Ordinary Ntini falls into the spotlight
The pressure will be squarely on Makhaya Ntini during the third day in Durban with questions growing about his future following another below-par display with the ball. His opening three-over spell was dispatched for 25 runs, largely by a rampant Andrew Strauss, and he wasn't called on again by Graeme Smith before bad light and rain ended play.
The debut performance of Friedel de Wet in the first Test, when he took 4 for 55 in the second innings to bowl South Africa to the brink of victory on the final day, has added to the increasing talk about Ntini's place in the line-up. De Wet was dropped for this match with a fit-again Dale Steyn back in the fold, but his full-length approach would have been ideal in the swinging and seaming conditions on offer, instead of Ntini's hit-the-deck style.
Given his tremendous Test record of 390 wickets at 28.53, Ntini understandably has the backing of Smith and coach Mickey Arthur, but at some stage in the very near future he is going to have to reward that faith with performance. Of course, there is also the blurred line between cricketing and political reasoning which comes with Ntini's position, and that has the potential to cloud the issue.
Ntini managed just two wickets in the opening Test, which marked his 100th appearance amid an emotional atmosphere, and he was unable to claim the final wicket when entrusted with the last over of the match, ahead of de Wet. During his short opening spell on the second afternoon in Durban he was taken for three boundaries in four balls by Strauss, a pull, a drive and a cut, as he struggled to find the correct line. Bowling to left-handers has historically been Ntini's strength, but the concerns are growing that he has lost the edge needed for Test cricket, although his team-mates don't believe that.
"He wasn't in the best form of his life today but that's part of being a sportsman, you don't always play very well," said AB de Villiers. "He'll definitely be back tomorrow the way I know him, hitting the good areas and hopefully picking up some wickets. He's still fine, he's a strong individual."
Ntini's role in this match has taken on increasing importance because Steyn is returning from nearly a month without bowling following his hamstring injury. Jacques Kallis is also still only operating off a shortened run-up following his rib problem, and was comfortably dealt with during a two-over spell. Morne Morkel is currently South Africa's most dangerous option, closely followed by the unlikely threat of Paul Harris's left-arm spin.
However, none of the home attack escaped the wrath of Arthur after a slipshod opening effort allowed England to race out of the blocks in their first innings. South Africa had wrestled the advantage after Steyn's 47 from No. 10, which formed a final-wicket stand of 58 with Ntini, but a succession of loose deliveries allowed Strauss to launch England's reply at five-an-over.
"Mickey did come pretty hard and said we aren't really executing the basics very well," said de Villiers. "We were a little too short and will certainly try to go fuller tomorrow. I won't go into details but there were a few harsh words in that short [rain] break.
"Our bowlers were very slow to adapt. We bowled a lot better in the final half-an-hour, Morkel is in good form and it's good to have Dale back, but we were definitely slow to adapt. We were very poor in the first ten overs and the plan tomorrow will be to get the run-rate down."
South Africa's batsmen haven't been shy of criticising their bowlers when they feel they have let the side down, with Jacques Kallis offering a similarly stinging view after the second day at Centurion when England eased to 88 for 1. The home side's response was impressive on that occasion as they secured a useful first-innings lead. Right now, they are expected to produce a similar turnaround.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo