South Africa v England, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day December 16, 2009

Strauss suckered by green-tinged monster

They say never judge a book by its cover. The same should apply to cricket pitches

They say never judge a book by its cover. The same should apply to cricket pitches. Centurion Park's surface was certainly green when the toss took place, if not quite the peasouper it had been during the airing it received on Tuesday. What actually happened off the surface, however, was far less colourful.

Andrew Strauss's decision to stick South Africa in certainly wasn't up there with Nasser Hussain's aberration at Brisbane in 2002 when he asked Australia to bat and watched them rampage to 364 for 2 on the first day. Compared to that indignity, 262 for 4 is vindication in the extreme, but Strauss wouldn't be human if he wasn't now having a few second thoughts - especially given that Graham Onions went lame during the afternoon session.

A captain's ideas clearly haven't gone to plan when your spinner becomes the key bowler after the opposition have been inserted, and when - midway through the second session of the match - a medium-pacer is in action with the keeper standing up to the stumps, as was the case when Paul Collingwood started his spell in the 48th over. For a variety of reasons, Strauss was left juggling limited options, although Graeme Swann's unbroken 24-over spell at least ensured he wasn't facing the same sort of nightmares that confronted Hussain when he lost the services of Simon Jones in that debacle at the Gabba.

Had Strauss been swayed by the pitch he saw on the previous day? The team selection suggested as much, given that England preferred Ian Bell at No. 6 ahead of Luke Wright, and didn't give a moment's thought to the out-and-out attacking route of picking Ryan Sidebottom and promoting Stuart Broad at No. 7. The oddity, though, was not in the team selection but in what followed. Having picked a batting-heavy line-up, Strauss then didn't trust them to do the job by setting a first-innings score. Instead he gambled on his three-man pace attack having one of those days that captains dream of.

Add into the mix that South Africa lost their premier strike bowler, Dale Steyn, moments before the toss, and it adds weight to the theory that Strauss's call was premeditated - and wrong. It is dangerous to be swayed by what happens in the opposition ranks, but sometimes events make a compelling case for a reaction. With Jacques Kallis unable to bowl and Steyn ruled out, it was a chance to make South Africa labour in the hot sun. Instead, that became England's tough task.

"Having seen the wicket yesterday and this morning, we were well within our rights and justified to bowl first," Swann insisted. "Certainly the stats on this ground [four wins against three defeats from 10 teams bowling first] seemed to back up the fact that bowling first can be very lucrative here.

"Had a couple of the balls that kept low early on - especially from Graham Onions - cannoned into the pads or flicked the bail, we could be sitting here in a very different situation. We could have had them seven- or eight-down, or even bowled them out."

England had a chance with the new ball and didn't take it. Broad, despite his third-ball removal of Graeme Smith, didn't make the batsmen play enough and varied his length too often. His economical figures - he went for little more than two an over - disguise the lack of threat that he posed.

To make matters worse, Onions, the pick of quicks, had to leave the field with a calf strain, albeit he returned late in the day for a brief burst. After a disrupted build-up, further injuries were the last thing Strauss needed, but it is the risk he was running with the formation he chose. This was also one of the hottest days of the tour which, coming on the back of a damp build-up, meant it wasn't much of a surprise that the players felt the strain.

So it was left to the joker in England's pack to come to the rescue. It is amazing to think that it was only a year ago, in Chennai, that Swann made his Test debut. Then, as now, he struck in his first over with the memorable double blow of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid. On this occasion he did for Ashwell Prince with his second ball, drawing him into a drive that ended up at slip.

Swann faced a counter-attack from Kallis which left him with the early figures of 3-0-24-1, but he soon remedied his economy rate with subtle changes of pace and flight. There wasn't much turn off the pitch for him so he had to use his brain instead. He also had to retain his composure after missing out on a caught-behind decision against AB de Villiers - a let-off so blatant, in Swann's opinion, that he called for an almost-instant review. To his credit, he that frustration behind him, and soon nabbed de Villiers shortly before tea.

An offspinner should not be the stand-out bowler on a presumed greentop. Still, Swann bowled more than a quarter of England's overs, and thanks to his efforts, South Africa's run-rate hovered around three an over for the day, well below the current average in a fast-scoring era.

"As that last session went on, perhaps we lost a bit of the initiative," Swann said. "But at the end of play, I think we're fairly happy that they haven't really got away from us. Ideally, seven or eight wickets would have been the order of the day having bowled first. But I think we've stuck to our guns on a very good pitch. We didn't bowl badly at any point, and the fact we haven't gone at more than three an over is a positive."

It's still far too early to make a final judgment on England's tactics, but they have left themselves an uphill task and will need to pile on the runs when it's their turn to bat. In truth, they should probably have been doing that today.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo