Swann emerges as talisman for unified England
England acquitted themselves admirably on a tough tour to South Africa, gritting their way to a drawn Test series despite South Africa's dominance at the Wanderers. Andrew Miller gives his take on the men who took part in the tour.
Made the wrong choice in each of the three tosses he won, and was visibly ruffled by Morne Morne's round-the-wicket line, which accounted for three of his seven dismissals in the series. But Strauss's influence on this squad cannot be under-estimated, and though his form was below his recent standards, he still managed key contributions in the first three Tests, including an invaluable tempo-setter in the victory at Durban, as he tore onto the offensive in a boundary-laden 54. Where he led, his team followed.
Began the series with the vultures circling, and was conceivably in last-chance saloon going into the second Test, where he responded with a brilliant display of temperament over technique, as he left religiously outside off stump, and willed himself back to form in an indomitable six-and-a-half hour century. Carried that same mindset into the Cape Town rearguard before tailing off in the face of furious pace bowling at the Wanderers. But overall he has taken massive strides.
Began the series amid massive pressure, ramped up by endless column inches about his background, but responded with a bloodyminded 69 at Centurion to help put the first Test beyond South Africa's reach. And yet, it all began to unravel thereafter. South Africa's gripes about his dallying between deliveries appeared at first to have little effect, but the anxious batsman who flapped his way to a total of 13 runs in 17 balls at Johannesburg was not the same man who epitomised sang froid on debut at The Oval last August.
One promising performance at Centurion (in which his own appalling running robbed him of a century in his first Test in South Africa), and a succession of mortal follow-ups. After a difficult year on and off the field, compounded by a four-month injury lay-off, Pietersen played like a batsman without foundations. In particular, he no longer had a solid base for his off-side repertoire, and got out far too cheaply to far too many rash swipes and rushed drives. Even great players lose their form, but it'll take a renewed focus to get back to the player he was between 2005 and 2008.
Brigadier Block, as he will henceforth be known, revealed himself to be the reincarnation of Trevor Bailey in the course of an outstanding pair of rearguards at Centurion and Cape Town, in which he guarded his off stump with a GPS-like certainty of its whereabouts, and resisted all width like a dieter worried about his waistline. But then, at Johannesburg, while all about him crumbled, he changed his approach, climbed onto the offensive, and singlehandedly produced the style of resistance that could have saved the series. Rarely has he finished a campaign with his value to England more prominently displayed.
Has he, finally, surely, cracked it this time? The omens didn't look great when he left that straight one from Paul Harris at Centurion, but with ridicule looming, he responded with the best hundred of his Test career to date to build an insuperable position in their crushing display at Durban. Then, one Test later, he confirmed his transformed mindset with a five-hour rearguard at Cape Town, where his late dismissal could not undermine the value of the effort that preceded it. Yes, his success has come at No. 6, where he cannot set agendas, but merely responds to them. But if that's the formula that allows him to thrive, then England should nurture it, and banish forever the prospect of his return to No. 3.
Mixed performance. No qualms about his glovework, which was almost faultless to pace and spin alike. But his hyperactive batting wasn't always suited to the situations into which England strayed. A total of four runs in three second-innings performances tells its own story, and he should have been out twice in two balls in an ugly sign-off at Johannesburg. But counterattackers aren't designed for rearguard actions - instead, he seized the initiative as best he could in England's first innings, helping Bell build the lead with his 60 at Durban, before clawing back the deficit with a stroke-laden 76 at Cape Town.
Does one spell make a series? It did in the Ashes, and the same trick worked in South Africa, where Broad aped his efforts at The Oval in August with another scarcely playable matchwinning spell. Using his height to extract lift and seam movement from a taxing full length, he signed and sealed England's most memorable overseas victory in years with three wickets in 15 balls on the pivotal fourth day in Durban. But either side of that performance, he cut a frustrated figure, prone to arguing with umpires and opponents alike, and it was interesting to note that he attracted more pantomime boos from the ground than any other Englishman. As an allrounder, he was off the pace - with a top-score of 25, and a solitary second-innings run.
Outstanding in every respect. Midway through the 2000s, fingerspin was assumed to be dead, but Swann hauled the art out of the grave with 21 wickets in four Tests, and left South Africa's left-handers looking like zombies as he allied an immaculate control of flight and line with an appreciable degree of turn on all surfaces. Ashwell Prince fell three times to the five deliveries he faced from Swann all series, while the number of times he struck in his first over of a spell had to be seen to be believed - at Johannesburg, each of his two wickets came from his very first ball. And then there was his unquenchably confident batting, which included a career-best 85 at Centurion, and a supporting role in the Cape Town rearguard. Right now, he's the first name on the team-sheet.
One outstanding performance on the first day at Cape Town, but by and large Anderson was marginally off the pace for much of this tour. He came into the series with concerns about a knee injury, and in a wicketless display at Johannesburg he was regularly overlooked at key moments of South Africa's only innings. In between whiles he seemed to lose his ability to bend the ball back into the right-handers, a vital skill that turns his best spells from good to unplayable. His omission from the squad for the Bangladesh tour will give Anderson time for valuable rest and recuperation.
Only eight wickets at 45.75 for the series, but the wave of sympathy that greeted his omission at the Wanderers spoke volumes for his contribution to a superbly entertaining series. Onions' wicket-to-wicket approach and appetite for hard yakka made him Strauss's most reliable source of control on a series of shirt-fronts, and he was rightly promoted to take the new-ball ahead of Broad. But, of course, nothing compared to his exceptional efforts with the bat. At Centurion he faced down Makhaya Ntini, at Cape Town he withstood Morne Morkel. And in fact he was not dismissed in any of his five innings of the tour. Dropping him always looked like a bad omen.
Sidebottom hadn't played a Test for England since Bridgetown in March, and his only previous outing of the tour came in a single day's work at East London in a warm-up match. As gut instincts go, it was an odd punt from England's think tank, and while he let no-one down in a wholehearted performance, he hardly set the Wanderers ablaze either.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo