It’s all come down to this: a monumental Test at a special ground with two captains achieving memorable milestones. There’s an air of anticipation looming at Lord’s and the tension is palpable. ANT SIMS reports from London.
After close to five weeks of blood, sweat, tears and adventures in the Swiss Alps, it’s all come down to this: a monumental Test at Lord’s that will either give South Africa global bragging rights as world number one or give those ghosts of choking past another chance to haunt them.
South Africa have had a certain aura about them all through the series one which; if you could see it, it would probably glow a fiery red for their aggression and sheer ruthlessness, lined with blue to symbolise their composure. South Africa haven’t been perfect on their tour of England, but they have been superbly effective.
Meanwhile, their hosts have looked like fish out of water on their home turf. They were annihilated at The Oval and while they were marginally better at Headingley, off-field controversies have enveloped the side and strangled them to a breathless pulp. If you were reading the papers in England and didn’t know that a tussle for the number one spot was about to take place, nobody would blame you.
It’s been a recurring theme for the England versus South Africa clashes. The Saffas have an uncanny ability to upset the old enemy’s apple cart. They did it with Nasser Hussain in 2003, when the then England captain called it quits after the first Test against South Africa at Edgbaston. Back then it was reported that Hussain had decided his tenure as England captain was over when England were smacked all over the park by South Africa on day one. Then in 2008, Michael Vaughan gave a teary press conference announcing his resignation from captaincy after England went down 2-1 to South Africa in the Test series. Vaughan said it had little to do with the series loss, but a trend had now started and Smith picked up the nickname of ‘Captain Slayer’.
Now, the notion exists that South Africa are up to their old tricks again, but in a more malicious way this time. With the Kevin Pietersen saga dragging on, there has been speculation that it was the South Africans who leaked the allegedly derogatory text messages to the media, with former England captain Michael Atherton writing in the Times: “The fear, though, would have been the ability to of South Africa to release any potentially damaging information during a Test match, just as they shrewdly released the texts into the public domain in the first place.”
Graeme Smith’s frustration on Wednesday was evident at such speculation, though.
"I've heard that Mike Atherton wrote a column about it, saying we did it on purpose and that's the biggest load of rubbish I've heard. I can't believe that it's gotten to that point. We've come here to play cricket,” Smith said.
"I think the notion that we've tried to nail Kevin or put things out into the media is a load of rubbish, I've never heard such a load of rubbish. We've played our cards close to our chest this series, we haven't gotten involved in anything outside of that and you can see that by the way we've played on the field and to have been dragged into it is disappointing.”
It will be a challenge for England to play without their mercurial talisman, he’s been their best player in the Test series by a country mile and while many of the England players have insisted that they’ll be just fine without him, Smith doesn’t quite agree.
“For England to say they are not going to miss Pietersen is wrong. His record speaks for itself, the way he plays the game and the nature of what he offers England will be missed, but there is a talent pool of English players that we need to respect. Our focus will be on playing better cricket than England and not allowing our egos to get in the way of what we came here to achieve,” said Smith.
The hosts have called upon Jonny Bairstow, who had a torrid time against the West Indies, particularly with the short ball. With the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel charged up and ready to fire, opting for the Yorkshireman could prove a mistake. There is, of course, the chance that Graeme Swann could come in to replace Pietersen so that England play five bowlers to give themselves a chance of taking 20 wickets – something they’ve failed to do this series.
When it comes to preparation, team selection and an all-round impression of competence and energy, South Africa most certainly look the better picture. They’re the immaculately groomed interviewee, who shows up 15 minutes early with a smile that could knock you out while England are the scruffy job applicant with torn jeans and sneakers, who rocks up to their interview smelling kind of funny.
On paper, the Proteas look like they couldn’t put a foot wrong. They are a cluster of perfection with a sense of self belief and determination they haven’t shown in a long, long time. But, cricket mirrors life and life can ever so often throw a bone to the underdog, who rises from the slumps, scrubs up and surprises everyone.
Players to watch:
Andrew Strauss: Strauss will be playing in his 100th Test match for England on Thursday on the ground where he made his debut and where he plays his county cricket. The England captain averages just over 55 at Lord’s and on his last time out here, he scored a century under pressure against the West Indies. There’s no doubt that it is a special ground for Strauss. He’s struggled against South Africa, however, with his top-score being just 37 on the tour. This is his chance to make a statement.
Graeme Smith: It really is a bit of a captains’ showdown at Lord’s. Smith will become the most capped captain in the history of the game on Thursday, and his love for accumulating runs in England is no secret. He’s only played two Tests at Lord’s, but in those two Tests Smith averages 124.66. Special? It’s more than that for Biff and he has a chance to make it historic. DM
Photo: England's captain Andrew Strauss speaks at a news conference before their third cricket test match against South Africa at Lord's in London August 15, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown