Mark Nicholas

No team of Boucher and Smith's will lie down

South Africa's new coach emphasised the importance of clarity, and you saw that in the performance against England in Centurion

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
"If you lose seven wickets for 39 runs, you're in the soup," said Mark Butcher on talkSPORT radio. Which is pretty much the nub of it.
From 142 for 3 in the first innings, England's ignominious collapse to a total of 181 in Centurion meant a match of catch-up on a surface that promised significant deterioration. It is baffling that Joe Root chose to bowl when he won the toss, and while he stood on the bridge of his burning ship on the fourth afternoon and cannonballs crashed into his hands and body, he must have thought much the same thing himself: "Why, oh why Joe, why?!"
It is by no means the first time he made such a mistake. The most glaring was in the day-night Test on the last Ashes tour, in Adelaide, where the only time you can be sure of daylight and a fair and true surface is at toss time on the first afternoon. After that, it's a lottery. Root chose the lottery, a game that rewards very few.
Here, in Centurion, recent history would have told him all he needed to know about the pitch. Yes, last year South Africa chased 149 to win by six wickets against an inexperienced Pakistan attack, but the batsmen were beaten up by the end of it.
The sun shone on this most recent Boxing Day morning, the cracks on the pitch were yet to open their eyes to it, and the sick-ridden dressing room was crying out for more time. But "we will bowl" said the skipper and bowl they did, with manful commitment if little of their usual accuracy and skill.
This was a pitch cut for the cloth worn by James Anderson and Stuart Broad, two of England's very finest, but the toll of a long period out of the game in Anderson's case and bloody awful flu in Broad's was clear and present. By the end of that first day, Anderson had aged and Broad changed colour from lightly sunburnt pink to a ghostly grey. And to think they could have had their feet up, watching and waiting their turn as runs accrued and the balance of ball over bat swung even more to their favour. Oh Joe!
Not that Root can bat for all ten of the others. By aiming at a tight off-stump line, the South African bowlers made England look feeble the first time around and hostages to their fortune the second - in which England lost 7 for 64 by the way.
Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander are very good, but the back-up is just out of nappies. By the end of this three-and-a-half-day beating, many of the bruises had been inflicted by Anrich Nortje, a find of note and unlucky not to have been chosen as Man of the Match.
South African sport does this: unveils talent that is driven by the spirit and soul of its great land. It is the gift that keeps on giving; ask Rassie Erasmus, their World Cup-winning rugby coach.
Which is a nice link to the national cricket team's new coach, Mark Boucher, a beaut of a bloke if ever there was one. It is a cliché but you'd have him in the trenches and find a safe way out, having won the battle en route. On these pages, a couple of weeks back, I wrote: "Boucher is tough, fair and has the scavenging skill to pickpocket games of cricket like few others. No stone will be unturned." And so it was. No stone was unturned.
Sure, England were sick - very sick - and therefore deserve further leniency in the mitigation. But the South Africans were wholly underprepared. Most of them were lording it around the 20-over Mzansi Super League during the month previous. Boucher got them together and, with Faf du Plessis, spelt out roles and expectation. "Clarity" is what he called it, aware that no sportsman performs at his best without it.
Dwaine Pretorius exemplified clarity in his approach to all things - first, batting smart with Quinton de Kock, then bowling admirably straight with a good, upright release of the seam, and all the while looking in the field as if every ball was destined for his moment of glory.
In the corridors behind the action, paced Graeme Smith, a man whose inherent sense of duty has been drawn from the comfort of the commentary box and repositioned at the coal face. "Today we will see if they can learn to win again," he said. And how! Smith and Boucher: no team of theirs will lie down.
It was a surprising match in many ways, often ordinary in quality but never less than hugely watchable. Indeed, as you thought one thing would happen, almost invariably something else did. It reminded us that cricket is not set in stone. It has the right to both amaze and deflate.
Cricket is difficult, frustrating and unfair, but the bounty of its rewards is plentiful. Players have the power to make or break it, as does the behaviour of the weather and, of course, the pitch. Patience and courage are important virtues, both of which were supplied by South Africa in this short game.
The vignettes give it layers. For example, de Kock's two innings; a couple of Philander's spells against the England top order; and Nortje's exciting speed and power, which hurried down the curtain. The expressions of the participants give it human drama - Root's varying faces first among them, and never more so than when Nortje did for him, and effectively, for the match.
Cricket is celebrated in verse and song and on canvas. It can be as brutal as it is balletic; as true as it can be false. Right now, the England players will see it as brutal and cruel. They will awake the morning after with the hangover of depression and ache with the tiredness of the infirm during the days post-trauma. The challenge is to be ready for Newlands in a jiffy. Their habit is to play the first Test of a tour badly and improve. They need the habit to repeat itself as a whole.
South Africa's heroes will be light, airy and oozing confidence. They will awake to their love of the game, and when they pull back the curtains, they will smile at the blue sky. Whatever the strain on the bowlers after the nine wickets taken to win, it will not be felt until the England batsmen wear them down.
Boucher is cognisant of the need to play things cool, for he, more than most, understands the marathon to come. But it would not be Boucher if there wasn't a party first. After all, what is the point in winning if not to celebrate alongside those with whom you have been to that battle.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK