Coming into this third and final Test, one might assume the task of winning in order to level the series and retain their No. 1 ranking would be beyond England. The last few weeks have certainly been torrid: decidedly thrashed in the 1st Test and distracted by the looming shadow of Kevin Pietersen in the 2nd.
There have been bruised egos, there have been text messages from a player about his captain – derogatory or provocative depending on your perspective – and the England management has refused to let one individual rock the boat, leading to Pietersen’s exclusion; all this before the 3rd and final Test on which so much rides.
To lose your most destructive batter just after he has scored a scintillating century to save the 2nd Test, and just when you need to win, might seem like an error perhaps on the level of leaving Swann out of the side. But this side was built with the team ethic in mind, and a clear statement has been sent to all players, not just Pietersen, that the team will always come before the individual, no matter how good they are (at least while Strauss and Flower are at the helm).
With Swann back in for Bresnan and Bairstow taking the place of Pietersen, England will have hoped for a fresh start. It even seemed that the commentators were hoping for something similar, England supporters that they are. Boycott took just a few sentences to make the point that Pietersen was wrong to have done what he did and must apologise, meaning it, before he can be allowed back in. Then Vaughan moved the commentary on and insisted they would restrict themselves to talking about the cricket. And Strauss, making his 100th appearance for England and just as keen to be getting on with the cricket, was as level headed and calm as always at the post-toss interview.
And considering everything that had gone on beforehand, England did probably all they could on the first day. Anderson trapped Smith early on, caught behind by Prior, and the decision to retain Finn as the third seamer seemed to pay off. He still needs to work on his consistency and economy rate (4.08 for the day compared to Anderson, Broad and Swann at under 3) but the pace and lift he generates makes the overall attack more dangerous with his inclusion. In time and with regular selection, this will come, I’m sure.
At one point South Africa were 105-5, so could have been rolled over cheaply, but closing the day on 262-7 will be moderately pleasing for England. Yet they must take the remaining three wickets early on the second day, preferably for less than 300 runs – anything more expensive will make it difficult for them to score enough runs while leaving enough time in the game to put the South Africans under pressure. But, if England can do this and get a score, this is a first day that could lead to a win. But they must bat well and apply that scoreboard pressure they seem to love so much.
It was good to see Swann, with a new and sharp haircut, finding some turn. That he managed to dismiss Jacques Rudolph for 42 with a solid strike of the stumps will give him confidence. Not that a lack of confidence has ever been one of his problems. But of late he doesn’t seem to have been quite as potent a bowler as in the past.
It was, however, disappointing to see Trott bowling – not because he can’t bowl, but because I still don’t think part-time bowlers are a good idea at Test level. While they can sometimes surprise the opposition into giving up their wicket, as a general rule they are just not good enough.
So far, England doesn’t seem to be missing Pietersen. But then again, they haven’t batted yet. I’m sure no selector would ideally wish to have two batters of such inexperience playing at the same time, but it seems they had little choice. Perhaps we should see it as a sign of strength and a vote of confidence in the players graduating from the county game? Let’s hope both Bairstow and Taylor do not make them regret their decision, and let’s also hope they are not called on to bat until well into Saturday and England are already in the lead. With the pressure off, they might just perform. We shall see.