IT IS just as well England’s attempt to lose the third Test in Cape Town was foiled by the obdurate batting of Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood. They go into the fourth and final match in Johannesburg on Jan 14 one up in the series after putting South Africa in to bat in two matches and nearly paying the full consequence.
Andrew Strauss had luck with the coin, inserted the South Africans at Centurion and nearly lost. Then he repeated his folly at Newlands, and once again England had to eke out a draw with the last pair at the crease, making Graham Onions twice the jack hero. Whatever the reason officially ventured for gambling away the advantage of a won toss, taking the risk of bowling first was simply not justified — at the time and in retrospect.
England look a stronger all-round side than South Africa and they gave themselves a diminished chance of proving it. Perhaps it was professional funk, like Hussain at Brisbane in 2002 when he gave the Australians the Ashes initiative before a ball was even bowled. Naturally he did not see it that way; there was a good ‘reason’ for bowling first.
One reason why Strauss was reluctant to bat first might be found in the ICC Reliance World Rankings, where England’s thin resources were underlined. After the Newlands draw the off-form Kevin Pietersen slipped down to 19th and Strauss himself was 16th, the highest-rated England player. The bowling remained relatively strong, with the admirable Graeme Swann at fifth, James Anderson at seventh, Stuart Broad 12th and Ryan Sidebottom 18th. The world’s leading bowler and South Africa’s potential trump card was Dale Steyn. without forgetting that Paul Harris, their left-arm spinner, was ranked at 13th. This is one place higher than Daniel Vettori, suggesting that the pompous and constant derision heaped on Harris by Geoff Boycott on Test Match Special has been misplaced.
There is a chance that South Africa will win the toss and bat first at The Wanderers. If that happens Anderson will have to be at his best with the new ball, because batting out the final day for a draw on this more bouncy pitch will be much harder. South Africa called up leg-spinner Imran Tahir into a 15-man squad before realising his eligibility had not been confirmed.
Tahir is a tenacious much-travelled wrist-spinner. He propped up Hampshire with rare brilliance in 2008 and, at 30, he has signed for Warwickshire for 2010. His first international experience was for Pakistan A, and this dangerous customer might well have made his debut for South Africa. The uncapped Wayne Parnell could deputise for Friedel de Wet if he fails to recover from a sore back, which reduced his effectiveness at Newlands. He did not bowl on the final day, a crucial factor in England’s survival.
England depart Johannesburg on Jan 19 and are then due in Dubai on Feb 14 for two day-night Twenty20 matches against Pakistan, announced today by the ECB, before Strauss’s squad fly on to start their tour of Bangladesh. Pakistan won the World Twenty20 in London last summer, so a good interest in the emirates seems guaranteed for the fixtures on Feb 19 and Feb 20 at the 25,000 seat Dubai International Cricket Stadium. England will be playing in The Gulf for the first time in 12 years since Adam Hollioake led them to victory in the Sharjah Tournament in December 1997.
England Lions are due to play in a Twenty20 tournament against Pakistan A and the United Arab Emirates in February, followed by a 50-over one-day series against the Pakistanis, still unable to play international cricket at home due to security fears.
Feb 17: England Lions (20/20 Abu Dhabi)
Feb 19: Pakistan (20/20, Dubai International Stadium)
Feb 20: Pakistan (20/20, Dubai International Stadium)
Feb 21: Arrive in Bangladesh
Feb 23: Warm-up v BCB XI (NOS Dhaka)
Feb 25-March 1: Warm-up v BCB XI (NOS Dhaka).
Feb 28: 1st ODI v Bangladesh (SBNCS)
March 2: 2nd ODI v Bangladesh (SBNS)
England Lions itinerary
Feb 9: UAE v Pakistan A (20/20 Sharjah)
Feb 10: UAE v England Lions (20/20 Sharjah)
Feb 12: England Lions v Pakistan A (20/20 Sharjah)
Feb 14: England Lions v Pakistan A (20/20 Sharjah)
Feb 16: England Lions v Pakistan A (20/20 Abu Dhabi)
Feb 17: England Lions v England (20/20 Abu Dhabi); Pakistan A v Pakistan (20/20 Abu Dhabi).
Feb 22: England Lions v Pakistan A (50-over, Dubai)
Feb 24: England Lions v Pakistan A (50-over, Dubai)
Feb 26: England Lions v Pakistan A (50-over, Dubai).