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December 25, 2009
One of the frequently asked questions leading into the second Test in Durban has been about momentum. Who took what from Centurion? South Africa clearly finished the stronger after almost snatching victory in the final hour, but England managed to hold on at a ground where the home side have a formidable record.
The hosts have certainly been carrying themselves with an air of confidence since their final-session performance in Centurion, where Friedel de Wet's new-ball burst put England in a panic. It's a sign of South Africa's current strength that de Wet is now on the verge of being dropped and they can only be a stronger side with the return of Dale Steyn. But it has been the subtle (and not so subtle) comments about the opposition that have suggested where the balance of power lies.
Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, was at it again on the eve of the Boxing Day Test when he pinpointed England's out-of-form players. It's not that the thoughts are a revelation, anyone looking at the statistics can draw the same conclusions, but the mind games during a Test series are a fascinating sideline to the main on field contest.
"There's pressure on [Alastair] Cook and pressure on [Ian] Bell," Arthur said. "I wouldn't expect England to go with five batters and [Matt] Prior at six given what happened at Centurion, I think they'll play six but two of those come into the Test under a bit of pressure."
England's fist-pumping after Paul Collingwood and Graham Onions survived the final 19 balls has also been picked up on by the South Africa camp. It has echoes of when Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee survived at Old Trafford in 2005, leaving Michael Vaughan to comment about how much the Australians celebrated a draw.
England have recalled their own Ashes draw in Cardiff, where the final pair of Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson survived 69 deliveries, which was followed by victory at Lord's, although they have also been wise enough to point out that the two scenarios are very different. Against Australia there was a feeling of euphoria that defeat was avoided, but the overriding emotion last week was relief.
If England had gone 1-0 down, especially in such circumstances, it would have been almost impossible to imagine them coming back to take the series. Now it's still all-square, and the whys and wherefores of it won't bother Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss too much. England could so easily have lost, but they didn't and that is something to build on. It's the first time they haven't lost the first Test of an away series in six attempts.
It isn't a surprise that England have kept fairly quiet because that is the style of Strauss and Flower. During their partnership, which is less than a year old it must be remembered, they have remained level-headed in victory, defeat or draw. The reaction after the debacle against Australia at Headingley, when they lost by an innings at 80 runs, was firm, but calm, and the theme of this tour has been about moving on from Ashes success rather than lingering on past glories.
Neither captain nor coach are into making bombastic statements and it is dangerous to be drawn into what the opposition are saying in any case. Both are also very clever men. They know England thrive with the underdog tag - it sits far more comfortably than being favourites - so they may not mind that South Africa are making the bigger noises.
"The way South Africa bowled in that final hour, they were very good at putting us under pressure and I'm sure they'll take something out of that," Strauss said. "Equally, we'll take a lot out of the fact that we were able to withstand those last four or five overs."
Yet, as ever, there are two sides to the story. One more wicket-taking ball in the final 19 deliveries and the opening match was South Africa's. Despite the fact that the victory opportunity was suddenly upon them - almost out of nowhere - they wouldn't be human if there wasn't a small, nagging thought in the back of their minds.
What if de Wet had had the energy for a final over? What if Makhaya Ntini had beaten Onions' defence? What if Collingwood wasn't so bloody stubborn? "We got through it; it's still 0-0 in the series," Strauss said. "That can be a little bit dispiriting for the opposition as well, so it's back to square one on Boxing Day."
But for all the talk of momentum, Arthur isn't even a big believer in the concept. "For us the key is that we start again," he said. "It's nil-nil and you can talk about momentum, and I'm not a huge momentum guy because it all counts for nothing when the first ball is bowled. The series is up for grabs."
All the sparring between Tests is very much a phoney war. The mind games are fun to listen to and pick apart, but matches are decided on the field. If either side can take the series lead in Durban then they really will have the momentum.
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