Seam, swing, the weather and a slight tinge of green on the pitch will all play a part when England and South Africa finally begin their Test series at The Oval on Thursday. ANT SIMS previews the first match.
Anti-climaxes aren’t usually damp, but if the London weather has its way, Thursday might very well be disappointing for cricket lovers who have been licking their lips in anticipation of the Test series between England and South Africa.
South Africa has never won a Test at the Oval. They’ve played 13 matches there and have lost six of them, drawing the other seven. It’s a bit of a poisoned chalice for the Proteas, but they insist it’s not something they are too fussed about.
England skipper Andrew Strauss also knows that it won’t be easy for his team. "South Africa adapts very well as a team. They have a good record away from home, and they have a lot of experienced players. There's no way this is going to be an easy series, and the best side over the three Tests will be the one that wins the series," he says.
While the Proteas’ record at The Oval might well be at the back of their minds, Graeme Smith says he’s looking forward to letting his charges have a go at the ground so early on in the season. The final Test of the series is usually played here, but the order has been switched around.
Watch: Smith 100th test
“It’s the first time we’ve come to The Oval so early on in the season, so the square is quite green. We’re fresh and ready to go, and hoping to make the most of it. The wicket should really suit us; it’s probably the one that bounces a bit more in England, and might spin a bit as the game goes on, but it should suit our style of play,” Smith says.
The Test on Thursday also marks Smith’s 100 Test cap for South Africa, a feat only achieved by five other South African players. It’s special Test for him, then, and Jacques Kallis says the team will aim to put in a solid performance to help him celebrate.
“It’s a special achievement to play 100 Tests. He’s been captain for most of them as well, which is an incredible effort. We’d like to play some good cricket for him in his 100th Test match,” Kallis says.
Smith, however, insists that he’s trying not to focus too much on the landmark, but has instead set his sights firmly on the series coming up.
“I’ve prepared as normal for this Test. It’s a big series, and I’m proud to have made it this far, and it’s definitely not something has come easy. The bigger thing at stake here is the Test series, and we’re trying to focus on that. It means a lot that people have made it so special for me, but at the end of the day, it will come down to the cricket, so that’s where my focus is,” says Smith.
South Africa was dealt a nasty blow during preparations for the series, when the team lost Mark Boucher to a freak accident that forced him into retirement and out of the tour. Thami Tsolekile has been called up to replace him, but it’s unlikely that he will play. While he might be one of the best glovemen in the country, his batting is questionable, and South Africa will want to put their best 11 forward. AB de Villiers taking the gloves will allow for an extra batting option at seven, and another spin option in JP Duminy. De Villiers taking the gloves has raised some questions on how it is going to impact his form, but Smith believes it might well do him some good.
“AB is a very talented cricketer, and he deals well with any responsibility that comes his way. Hopefully the extra responsibility will bring out the best in him, as it has with this ODI captaincy and the T20 captaincy,” Smith says.
Since Duminy's debut tour in Australia, where he scored a mammoth 166 at Melbourne to help South Africa claim an unlikely victory, he's struggled to put in big knocks consistently, or when his team needed it most. He now has a chance to redeem himself and test his mettle against one of the best teams in the world.
England is likely to stick with its tried-and-tested side, and the choices – and potential pitfalls – will probably be fairly predictable. Despite Steven Finn staking a place for a starting berth ahead of Tim Bresnan, his weakness lies in his inability to put the chokehold on batsmen when it comes to scoring runs. Bresnan is good option to hold up an end, while James Anderson and Stuart Broad focus on attacking batsmen.
South Africa does not struggle against pace, but frustration stemming from runs not flowing often leads to frustration and irrational shot selections and decisions. The Proteas simply cannot afford to leave their brains at the side of the boundary rope.
South Africa does have one advantage over England: they have Kallis as an extra seam option. Strauss believes it’s not that much of an advantage, and says England’s attack is one of the best in the world, but still reckons the Brits will have their work cut out in facing the South African attack.
“Our bowling attack speaks for itself. They’ve taken 20 wickets continuously over the last 24 months or so. It’s always nice to have that extra bowling option,” Strauss says.
“You have to give all bowlers respect, and anybody who scores lots of runs in this series will have deserved to score those runs.”
Players to watch:
Kevin Pietersen: When KP is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, he has a tendency to score statement knocks. The former South African thrives on criticism, and with the hullabaloo surrounding his reluctance to play one-day cricket and his subsequent retirement form the shortest formats of the game, the stage is set for Pietersen to shine. He scored 100 against South Africa the last time out at The Oval, and he had a good series against the West Indies recently. The right-hander is also fresh off an unbeaten 234 against Lancashire in a four-day match. Form is not something he’s short on at the moment, and there is certainly more runs to come from the brash but breath-taking batsman.
Morne Morkel: The last time Morkel visited The Oval, he nearly walked into the groundsman’s shed after getting out. He didn’t take any wickets in that Test, in stark contrast to the 15 wickets he took in the series overall. Morkel struggled in the first warm-up match against Somerset, being hit for 90 runs in 14 overs and taking no wickets. He came back in the second warm-up match, claiming figures of 18-5-49-3 in the first innings, but his nagging inconsistency started to resurface again and he struggled with keeping his foot behind the line. Morkel will be under heavy scrutiny and will need to keep a cool head. The conditions at the Oval should suit him, and if can stay consistent and exploit the swing on offer, Morkel will be the best bowler in the match.
Weather forecast: Summer is meant to arrive in London next week, and while the forecast for this Test isn’t too great, there is some hope. At the time of writing, just 2mm of rain was forecast for day one, with much the same until Saturday. It’s all sunshine from there on in, but the weather in England changes quickly. DM
Photo: South Africa's captain Graeme Smith (L), stands with coach Gary Kirsten (2nd R) and Jacques Kallis (R) during a training session before Thursday's first cricket test match against England at the Oval cricket ground in London July 17, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown