Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Late wickets derail England chase

Close England 273 (Prior 76, Morkel 5-75) and 132 for 3 (Trott 24*, Anderson 8*) need another 334 runs to beat South Africa 291 (Kallis 108, Anderson 5-63) and 447 for 7 declared (Smith 180, Amla 95)

For 36.2 overs and 101 runs, history appeared to be within England's grasp, but the loss of three key wickets in the final hour of the fourth day at Newlands left South Africa firm favourites to complete a comfortable series-squaring victory in the third Test. By the end of a riveting session, England were floundering on 132 for 3, with Jonathan Trott and the nightwatchman James Anderson digging in for all they were worth. England's victory target of 466, or 334 in 90 remaining overs with seven wickets still in hand, seemed a long, long way away.

South Africa know a thing or two about miraculous run-chases, having hunted down 414 to beat Australia in Perth last December, and England have proven quite adept at defending fourth-inning targets of late, as demonstrated by their Ashes victories at Lord's and The Oval. But today the roles were reversed, and while Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss made Graeme Smith sweat for two-and-a-half hours as they compiled their seventh century stand as an opening combination, both men had fallen by the close, along with the massive scalp of Kevin Pietersen, whose Midas touch continued to elude him as he was pinned lbw by Dale Steyn for 6.

In truth, England were up against it from the very start of play, when South Africa resumed on their overnight total of 312 for 2, a lead of 330, with their captain Smith bristling with intent on 162 not out. He eventually holed out for a magnificent 183, but thanks to a solid 46 from Jacques Kallis and cameos from JP Duminy and Mark Boucher, South Africa were able to declare 40 minutes after lunch on 447 for 7.

But in keeping with the pattern of the match, in which run-scoring has appeared to get easier with every passing day, Strauss and Cook completed the first leg of England's survival bid by reaching tea on 38 for 0, and in so doing they negotiated a hostile onslaught from Steyn and Morne Morkel to beat 16 overs-worth of shine off the new ball, and set a base from which they were able to flourish in an unexpectedly serene alliance.

Their opening gambit was not without alarms, however. Strauss, on 1, edged Steyn inches short of Smith at first slip before being pinned on the shoulder by a rapid bouncer that nearly knocked him into his stumps, but he eased the pressure both on himself and his team by driving Steyn handsomely through the covers for three fours in a row. Cook, meanwhile, resumed the watchful approach that had earned him a century and a fifty in his previous two innings, as he left diligently outside off, while picking off his runs with flicks, sweeps and aggressive pulls through the leg-side.

In the end, however, it was the pull that proved to be Cook's downfall. Friedel de Wet is considered to be a doppelganger for Steyn, but there's clearly something subtlely different about his approach, as he skidded down a bouncer in the first over of his second spell, and Cook's anxious flap steepled off a top-edge to give Boucher behind the stumps his 100th dismissal in Tests against England.

Three overs later, and Strauss was gone as well. Paul Harris had been comfortably played by both batsmen, with Strauss particularly willing to advance down the wicket in a sign of confidence and also of his lack of extravagant spin. But on 45, and closing in on his second fifty of a tough series, he attempted to flick an off-stump delivery to leg, but Hashim Amla under the helmet was on hand to intercept a bobbling inside-edge, and hand South Africa a massive boost going into the final phase of the day's play.

And as the shadows began to lengthen, South Africa bagged the big one. Pietersen's series has been among the quietest of his career, but such is his reputation, no opponent ever dares to discount his threat until he has been successfully dislodged. De Wet believed he had bagged him second-ball, when umpire Harper upheld an lbw appeal that was clearly shown on review to have taken an inside-edge, but Pietersen could not make his let-off count. He had added just five more runs in 20 balls before Steyn - recalled for a final burst - slipped in a full, flat, stump-to-stump delivery, and this time Pietersen realised there was no point in seeking a second opinion.

Anderson, on a king pair, came out as a reluctant nightwatchman, and dug out a series of yorkers at the death, while Trott continued to frustrate his former countrymen with his dallying between deliveries, as between them they ate up 3.4 overs before the close. But it'll take a massive effort from all of England's remaining batsmen to maintain their series lead as the finale in Johannesburg looms next week.

The late cluster of wickets was vindication for an atypically aggressive declaration from Smith, whose forthright approach with the bat is not always matched by his instincts in the field. But he gambled on leaving England an attainable final-day target, and held his nerve as Cook and Strauss made the going look improbably easy. Sometime tomorrow, he ought to have squared the series, and in some style.

No comments:

Post a Comment