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England were second favourites before this four-match series started, but this performance is ripping up the form book
December 29, 2009
England haven't had a day as memorable as their domination of South Africa at Durban since the Johnny Cash-inspired victory against India in Mumbai nearly four years ago. Forget the fact they were Ashes winners arriving for the tour, England were second favourites before this four-match series started - a distant second in some people's eyes - but this performance is ripping up the form book.
Overseas victories have been rarer than hen's teeth for England in recent years, with just three achieved since they beat South Africa at Johannesburg to secure the 2004-05 series. This job is not yet quite done, but it will take another Durban washout to deny England an entry into their list of finest Test victories abroad. A little over a week ago they hung on nine wickets down at Centurion, a match in which they could claim to have won only two sessions out of 15. This time it's a similarly one-sided count facing South Africa.
Fortune has favoured England a little in this match, especially in the form of the overhead conditions which play such a crucial part at Kingsmead. Yesterday was a perfect day for batting, and the fourth morning wasn't bad either. But after England's declaration the skies darkened and drizzle returned to the air. Still, teams make their own luck and it's the manner in which England have moved into a commanding position, and then overwhelmed South Africa, that has been so commendable.
There has been nothing half-hearted about their approach, from the moment Andrew Strauss raced to a 49-ball half-century on the second afternoon. The third day was all about consolidation and manoeuvring into a position from which to surge forward. Then today they made their crushing advances.
When England went through their stellar period in 2004 and 2005 this was the style of performance they would regularly produce. It wasn't unusual for the first two or three days of a Test to be fairly nip-and-tuck before England's belief - instilled by consistent success and a strong team - overpowered the opposition later in the game when they could no longer hold off the challenge.
The previous tour of South Africa in 2004-05, just prior to the decade-defining Ashes victory, produced one such example at Port Elizabeth. The home side had batted first and made 337 before England replied with 425. At the close of the third day, South Africa were 99 for 2, a lead of 11, but on the fourth day the visitors took an unbreakable hold on the game and cantered to victory on the final morning. Something similar is on the cards five years later and will be even more noteworthy because this is a team still forming an identity, rather than being the powerhouse unit at Michael Vaughan's disposal.
If the seemingly certain victory is secured on Wednesday - and the drizzle that was falling after play ended shouldn't cause too many alarms - the architects of the success will be three players who also played vital roles in the deciding Ashes Test at The Oval in August. Two are well remembered for their exploits, one far less so.
For Ian Bell, his ninth Test century will slip under the radar almost as much as his battling 72 on the first day against Australia because of the afternoon drama created by Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. They were the bowling pair who skittled Australia for 160 on an equally extraordinary day to the one just witnessed in Durban. This team have said they want the Ashes result to be a springboard to greater achievements, rather than frittered away as happened post-2005. What is transpiring in South Africa is a promising sign indeed.
The similarities between the bowling efforts at The Oval and Durban are also uncanny. On both occasions Broad located the perfect length and caused havoc with a mixture of seam movement and reverse swing. Swann, meanwhile, again proved the ideal ally but this time it was the offspinner who triggered the collapse. His first wicket of Ashwell Prince was his 50th in a career-defining year, a record for an England spinner, while his second - Hashim Amla, who played Swann expertly when making 100 at Centurion - brought back memories of the manner in which he bowled Ricky Ponting, at Edgbaston, earlier in the Ashes series as the ball spun back through the gate.
The on-field exploits of the last four days are also a full justification of the selection decisions made by Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower. They stuck to their guns in naming a four-man attack, despite the fact they struggled to run through South Africa at Centurion. Now they are on the verge of delivering a famous win.
Alongside that, Bell's 142 - from the sixth batsman and the one who would have been dropped to make way for an extra bowler - gave England the cushion of a 232-run lead. It is a perfect example of what scoreboard pressure can do as South Africa batted again with only a draw to aim for. In 71 crazy deliveries even that hope vanished.
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