It’s not that the current South African cricket team isn’t great; it’s just that they’re not as great as they could be. But that may change when they head to Leeds, as they an excellent chance to match their on-field prowess with a ranking on paper, writes ANT SIMS.
The last time South Africa played at Leeds in 2008, they beat England by 10 wickets, and in 2003, they won by a mammoth 191 runs. It’s been a happy hunting ground for the tourists on their last few times out, and they now have the chance to cement their success by making history.
If South Africa beats England at Headingley, they’ll not only win the series, but they’ll topple England from the number one Test ranking. It’s something which has eluded them for a while – they had the chance to make it happen last year, but their inability to follow up on solid performances cost them when they lost their second Test to Australia. The same pattern repeated itself when Sri Lanka arrived in December.
After much scrutiny surrounding South Africa’s preparations, it appeared as if rumours of their under-preparation were exaggerated. They made the world’s best bowling attack look limp, weak and lost – and they seemed to do it with ease.
South African skipper Graeme Smith, who has returned from South Africa after welcoming his first child, insists that while the success at The Oval was a remarkable feat, the task at hand is simply to win.
"The challenge for us is to follow up on the success of The Oval. There were some wonderful moments in that Test, but we're focusing on just winning the game. We've had to come back down to earth and refocus on what we want to achieve as a team,” said Smith.
"Coming to Headingley is different to other grounds, and it takes something different to win here. We do have a few guys who have played here before, which does help us, and we also know that England will come back hard. We don't want to take anything for granted.”
Headingley is far more bowler-friendly than The Oval, and overhead conditions will play a massive part. This might be something of a concern for South Africa, as their batsmen hardly had any time out in the first Test, and those who got a chance in the tour match performed disappointingly. Alviro Petersen, Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy will all be under scrutiny, and in a team where batsmen are scoring runs at will, they are three players whose performances, or lack thereof, have stood out like a sore thumb.
“There's a strong perception that Headingley is bowler-friendly, but in my experience here, especially when the sun's out, it's a very nice place to bat,” said Rudolph, who began his career revival at Yorkshire a few years ago.
“Overhead conditions play a massive role. I know there's a bit of weather around for the week. It will be interesting to see what the captain who wins the toss does. Once you get yourself in as a batsman you get used to the swing and a little bit of seam movement.
“It won't be as dry as The Oval; it won't bounce or turn as a much. Spinners will have to adapt their plans and maybe be a bit more containing.”
Some rain is forecast for the Test, but if the weather prediction of the first Test is to go by, there’s likely to be plenty of play with few interruptions. Rudolph believes that complacency is no issue for South Africa, and praised coach Gary Kirsten’s approach to training and preparing.
“We've become used to playing back-to-back Tests – you get into a rhythm. Now with 10 days between Tests, you have to find a way to keep fresh, and Gary is strong on players being aware of their own space.
“If you feel you need a break from cricket and don't want to come to practice, and that will work for you, then that's what you do,” Rudolph added.
Whatever it is South Africa has done as a unit or as individual players, it certainly paid off in the first Test. If the team can manage to recreate such a relentless hammering of the opposition, they’ll be well on their way to becoming one of the greatest teams the world has ever seen.
Players to watch
Tim Bresnan: Headingley is Bresnan’s county home ground, but he’s never had an opportunity to play a Test for England there. The conditions at the ground are right up his alley – there’s plenty of swing on offer and if he can exploit the seam, Bresnan will be a real headache for the South Africans to deal with. Bresnan has real bulldog-like tenacity, and after a disappointing showing in the first Test, he’ll come back hard.
AB de Villiers: De Villiers finds himself in the form of his life. He simply cannot stop scoring runs – in any format. Having missed out on the flat track that was The Oval, De Villiers must be itching to get some time out in the middle. If he does get to have a go, expect runs, buckets of them. It will also be the ideal time to judge just how much keeping wicket is impacting his game or if it’s having any impact at all. DM
Photo: South Africa's captain Graeme Smith prepares to catch a ball during a training session before Thursday's second cricket test match against England, at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown