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Cook's tenth Test century wasn't a pretty affair, but it was one of the most valuable of his 25-year-and-three-day life
December 28, 2009
As a captain one of the most important skills is knowing which moments can change a Test match. When to make certain bowling changes, when to move the field, when to gamble and when to just stay in the game.
Graeme Smith has had some very impressive moments during the first two matches of this series. Bowling Paul Harris to Jonathan Trott at Centurion was a clever way of using the friendship between the pair to South Africa's advantage. He hasn't been afraid of using Harris against Kevin Pietersen, either, and that decision worked perfectly on the second day at Durban when Pietersen was trapped lbw sweeping at a bowler, one suspects, he can't quite bring himself to rate.
But he has also made some curious calls. Giving Makhaya Ntini the final over at Centurion, for all the emotion his 100th Test entailed, seemed an odd move after Friedel de Wet had all but won the match singlehanded. The reason given was that de Wet was tired, but adrenalin can do wondrous things, and he already had four wickets to his name.
The latest move to cause a surprise was his decision to remove Morne Morkel from the attack after he had roughed up Ian Bell in his previous over. A hostile short ball whistled past Bell's head, then he was almost caught behind off a fuller follow-up delivery, but instead of being given a chance to crank up the pressure, Morkel was replaced by Makhaya Ntini who has been South Africa's least threatening option so far. Admittedly, Morkel had run in hard for five overs after tea, claiming the wicket of Alastair Cook, but there's a time when it's worth asking a bowler for one last big effort.
Bell was under intense pressure as he faced up to Morkel, and at that stage he had reached 5 from 15 deliveries. Following his double failure at Centurion, where he made 5 and 2 and was bowled leaving a straight ball from Harris, the knives were being sharpened for another axing if he hadn't scored here. South Africa sensed a chance to get back into the Test following the departure of Cook for 118, but Ntini's first ball was a half-tracker outside off stump which Bell pulled handsomely through midwicket. He was up and running.
Two balls later another boundary followed to third man and with confidence returning, Bell started to use his feet to Harris, lofting him straight down the ground for six. South Africa had missed their moment.
A captain though is only as good as the players at his disposal, however, and Smith has had to juggle a bowling attack in which not all of his resources are firing on all cylinders. Ntini's struggles continue, which make it increasingly strange as to why he has twice been entrusted with crucial periods of play, while Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis are both still shaking off their post-injury rust.
Steyn deserved something in the wicket-taking column for his 26 overs of accurate work while Kallis was closing in on full pace by the end of the day, but it's difficult to nurse bowlers back into action during the intensity of a Test match. It also meant a heavy workload for the impressive and fiery Morkel, which could have been the main reason why he wasn't kept on for another dart at Bell.
"It was a hard day and I thought they stuck at their task very well," coach Mickey Arthur said. "It was very encouraging to see Dale getting better and better and also to see Jacques running in at the end. I've no complaints about their efforts on a hot day."
The biggest concern, though, for South Africa remains the form of Ntini. He seems to have unyielding support from his coach and team-mates, and his record buys him some leeway, but soon tough decisions will need to be made. Yet the trust shown in him by Smith and the positive words of support suggest South Africa aren't yet ready to split from such an iconic figure.
"He came back well today," said Arthur. "He always battled from the City End and tends to drag it down. The run-up goes slightly uphill and he had the same issue against Australia last year. From the Umgeni End he was much better and did a good job for us."
However, in six Tests this year he has now taken 13 wickets at 54.30. No longer can his loss of form be classed as a blip and it's not as though South Africa don't have options. De Wet has been sat in the dressing room running drinks during this Test and the left-armer Wayne Parnell is back in domestic cricket having been part of the squad for the first match.
The selectors are unsure whether Parnell, who has impressed during his early ODI and Twenty20 career, yet has the stamina for the five-day game, but they need to find out at some point. Even if they manage to turn this Test around, Newlands might be the moment for South Africa to embrace their future.
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