England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day July 20, 2012

South Africa awake to their task

The difference in South Africa's fast bowling Thursday to Friday was startling

Underdone? We can do better than that. Undercooked? Dreadful misused word. Short of a gallop, then? Yup, that will do it. South Africa were short of a gallop on Thursday. Too often, this is the story of the modern tour. Fly, land, train, play a couple of gentle county games and then it is lights, camera, action: Test match time.

The smartest thing England have done in years was to get to Australia early the winter before last and play hardcore matches against the states. The least smart was to cruise into the UAE last winter and expect a similar result to the 3-1 beating they had given the Australians. Graham Gooch loves to say: "If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail." Such are the schedules these days that long tours are long gone. But the principle that bowlers need to bowl and batsmen need time in the middle will never change.

Thus, you reasonably wonder what the South Africans were doing up a Swiss mountain on an outward bound course a fortnight back when they might have been in the ring with England Lions or Durham. I get the bonding thing but there is a time and a place. You would think Graeme Smith's fellows had never met. Whatever, someone who matters thought it a good plan and now they are where they are, behind but hanging in there.

The difference in the fast bowling Thursday to Friday was startling. This is not to say it was bad on Thursday, far from it - just that it liked bite and, while we are at it, the usual bark too. Dale Steyn is such a splendidly nasty fast bowler that we rather missed his snarl. Friday was more fun as those thin lips pursed, the eyes narrowed and the follow through extended into the batsman's face. The animal in him was back and with it came the late swing that has paid the bills these recent years.

Swing is the most unfathomable thing. If it happens early, from the hand, the really good batsmen quite like it. There is something to work with, angles that allow fielders to be beaten with delayed, crisp strokeplay. But if it goes late anyone can fall foul, even the best, and especially when released at Steyn's fair lick. A beautifully light and balanced approach leads to the whip of an action that fires the ball to a full length before it moves just enough and mainly away from the right-hander, kissing the surface en route to the top of the off stump. There is a wicked, skidding bouncer in there too - ask Ravi Bopara who was stuck betwixt and between. Good bloody luck when Dale Steyn is at his best.

Another thing to ponder upon was the absence of Mark Boucher. What is a team without its engine room? Boucher knows these bowlers like they are his family but he is a world away, desperately hoping to get that unlucky eye fixed up. AB de Villiers snaffled five in his stead but three of them were after the horse had bolted. It is hard to imagine the South Africans cruising through such a toothless first day with gritty little Bouchy in their ear.

Maybe he called from the Cape on Thursday night. Someone called out loud because the fire was back come Friday. First Alastair Cook, then Ian Bell, then Bopara, all gone for 17 runs in ten searching overs of riposte that said yesterday was history. This was the cricket we had expected, no quarter given. Twice the bails were skimmed, once by Jacques Kallis, again by Vernon Philander.

Kallis gives South Africa many options, not just within the balance of the team but also through his diverse ball skills that adapt so effectively to the many corners of the world. One minute he is powering yorkers and slower balls at the death stage of the Kolkata Knight Riders' winning IPL campaign; the next he is bouncing out Kevin Pietersen and bowling out Bell.

Philander is an interesting one. From no apparent threat comes an examination every ball. The seam hovers, tantalisingly close to the batsman's reach, and then when it pitches, spits this way and that. He is a temptress - smart, persistent and the perfect foil to the flair around him. Philander the foil, not to be trusted.

And finally to Morne the Monster. Ask Andrew Strauss, who has been on the wrong end seven times in nine Tests. All awkward arms and legs, Morne Morkel is a living nightmare - unplayable one ball, unreachable the next. Tall, strong, fast and bouncy, a trump card if on song, a sleeper if not.

The bare facts are that on a dry, flat, slow pitch the awakened South Africans took seven English wickets for 118 runs on Friday. This does not happen to England in England, not any more. The green and pleasant land has become a fortress. England are unbeaten at home since 2008 and guess who got them then? Spot on: South Africa. This will be a cracking series, Switzerland or not.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK