August 29, 2012

South Africa's bookends rank them up with the best

They aren't just a decent side who managed to make it to No. 1

Suddenly Test cricket doesn't look so doomed. Anyone who was lucky enough to be at Lord's last week as it hosted one of the great Test matches of modern times will understand the simple formula for reviving five-day cricket.

First, play on a wicket that rewards both good bowling and good batting and takes some spin later in the game. Secondly, the match should have something tangible riding on the result - in this case, both the destiny of the series and bragging rights as the world's best team. Third, you need two very good sets of players.

Simple stuff, but it certainly works. The whole match was played at high-pitched intensity. Wickets and runs had to be earned: there were few easy four-balls, no freebie wickets, and no spells in which the match meandered aimlessly. Over the course of five days, the collective willpower of two teams vied for dominance. It's hard to think of a better definition of Test cricket at its best.

The glorious last day, on which England threw their last reserves of conviction and skill at a task always likely to prove just beyond them, was a fitting ending to an exemplary match and a pulsating series. It ended, of course, with the ICC mace passing from Andrew Strauss to Graeme Smith.

There can be no doubt that South Africa deserved to beat England. They held the edge in every department, particularly the most important one: the bowling.

And yet some critics have questioned whether any country deserves to be judged as truly the outstanding team in contemporary Test cricket. After all, the mantle "world's best team" has moved around freely, even promiscuously, in recent years. India's spell at the top was ended by England in 2011, as England's has been by South Africa now. How different from two great, static dynasties that once ruled cricket - the West Indians from 1976-1995, and the Australians from 1995-2009.

It is wrong, however, to leap to the conclusion that South Africa are merely a decent team that reached the summit by default. They deserve to be judged as a very, very good team that may yet go on to be even better than that. True, they lack an outstanding spinner. But very few teams are lucky enough to have 15 years of Shane Warne.

But leave to one side the absence of a match-winning legspinner or mystery offspinner. The rest of the South African line-up has very few weaknesses. England are a fine side, too. But if you write the two XIs next to each other on a piece of paper, how many England players would you certainly pick over their opposite number in the South African team?

Before the series started, you would have picked Alastair Cook over Alviro Petersen as one of the openers. Kevin Pietersen would definitely have dislodged Jacques Rudolph as a specialist middle-order batsman. Graeme Swann would certainly get the nod over Imran Tahir. A case could certainly be made for picking Matt Prior's all-round game as wicketkeeper-batsman - leaving out JP Duminy at No. 7, but leaving in AB de Villiers as a pure batsman (with an average of 48).

So what, ask the critics? How good are the England team of 2012? OK, let's line up this South African team against the England team of 2005 that beat the otherwise all-conquering Australians. Again, only a few England players would be automatic selections. Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Flintoff and Pietersen would play. Maybe Simon Jones for his reverse swing. Statistically, Ashley Giles had a better all-round record than Tahir. But the 2012 South Africans would probably still contribute the majority of the team, even when they compared to the winning team from arguably the best series of the modern era.

Having spent a good portion of my early career getting lbw to inswingers from left-arm seamers, I was able to imagine what a left-hand batsman fears when he faces up to a right-arm bowler: lots of balls swinging in from over the wicket, with the others just going straight on, perhaps simply by accident

So let's get the South African team in perspective and judge them fairly. Having a superlative allrounder (Jacques Kallis) provides them with the luxury of balancing the side. Possessing a second allrounder (de Villiers) allows them to bat exceptionally deep. Above all, they have the essential "bookends" that distinguish the best sides: a run-laden top order and a battery of strike bowlers. With the single exception of lacking a match-winning spinner, this South African side is up there with the best.

****

I cannot resist returning to a dressing-room debate, now eight years old, that I remember vividly from my playing days at Kent. It took place at Bristol, where we were playing Gloucestershire. The debate was about how to bowl at left-handers. One group of Kent senior players - the majority, in fact - suggested that our seamers "push it across them". The tactic was to angle the ball across left-handers in the hope of eliciting an edge to the slips. The other group of players - a minority that included me - argued that most left-handers found it much harder when the ball swung back in towards them - assuming, of course, that the bowlers were capable of doing it (which some of our bowlers definitely could). Eventually, I was argued down and "push it across lefties" hardened into received wisdom.

My logic was simple and I feel more confident than ever having just watched England v South Africa. Though I've never batted left-handed, I've certainly batted right-handed plenty of times against left-arm seamers. And I know what really worried me about left-armers: the ability to swing the ball back in. This is doubly dangerous. First, the ball that does swing in opens up the possibility of bowled and lbw. Second, the ball that doesn't swing in - just a plain, garden-variety, dead straight ball that doesn't swing an inch - is magically converted into something that could easily catch the outside edge.

Having spent a good portion of my early career getting lbw to inswingers from left-arm seamers, I was able to imagine all too easily what a left-hand batsman really fears when he faces up to a right-arm bowler. The exact mirror image of what I dreaded as a right-hander: lots of balls swinging in from over the wicket, with the others just going straight on, perhaps simply by accident.

Don't believe me? Just ask Cook or Vernon Philander. Cook's dismissal against Philander in the second innings at Lord's was the perfect ball to a left-hander. It set off wide of off stump, drawing Cook's front leg across, before swinging in sharply and thudding into his knee-roll. Philander bowled superbly to left-handers all series because he has the priceless ability to swing the ball in to them, just as he swings the ball away from right-handers. It is exactly the same ball, but simply marginally differently directed.

Accepting his Man-of-the-Match award, Philander was asked by Mike Atherton if he enjoyed bowling at left-handers. Philander thought for a moment before uttering his considered judgment. "Oh yeah!" he said, as though there was nothing more to add and a cold beer was beckoning him.

Spot on, Vern. And surely the definitive answer to that old dressing-room argument. Well bowled.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

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