Match Report by Neil Robinson 09/01/05
Much as cricket lovers the world over, even some in Australia, would like England's fine run of victories during 2004 to signify a serious assault upon the Ashes in 2005, the seeds of ultimate disappointment have been clearly visible throughout. Win after win has been secured on the back of fine performances in the second half of the game, happily obscuring England's inability to force the initiative from the very start. After eight wins on the trot and thirteen Tests unbeaten, the pattern finally unravelled in Cape Town as a determined South African side spurred on by yet another outstanding innings from Jacques Kallis finally gave them too much to do to salvage a draw.
Were it not for the runs provided by the magnificent Andrew Strauss, England would surely have lost the Second Test in Durban. With just two days' break between games, there was no opportunity for England's misfiring players to recover form and confidence, and a poor game for Strauss left little else for South Africa to overcome as two poor batting performances and a tired showing in the field pitched the tourists to defeat by a convincing margin of 196 runs.
While Strauss had received good support at Durban from Trescothick and Thorpe, the lack of form shown by Butcher and Vaughan was a definite worry. With Butcher now ruled out of the match (and later the tour) with a sprained wrist, to be replaced by Robert Key who had not played an innings for a month, and Vaughan showing no sign of improvement, England showed little mettle on their way to a first innings effort of 163 in response to South Africa's 441. Then, left to bat out five sessions to save the match, they lost Trescothick to the second ball of the innings and then watched all but one of their remaining batsmen reach double figures without one of them lingering long enough at the crease to make a game of it. A highest score of 42 by the swashbuckling last man Steve Harmison told its own story.
Former England captain Michael Atherton has described England's condition at this point of the tour as being like barbecue steak, both undercooked and overdone at the same time. A flippant remark you might think, but one bearing the mark of truth. The clearest example of its accuracy comes in the form of Harmison, England's deadliest bowler, who arrived here without any match practice since September, had no chance to develop his match rhythm in warm up matches and has found himself rapidly losing confidence and energy bowling long spells in tremendous heat under the high pressure of Test cricket. He has been a shadow of his true self so far, which is a shame not just for the England team but also for Test cricket in general, since his struggles are likely to foreshadow those of many other bowlers forced to subsist on a diet of intercontinental travel and high-pressure international cricket with nothing in between.
South Africa's prime bowler Shaun Pollock had just two days to recover from severe blows to each hand delivered by Harmison at Durban, while after this match England's Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff were struggling with heel and side problems respectively. But the strain imposed upon modern Test players by idiotically hectic schedules is just half the story. Butcher's injury exposed the lack of match practice afforded to reserve players these days. His replacement, Robert Key, had perhaps been unlucky to give way to Butcher at the start of this series after such a fine home summer, and his one innings on this tour up to now had been a useful 80-odd in a rare warm up game. But several weeks had passed since he last picked up a bat in anger, and it showed. In the first innings he played a rash hook at Pollock and edged to the keeper for a duck, it was as if he hadn't even watched England's feeble first-innings effort at Durban much less played in it. His second innings 41 was an impressive knock for a man with so little cricket behind him, but might have been so much more had it come on the back of some worthwhile time in the middle. Its end, stumped by yards off Nicky Boje, was a sad demise.
In contrast, when New Zealand suffered a rash of injuries on their tour of England last summer, they were fortunate to be able to call upon the services of left-arm seamer James Franklin, who was on call and in form thanks to a stint playing club cricket in England. What would England have given to have Key play in a couple of club or provincial games instead of performing permanent 12th man and net duties during back to back Tests? It sounds like a far-fetched notion, but is it? The ideal solution to the overcrowded schedules of the modern era would be to remove Bangladesh and Zimbabwe from the Test roster, leaving room for more leisurely tours with warm-up games and days off. But in the absence of that, there really is no reason why touring teams should not be able to farm out their reserve players to the local domestic scene during their visits. Had Key been able to get a couple of innings under his belt for Gauteng or Free State, he would have been far better prepared for the Test than he was, while the standard of domestic cricket, starved in recent years of the best players, would be improved dramatically.
A worldwide agreement along those lines, at least between major nations, would be a major boost to the competitiveness of cricket at both Test and domestic level, with the dilution of squad unity among domestic teams the only drawback. And, in England at least, that is a drawback we are already living with, as the roster of overseas, EU or Kolpak qualified players seems to change as often as our fickle weather.
But if this sounds like sour grapes following a crushing defeat for England, I apologise. South Africa deserved their win. While just about everyone lamented the hosts' failure to win the first match of the series as their best chance to prosper, and forecast that England would only get stronger and South Africa weaker, the opposite has happened. England look ever more tired and less secure, South Africa ever closer to their strongest side. They had their one bit of good fortune with the toss, Graeme Smith sensibly electing to give England's tired bowlers another long session in the field after their efforts at Durban, but they made the most of it with another faultless century from Kallis with support of differing character from Smith and Boje.
A first innings score of 441 was just above par on a belter of a pitch, but England's limp response of 163 was a dreadful display of complacency and listlessness. Smith rightly chose to bat on instead of enforcing the follow on, leaving England's bowlers with more hard work to do, inflicting those injuries to Flintoff and Hoggard which may yet prove decisive. Set 501 to win, England never looked like surviving once Trescothick fell to the second ball of the innings. Player after player established himself, then failed to build an innings. It was a weary, slump-shouldered England who finished the match, a team we have not seen for many a month now.
But tiredness, physical and mental, caused by the immense stresses of Test cricket seems to be a major factor in determining results these days. It was ever thus to some degree, but now that tiredness is not determined so much by the resilience of the players and the will of the team unit, but by the decisions of the board officials at their scheduling meetings months in advance. And that is modern Test Cricket's greatest curse.
South Africa: 441 (Kallis 149, Boje 76, Smith 74, Flintoff 4-79) & 222-8dec. (Kallis 66)
England: 163 (Langeveldt 5-46, Ntini 4-50) & 304 (Pollock 4-65, Boje 4-71)
South Africa won by 196 runs