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July 29, 2008
And so, despite the selectors' best Buckaroo imitations, the side that takes the field against South Africa at Edgbaston on Wednesday will contain a solitary change from the team that was unchanged for a world-record six Tests in a row. A tired Stuart Broad makes way for the returning Paul Collingwood, and Ryan Sidebottom comes back in for the luckless Pattinson - who, in hindsight, was only included as insurance against the fitness of Broad's man-for-man replacement, Andrew Flintoff. Surely the selectors could have found a simpler route from A to B.
Graeme Smith certainly thinks so. After captaining South Africa through five often-turbulent years of transition, Smith has learnt all about the destabilising effect that surprise selections can have on a team. Even by the standards he has had to endure, however, Smith felt the Pattinson saga was a pretty poorly managed affair.
"No-one really knew anything about him so, if things don't go well, there is a point where [the selectors] are going to have to answer a lot of questions," said Smith. "What has surprised us more is the indecisiveness around the England leadership. That has surprised a bit more than the actual selection."
After England's ten-wicket defeat at Headingley, Michael Vaughan suggested that the "confusion" surrounding Pattinson's selection had destabilised the team, a remark that caused the national selector, Geoff Miller, to seek a meeting for clear-the-air talks. "Just the calling in, and the discussions, and no-one taking responsibility for it. That surprised me a bit," said Smith. "Inside the dressing room I don't see how one guy making his debut can affect a dressing room that has been together for so long."
England, however, have done their best to draw a line under the events of last week, and the early unveiling of their third-Test team is a positive step after the mayhem of the first morning at Headingley. What is more, if there was any venue at which England could wish to regroup after such a dispiriting defeat, it would have to be Edgbaston - a ground that has long been a favourite of the players for the close proximity of the fans, and which assumed mythical properties after the legendary series-turning victory in the 2005 Ashes.
For South Africa, however, Edgbaston holds some fond memories as well. It was here that Smith launched the 2003 series with his career-best 277, and just as he demonstrated with his second-innings hundred at Lord's in the first Test, the prospect of living up to past glories does not faze him. His participation is, however, in some doubt because of the back problem he picked up while batting against Bangladesh A last week. If he does feature, England will doubtless target his lack of mobility should they end up bowling first tomorrow morning.
|If we can create openings in the top-order, and get to Paul and Ian Bell as quickly as possible, it does allow us the opportunity to put them under pressureGraeme Smith on England's unstable middle order|
Smith admitted that, back in 2003, he had been unsure whether to bat or bowl first, and with a week of unsettled weather on the horizon, it promises to be another tough call tomorrow morning. Steve Rouse, the Warwickshire groundsman, pre-empted the omission of Harmison when he suggested that this would not be a surface for the hit-the-deck bowlers, and should Smith choose to bowl first for the third match running, Sidebottom and Anderson will be hopeful of exploiting the lateral movement that England failed to locate under clear blue skies at Headingley last week.
South Africa's pace attack offers a different sort of challenge, and one that England's reinforced batting line-up will have to repel for the sake of the series. In the absence of Dale Steyn, who swings the ball at pace from a full length, they will rely on the bounce and aggression of Morne Morkel, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, who will be as fired up as any player in the match in his first Test opportunity for six months. "Andre is an experienced bowler who's done well over a period of time when he's played," said Smith, "and as a captain it's nice to know you've got really good back-up coming into the squad."
The target for all South Africa's bowlers will be England's apparently brittle middle order, of which the recalled Collingwood is an integral part. Smith, though admiring of his fighting qualities, believed his team had seen enough already to unsettle him. "He thrives on pressure so we need to bowl well at him to create the chances from the weaknesses that we've worked out," said Smith. "If we can create openings in the top-order, and get to Paul and Ian Bell as quickly as possible, it does allow us the opportunity to put them under pressure."
All series long, even back when England were fielding their six-match unchanged side, Smith and his team-mates were claiming that appearances were deceptive. The events of Headingley have reconfirmed the suspicion that England are not quite as sure of their strongest eleven as they would have their onlookers believe. In fact, the situation in recent weeks has not been dissimilar to the one that befell the South Africans themselves in the last series between the two teams in 2004-05 - when the likes of Mark Boucher were omitted in favour of such ephemeral players as Thami Tsolekile and Zander de Bruyn.
"As an opposition team, every time you can see the other team is under pressure, it does benefit you," said Smith. "We know if we can play really good cricket for the first couple of days at Birmingham, we can maybe open up some wounds and put some certain players under a lot of pressure in this Test."
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa