South African batsmen wrest initiative on third day
- England vs South Africa First Test – the Oval
By Richard Browne
South Africa replying to England’s first innings of 385 had reached an imposing 361/2 midway into the last session of the third days play. At the wicket were Hashim Amla on 169 and Jacques Kallis on 54 in an unfinished stand of 101 for the third wicket.
Graeme Smith joined a select club started by Colin Cowdrey, who have got a century in their one hundredth Test. In the process Smith and Hashim Amla dominated the first two sessions of day three at the Oval, to complete a remarkable turn round from tea on the first day and have put the South Africans in a position of strength.
Amla was the hare at the start of a mammoth 259 run partnership under testing conditions on Friday, but today was all about the South African captain.
The Swann versus Smith battle was the thrilling in the morning session. Swann averages 19 against left handers and for five overs Smith could neither get off strike or get the English off-spinner to the boundary. There were two big appeals, both of which if they had been referred would have bounced over the stumps. It was cat and mouse and compelling cricket.
Eventually Swann was forced to abandon his outside off stump line to Smith and bowl straighter to the giant Proteas strength and like the rest of the English attack was milked with clinical efficiency through the leg side. Smith only played three scoring shots against Swann on the off side, which goes against both the coaching manual and the laws of physics. Other than Hussey no left hander has played Swann as well. Smith knew exactly where his off stump was and displayed the mental strength that has propelled him through a career which has always had bowler’s heads on their hands in frustration at his unorthodox ways.
The wicket is slow, but is increasingly taking spin. England’s much vaunted pace attack have barely got a ball to move and the eventual demise of Smith ten overs in to the second new ball, required an element of good fortune, as a ball rolled on to the stumps, from a preserving Bresnan, who once again showed his worth.
England’s trusted formulae of sitting back and waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes looked pedestrian against two batsmen who had no intention of giving it away. The wicket is SSC flat and required something different. Instead the English seamers stuck to a containing fourth stump line and it was a surprise when Smith did fall. Broad got hit for three fours in a row by Smith and looked short of a yard of pace, which is normally a sign that he has a niggle.
A sign of England’s increasing desperation was a terrible referral against Smith to a ball that firstly Smith nicked, pitched outside leg and was missing the stumps! Strauss normally the master of these situations looked a little rattled and with a first over duck and a dropped catch has had a game to forget so far, but with strong record at the Oval will be looking to make amends in the second innings.
Amla looked serene. His driving through the covers is as classical as his skipper is unorthodox. He got well outside the line of off against Swann, negating the LBW threat and treated Anderson with disdain. Other than a difficult chance on Friday night, where he edged Bopara just wide of a diving Strauss at slip it has been a chanceless innings. Amla never looked rushed and is almost unrecognisable from the batsmen who first appeared on the international scene eight years ago, constantly falling over at the crease and a walking LBW victim.
The sun is starting to shine and the wicket will turn more and more. England will be ruing their carless batting which saw them slip from 251-2 to 385 all out. This Oval wicket has more than the touch of the sub-continent about it and needed a 500 run plus first innings score, which looked very much on as Cook and Trott laid siege.
A fiery opening spell from Steyn on Friday morning started the collapse and it was only a typically punchy counter attacking 60 from Prior full of trademark blazing off sides stroke that saw the English get near 400.
It looks like it may not be enough and a lot will depend on Imran Tahir, the much travelled South African leg spinner, who will be under the spotlight when England eventually bat again. He looked nervous to start with, but on the second day found a bit more zip and bounce and disguised his googly with aplomb. England’s travails against spinners are well known and this could be a make or break game for Tahir.
The much hyped battle of the world’s two best bowling attacks has so far been a run fest. It needs one of the big guns to really stand up in the next seven sessions and make the decisive blow, in a test which has thus far been an old fashioned grind, just the way the South African’s like to play Test cricket.