Being the number one team in Test cricket has its disadvantages. When you are at the top, there will always be somebody breathing down your neck, trying to topple you from your perch. All it takes for an empire to collapse is one lapse in concentration or a hungry competitor.
Since England snatched the number one ranking from India with a 4-0 thrashing in August last year, the team hasn’t always seemed worthy of the crown. Since then, England has won just three out of 11 Tests – two of those wins came against a rather mediocre West Indies side which challenged them much more than expected, lest we forget the monumental 4-0 loss to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year. It’s hardly the stuff giants are made of, and despite the hype surrounding England’s attack and the tenacity of its batting line-up before South Africa landed on its shores, it’s almost no surprise that South Africa has knocked England off its perch.
England has been unable to deal with the challenge of becoming the hunted, and it’s something that has left captain Andrew Strauss somewhat baffled.
“We have lost a lot more than we would have wanted to recently. Whether that’s because of a change of mindset of moving from being the hunters to the ones that are hunted or whether it’s just because we came unstuck in the subcontinent, I don’t know the answers right now, but those are the sorts of questions we need to ask ourselves,” English skipper said after his team’s loss to South Africa.
Strauss seemed genuinely baffled about what had transpired over the course of five weeks. While he admitted that South Africa played the better cricket as a whole, he admitted that he expected the entire series to be as fiercely contested as the battle at Lord’s was.
“South Africa was just too good and we were outplayed. They deserve all the credit they get. We have to take it on the chin and figure out how to best move forward,” Strauss said.
England took one hell of a beating at The Oval and while they won’t admit it, it would have started the mental rot right then and there. To be hammered, abused and left on the side of the road to bleed dry like that on home turf, especially with all the talk of the opposition being undercooked, had to hurt.
For South Africa, though, it was vital to not get carried away like they so often do when they get into dominant positions. England had the chance to pounce at Headingley and they came back stronger, but the resistance from South Africa, along with a couple of rain interruptions, proved that fate had other plans for England.
South Africa’s ruthlessness persisted at Lord’s, and while the final Test was far more closely contested and England came within a whisker of pulling off an unlikely win, the Proteas overcame all their ghosts of choking past and clung on for a thrilling win.
Was England complacent and somewhat arrogant about its position before they started the Test series against South Africa? Maybe. Maybe the hype got too much and it all went to their heads, or maybe South Africa was simply better.
They were better at clinging on to their catches, at any rate: while England fluffed at least nine catches, South Africa only put three down. When the pressure was on the bowlers, South Africa bounced back while England seemed to run out of ideas. While South Africa had a few mindless wafts at rank wide balls outside off stump, England’s mental disintegration showed when playing poor shots or not playing any shots at all – or making running between the wickets decisions which were utterly baffling. The South Africans looked composed and settled while England looked like a butterfly caught in a hurricane at times.
The challenge begins all over again now as the sides switch gears and move on to the one-day series and then a T20 series. In the greater scheme of things, South Africa also has the challenge of clinging on to its number one spot – one which they could lose when they travel to Australia in November. Strauss reckons his opposite numbers proved their worth, but the challenge lies in making the title of being the number one-ranked Test team in the world the team’s own, and accepting it for all that comes with it.
“South Africa is a strong side and there are no obvious weaknesses…I think they showed that during the last three Tests. They’ll have to deal with the change of mindsets themselves and they have some tough cricket coming up,” Strauss said.
It’s a quaint notion, being number one in Tests, and while it will probably take a while to sink in, focus will now shift to the shorter format of the game – where England is still at the top. There will be loads of new faces filtering into the South African team, and while some of the Test players will be taking some time out, the youngsters now have opportunity to replicate the result in pyjama cricket. It’s a tough task, but as Gary Kirsten keeps insisting, the team has one goal: to become the best team in the world in all formats. Doing a clean sweep of England will be just the beginning. DM
Photo: England’s Stuart Broad (L), James Taylor and Steven Finn (R) wait for the presentations after South Africa defeated England in the third cricket test match at Lord’s in London August 20, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown
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