South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban, 4th day December 29, 2009

Riches to rags for free-falling South Africa

Something is amiss for South Africa. Barring an end-of-year miracle, 2010 will start with plenty of soul-searching

Precisely a year ago, South Africa were on the verge of an historic series victory in Australia as they prepared to complete their run-chase on the final day at the MCG. Twelve months on, they are facing the prospect of a crushing defeat against a side they were expected to dominate on home soil. Something is amiss and, barring an end-of-year miracle, 2010 will start with plenty of soul-searching.

It isn't as though they are being narrowly outplayed in a close contest. On the fourth day at Kingsmead South Africa were trampled upon by a rampant England who had spent the previous day making them toil in the heat of the Durban summer. For a side that until the first week of this month, when India beat Sri Lanka 2-0, were the No. 1 Test team, this is proving quite a wake-up call.

"It's probably been the worst day of my cricket career," said Dale Steyn. "That's the brutal honest truth. We were looking to bat a day-and-a-half to save the game but that hasn't happened and we find ourselves in a deep hole."

South Africa's performance in the opening game at Centurion suggested they hadn't suffered from having an eight-month gap between Tests, but the last four days have reinforced the growing feeling that all is not well. Graeme Smith has had to rely on a bowling attack at half strength - Makhaya Ntini's form is shot to pieces and Jacques Kallis is only just coming back to full fitness - while some of the batting consistency among the top order is starting to cause concern.

Ashwell Prince's dismissal to Graeme Swann, the second time in the series he has fallen in the offspinner's first over, completed a poor match for the opener. That can happen to any player, but Prince has habitually preferred batting in the middle order. True, he made a century as an opener against Australia in March, but he had to be shoe-horned back into the side in order to make it, having lost his place through injury and been unable to regain it after JP Duminy's impressive emergence.

"After 48 Tests I've only opened once," Prince said before the series, "so needless to say I'm more comfortable in the middle order or have more experience there. But at the end of the day that's the only position available and I certainly don't want to say I don't want to be in the team."

Although he turned that Australia century into an imposing 150, opening is not a position to take on half-heartedly and South Africa need their first-wicket pair to set the tone for an innings. So far in this series the opening stands have been 1, 2, 3 and 27 with Prince falling first on three occasions. It's too early to draw strong conclusions, but it's shaping as a telling weakness.

The pedigree of South Africa's next three batsmen - Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers - is not in doubt, although their shot selection in the second innings at Durban left a lot to be desired. Amla tried an expansive drive against the turn of an offspinner moments before tea, while Kallis and de Villiers both left deliveries too close to off stump.

The next potential concern comes at No. 6 where Duminy has been given a working-over by England's quicks, and completed a poor match when he dragged Stuart Broad into his stumps first ball. However, it was Duminy who, a year ago at the MCG, did more than most to down Australia with a majestic 166. International bowlers are going to work out weaknesses over time, but Steyn believes Broad's success against the middle order owed a little bit to fortune as well as skill.

"He got a little lucky with JP's wicket, an inside-edge like that is not really what you are looking for, Kallis left a good ball and AB got one that Hawk-Eye says was hitting the stumps, but you never quite know," he said. "There was a bit of bad luck for us, but he bowled nicely with the ball coming back in. Credit to him for bowling well and we got ourselves in this predicament."

Steyn admitted South Africa's only real chance of escaping defeat is rain, although he did look back to the match at the MCG when he and Duminy added 180 for the ninth wicket. "I'll be watching videos of that tonight, I can promise you that," he said.

"That's why I say it's a funny game. Morne [Morkel] can bat, he's been around international cricket for a long time, and he's batting with someone who is probably one of the best wicketkeeper-batsman to ever play [Mark Boucher]. If they can put on a big partnership and we can get that lead of England's down, who knows."

That, though, would top anything achieved against Australia. Barring the weather this match is beyond salvation, and South Africa will have to take stock. Now is not the time to panic, but 2009 hasn't gone to plan and they need to sit down and make some honest assessments as to why - even if some of the answers won't be easy to take.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Benjamin on December 30, 2009, 23:35 GMT

    Herbert I'd sugest you look at your own team first before rubishing SA or any other top 4 side.

    2 strike bowlers (Broad & Anderson) average 35 a wicket with strike rates in the 60's hardly flattering. Onion's average is heading north every game and will soon be in the 30's. The thing with these 3 is that they only get wickets on green tops when there is cloud cover and moisture in the air. Swann a battler but has some nice variation - good players will eat him for breakfast.

    Bell and Cook good returns this game but have managed 3 100's between them in 3 full test seasons. Collingwood hasn't got an attacking bone in his body and will save games at best. Straus, KP, very solid and jury is out on Trott until he has 20 test to his name. Prior good with the blade and solid with the gloves but I'd take bouchers glove work any day - catches win matches.

    So while you've had a few good results lets not get to ahead of ourselves. Start winning at home/away regularly then talk the talk.

  • manoj on December 30, 2009, 18:45 GMT

    ah.... same old story.... a team performs poorly in one game and the critics find all sorts of weakness in the team..... India and australia were performin in a similar fashion not so long ago and the critics were over the top finding fault from veterans to new comers.....and now they praise the same veterans for their plays....but i feel South Africa is too good a team to criticize...

  • Deon on December 30, 2009, 13:05 GMT

    Cannot see England losing it from here. They have no obvoius weaknesses apart from Prior's fielding. It would not surprise me if SA goes down 3-0.

  • Thomas on December 30, 2009, 12:49 GMT

    I couldn't agree more Teo, very good post. I would debate Parnell versus Tsotsobe slightly due to batting ability and extra pace of parnell, even though his first class performances are not there yet in bowling. Tsotsobe may however be the perfect choice because of line and length and political issues. Batting, well, if we stick with the same batting then your suggestions sound ideal. Gotta keep an eye on JP though, he looks terrible against England at the moment. SA have to work with what they have, and they need bowling variety. Harris for Tahir, not a bad thought, but HArris is bowling better than any of the SA lot soo far. Morkel has yet to prove himself, he has every physical aspect you would say, but he just cannot seem to pull it together. Why does he bowl short soo often, get some toe-crunchers in and sort out a consistent line.

  • robert on December 30, 2009, 12:45 GMT

    Good article Andrew, SA are in real trouble from a lack of confidence & some doddgy selection decisions. Ninti has been a great servant to SA cricket but his time is gone.De weit has 5 wickets in one test & Niniti has 13 in 7 tests. By what was said in the commentary Morkel bowled well but without luck & Steyn needed the run so I think he'll be the big improver..Dropped catches no matter how difficult a chance, for the team to have a good day, they have to be taken. England out bowled SA as they kept creating chances, the SA bowlers did not. As for the batting Kallis is not fit so give the guy a rest. Pick the best opener that is openning in the domestic competion and give him a go. He could not do any worse. When Kallis is fit he can then replace Prince who has technique problem with spin. Harris's job is to tie one end up so SA can let it rip from the other end. In Australia SA would not have one with out him, but lately he has lost his ability to reall keep it quiet. Go SA

  • Dnyanesh on December 30, 2009, 12:44 GMT

    This blows a hole in the experts who consider J P Duminy a future great (Ian Chappell esp). Greatness needs to be bestowed carefully and not after a couple of good series'. However South Africa's fall from grace is surprising considering their last trip to Australia. I believe that there is a staleness about this team with the core team of Smith, Kallis, Boucher, Ntini not obviously the same force they were earlier and the newbies of AB, JP, Amla, Prince, Steyn not able to win matches without huge contributions from one or more of the above.

  • Yasir on December 30, 2009, 12:41 GMT

    I think Ntini must go now and Parnell must come into the fold to give SA some variation and rhythm with the new ball. SA must get some regular opener and should make the hard decision to keep either Duminy or Prince in the middle order. Moreover they must find some wristy leg-spinner in domestic teams to get some turn off the tracks. Swann has outbowled Harris in the series so far.

  • Scott on December 30, 2009, 12:25 GMT

    There's no doubt Swanny isn't Shane Warne (not that first poster meant that) but he is undoubtedly the best finger spinner in the world at the moment. Never mind the South Africans 'can't play spin' nonsense, it's his flight, drift and intelligence that make him such a threat. Even Shane Warne couldn't take wickets on a lot of flat, lifeless pitches (esp India). No spinner can. No, he's never going to take 700 Test wickets, but he has the potential to get 250 plus, which would be extraordinary. His confidence is growing all the time and an enhanced reputation will put doubt into any batsman's mind. There are big tests to come for him, but he has proved that on form, the best batsmen in the world find him tough to play. With Broady suddenly realising that length is his best weapon, we've got potential. We aren't the best in the world, but we have that potential. Great stuff.

  • Amar on December 30, 2009, 12:06 GMT

    South Africans looked pretty complacent in the last game. Captain Smith was not innovative while fielding and his bowlers were not able to put English batsmen under any sort of pressure. Batting was well below par in second innings. They as if had lost it in dressing room itself. They can still come back the way they did against India few years back after being down by 1. But they need to make clever selections and play to potential. England can still be put under pressure if SA play to their potential.

  • Craig on December 30, 2009, 11:57 GMT

    I am not a cricket coach, but if I am going into a game with 4 bowlers, instead of 5, then they all need to be match-fit. The role of the new ball bowler is to take wickets upfront, making life easier for the back-up bowlers at first change, since they hopefully have new batsmen at the crease. Dale Steyn at 135 k's per hour outside off stump didn't cut it, and this is why Ntini looked so bad. Steyn is a prodigious talent, and no doubt tried his best. The ignominious SA head coach once again got it wrong, brought him back too soon, and achieved nothing more than to hurt Steyn's confidence. This same coach has not influenced pitch preparation, leading to slow tracks that favour the opposition, has not prepared Ntini adequately for this series, is rushing Kallis back into bowling when he is clearly not ready etc. etc. A test match is not the place to get players back to fitness, this must happen in the nets.

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