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The way England played suggested they'd read - and believed - quite a lot of the hype about the pitch
January 14, 2010
With a slightly longer-than-usual six-day break since the Cape Town Test there has been time for plenty to be written and said about the Wanderers pitch. The way England played on the opening day suggested they'd read - and believed - quite a lot of the hype. It was an open secret that South Africa had asked the groundsman for a helping hand, but they were also offered some kind assistance by the visiting batsmen.
In truth this was the batting collapse that England have threatened throughout this tour. Only in the first innings at Durban, when they piled up 574 for 9, has the order given the impression of complete solidity. On every other occasion they have flirted with perilous positions.
At Centurion, Graeme Swann hauled the first innings out of a hole before Graham Onions' popped up second-time around to produce his first piece of last-gasp defiance. At Cape Town, Matt Prior just about kept England on level terms before the match-saving heroics of Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and that man Onions - who was surprisingly left out here in favour of Ryan Sidebotton. England's refusal to give up on any of those occasions was admirable, but there is only so much hanging on a team can do - even this one.
There was also a different mindset at play on this occasion. It was the first time England had batted first in the series. Twice Andrew Strauss had won the toss and put South Africa in, and at Durban Graeme Smith batted first, and soon regretted it. How Strauss must now wish he hadn't had the choice at 10am this morning. When a pitch is prepared for a result it suggests conditions won't get any better, so batting first is the way to go, but there was certainly plenty of help for the quick bowlers. Smith said he would have batted as well, but he didn't need to say anything else.
"I don't quite know yet what a par score is on that wicket," Collingwood said. "But it certainly has a lot in it, good carry and the ball seems to be swinging all the time - and it's certainly seaming a bit."
England had to set their tone for the match with the bat, in conditions that were never going to be easy even if they did make them appear extra difficult. Whatever cricket England play they always appear more comfortable reacting to situations rather than dictating them.
On this occasion they didn't seem to know how to play the situation that was presented to them, and moved away from their stoical gameplan of the series. You can't factor for a Strauss-type dismissal - expect to say South Africa had clearly done their planning - but the loss of their calming captain sent the England line-up into a state of confusion reminiscent of their headless chickens act at Headingley last summer.
"There were some good balls out there that got batsmen out, some good catches - but also some guys who will be disappointed with their shots," Collingwood said. "But that's the kind of thing wickets like this bring around. It can be tough to play on them."
Jonathan Trott had probably just sat down to absorb the atmosphere when Strauss fell - and he walked out to produce his most skittish Test innings to date - but a No. 3 really has to have the mindset of an opener. Trott didn't middle a single ball and his wipe across the line at Morne Morkel was an awful dismissal.
So could Kevin Pietersen respond to the challenge? He had done it before with England on 4 for 2 in Napier (which became 4 for 3) after a run of 10 innings without a hundred, but facing Chris Martin, Tim Southee and Grant Elliott was a bit different to Morkel and Dale Steyn. Pietersen is not batting well at the moment. There are technical issues, but how much the mental side is playing is difficult to judge from the outside.
As all batsmen know, the only thing that matters is runs. And Pietersen isn't making many. An elegant flick through midwicket was a false dawn and when his eyes lit up at a short ball all he could do was pick out mid-on. Regardless of whether the ball was hittable, it was surely the wrong shot at the wrong time. Strauss had said at the toss that he expected early help for the bowlers and the batsmen would have to battle, but introspection was a quality that England severely lacked. Collingwood, however, still believed it was better for Pietersen to go down swinging.
"In many ways, I'm quite pleased that he was going after it, attacking," he said. "I'd rather him get out like that than nicking off' to a length ball. His best way of playing is being an attacking batsman. It didn't come off this time, but I like his approach.
"All of us have got to understand what our strengths are, what our scoring opportunities are on wickets like that - and be committed," he added. "Today, we weren't quite good enough."
Taking the game to the opposition is all well and good, but it is also about picking the moment. Sometimes you have to 'give' a session to the bowlers and this was certainly one of those occasions. As if to emphasise England's misplaced tactics, life was easier when Morkel and Steyn ended their spells, but the damage had already been done. It would be wrong to rule England out of this contest just yet - they often prefer to do things the hard way - but after two Tests where the batting has come to the rescue, now it is down to bowlers.
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