. McKenzie now resembles the classical Test opener, an endangered tribe in a world enamoured by breathtaking starts. In fact, despite all the evidence pointing against it, there was a degree of consternation in the South African media about the absence of Herschelle Gibbs in the squad.
|The image was of a man who had come to terms with his job and to the realisation that life doesn't begin and end on the cricket fieldIn spite of three difficult days, Graeme Smith has showed his maturity
It was self-evident that South Africa needed McKenzie's watchfulness today. He possesses more strokes than he allowed himself, relying instead on the compactness of his technique to see the day through. For a Test opener, his manner of leaving the ball - drawing the bat inside the line of the ball - might project a lack of assuredness, but it is clear that McKenzie has keen awareness of his offstump. Though he did edge the ball once while playing a defensive stroke, his judgement was impeccable throughout the day.
When the ball reverse swung for a short period after lunch, James Anderson induced a degree on uncertainty, and even a wild swipe, by moving the ball both ways, but composure never deserted McKenzie. Michael Vaughan pried on his nerves by setting fields that denied him the drive, his most preferable scoring option, but McKenzie wouldn't be driven to distraction. Nor did he allow the slow clapping from an impatient crowd to disrupt his resolve. It was a slow and low pitch, and the situation demanded watchfulness, which McKenzie supplied unwaveringly.
South Africa aren't out of it yet, but they can now be called the favourites to draw the Test. Of course, it's a comedown from the pre-match hype, but it is a huge turnaround from the hole they had dug themselves in three successive days of under-performance. Even if they do lose the Test, they wouldn't have gone down without a fight.
And more than anything else, Test cricket is alive and well.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo