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England ready for lip-smacking shoot-out

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Tom Fordyce | 14:28 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Even by England's recent rollercoaster-ride performances, it's an edge-of-seat scenario.

One match to decide the series, on a pitch that rules out a draw, in the most antagonistic stadium in the country; green grass on the track, thunderstorms overhead and a wounded, hostile opposition ready to throw caution to the clouds.

Win, and England will have secured successive series victories over their two biggest cricketing rivals. Lose, and the critical carpers who say they have only been lucky last-wicket stands away from double defeat will be shouting all the louder.

First to the Wanderers pitch.

Forget the sizzling sun of Cape Town and the coast. Johannesburg saw a quarter as much rain again in December as it normally would, and it's only got wetter since then (13 days into January, the city has already received as much rain as it would normally expect in the entire month). At Wednesday lunchtime, prior to its final preparation by groundsman Chris Scott, the pitch looked like a khaki and emerald patchwork quilt - hard and dry in places, extravagantly grassed in others.

This specific strip was last used for the Champions Trophy last September, and then it gave substantial assistance to the quick bowlers - not least England's trio of James Anderson, Graham Onions and Stuart Broad in the win over Sri Lanka. Wanderers tracks historically produce results too; you have to go back 10 years to find the last Test draw there, and even then the three days lost to bad weather were a major factor.

"The bowlers have got something to work with," says Scott. "There's a bit more grass on the pitch, and over five days - if it lasts that long - the pitch will deteriorate."

South Africa coach Mickey Arthur had asked Scott to leave it green and grassy, but there will be few complaints from England - not only because they were similarly specific in requesting a crumbling turner from the Oval's Bill Gordon for the final Ashes Test of last summer, but also because such conditions may arguably suit their attack even more than the hosts.

This is the ground where, four years ago, Matthew Hoggard took 12 wickets in the match (including 7-61 in the second innings) to bowl England to a series-defining victory. With the humidity expected to be high again, Anderson and Onions in particular will be licking lips and polishing cherries with relish.

Matthew HoggardHoggard cleans up Jacques Rudolph at the Wanderers in 2005

With the notable exception of the outstanding Dale Steyn (24 wickets at 22 in his five Tests in Jo'burg) and possibly debutant Wayne Parnell, the South African attack would probably prefer a dry, bouncy track to a sultry swinger. In addition, Paul Harris has taken just four Test scalps in his two Tests at the Wanderers, Jacques Kallis 28 wickets in 21 innings. "We've got to back our bowlers to be better than theirs," says Andrew Strauss.

Scott is also remarkably candid: "It's my opinion that England's seam attack has been that bit better than South Africa's," he told BBC Sport on Wednesday. "They can enjoy the wicket as well."

What of tactics? Arthur, stung by criticism that he and Smith have been too conservative in the series thus far, has promised to gamble - "We've got to go for it, we don't have an option." Strauss, for his part, has also insisted that his side will go for the win.

To bat first or insert the opposition? Of the 20 Tests played at the Wanderers since South Africa were readmitted to Test cricket in 1992, nine have been won by the team that batted first, six by the team batting last. At the same time, fourth innings totals at the ground over the same period have not dropped as dramatically from the first innings totals as at most Test areas - by an average of just seven runs per wicket.

Neither may the toss be decisive, if the precedents in the series thus far are to be believed. Strauss called correctly in Cape Town, stuck South Africa in and almost lost the match; Smith got the call right in Durban, decided to bat and ended up being thumped by an innings.

Despite the expected bowlers' paradise, patient batting may be equally critical. There may not be a repeat of Mike Atherton's stalwart 11-hour 185 not out from 1995, but as essential to England's victory five years ago as Hoggard's haul was Strauss's first innings 147 and Marcus Trescothick's brilliant 180 in the second.

"Even though you look for a grassy wicket it won't be a major green mamba out there," believes Arthur. "It will allow the batters to get stuck in."

Which team are better equipped to handle the unique pressures of this match?

England have the experience of the Oval shoot-out, and are likely to have the highly unusual luxury of naming the same 11 for the entire series. South Africa, by contrast, have been forced by injury to hand Parnell his bow. For a side who a year ago had aspirations to dominate world cricket, a second successive Test series defeat on home soil would hit hard; for England, who a year ago had just sacked both captain and coach on the same day and were about to be bowled out for 51 in Jamaica, the situation feels like a wonderful opportunity rather than a must-win millstone.

After the startling success of Durban and extraordinary escape in Cape Town, England look like a team on the up, if far from invincible. South Africa, having been denied two wins by the doughtiness of England's number 11 batsman, appear the side seeking fresh momentum.

What of historical precedent? South Africa have won eight and lost seven of their Tests at the Wanderers since 1992, England won two and lost two. More intriguingly, England have followed each of their last three final-pair escapes (Centurion, Cardiff, Old Trafford '98) with wins in the very next match.

Those dramatic draws in the past year, allied to consistency of selection, have created a team spirit in the England camp stronger than anything seen since the Ashes series of 2005. It may not enough by itself to seal the series, but in conjunction with the burgeoning success of the Strauss-Flower captain-coach bond, it gives the tourists a remarkable resilience.

The prize at stake is a big one. Since the triumph in South Africa five years ago, the only overseas series England have won came against New Zealand - and even then, only just.

To beat them on home soil now, having just won back the Ashes, would put Strauss's team in an enviable position as the prospect of Australia away looms large on the horizon.


  • Comment number 1.

    SA to win the toss and bowl; both teams' first innings to be low scores as the quicks run riot. Swanny to win the match on day 5 as the pitch unexpectedly takes spin.
    You read it here first...
    or not.

  • Comment number 2.

    Tom, no mention of your last day heroics at Cape Town on Live Text?

  • Comment number 3.

    Tom, need a new vetting system on live text. If on the fifth day England are hanging on for the win then you must be the man in the chair and no one else.


    If England are batting well and looking to put on a big score you must be banned from all Live text activities!!

  • Comment number 4.

    And when I say hanging on for the win I meant draw!

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm afraid it's all set in stone guys: Tom the first two days, Ben the second two days, and Mark Mitchener bringing us the finale (if it lasts that long).

  • Comment number 6.

    'Onions in particular will be licking lips and polishing cherries with relish.'

    This sounds like a bit of a dietary nightmare. Can't imagine ever putting Onions, cherries and relish together.

    Still, you know best...

  • Comment number 7.

    Right who's decision was that?! Tom the 1st two days... are you crazy? You can't promote Ian Bell to open just because he had one good test match!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Does anyone else expect a big pieterson performance? Regardless of form it just seems unlikely his ego will allow him to go a complete series in SA without a big 100

  • Comment number 9.

    Oliver, that solves the 'what if we win the toss' question!
    Put South Africa into bat, Cant have Tom scuppering our first innings score!!

  • Comment number 10.

    I don't disagree with any of this. The fact is England could be 2-1 down but for some luck and a little resilience at the end. You could argue that England are on top because South Africa have under-performed. Will we miss a five-man bowling attack? England's attack is not that thrilling. South Africa's has been worse.

  • Comment number 11.

    Oliver Brett: I'm afraid it's all set in stone guys: Tom the first two days, Ben the second two days, and Mark Mitchener bringing us the finale (if it lasts that long).


    You mean we're going to be hanging on for the draw on the first two days? Have you not thought this through? Is this what we pay our licence fee for? This is a disgrace and I'm writing to my MP.

  • Comment number 12.

    If the pitch is going to be a bit of a grass top and the conditions as stormy as predicted does anybody else think England might need to be brave and select Sidebottom? I'm not sure how you could really squeeze him in, but I think he's the closest we have to a Matthew Hoggard type swinger.

    I know Strauss and Flower aren't big on making short term changes, and perhaps they are best sticking with what they know, but if I were captain, I think I'd like to have Sidebottom in for Broad or even Swann if the pitch isn't spin friendly. Probably not popular, but I think Sidebottom offers a bit more control than Broad, he swings the ball alot, and the South Africans haven't seen him (or any left armer) yet this series. Not a permanent change, just a horses for courses selection?

  • Comment number 13.

    I love this espression:

    "Even though you look for a grassy wicket it won't be a major green mamba out there," believes Arthur.

    So! No green mamba, huh? - What then? Am hoping the England bowlers can turn it into a gaboon viper as far as Smith & co are concerned. Or maybe a spitting cobra!

    At any rate, if we win the toss, it would sem to me we won't want to be batting last.

  • Comment number 14.

    Tom Fordyce first two days - not very good for a BBC Supported Site!

    Can't wait for this tomorrow, however. Makes the days at work go so much faster. KP to make the headlines one-way or another. Come on England!

  • Comment number 15.

    Whoah-whoah - just because I steered us to the draw last time out doesn't mean I can't do wins - who was doing the text comm when we sealed the deal at Durban? Harsh, gustav1, Andy Connor and Barham, very harsh...

    Benjamin CC - can't wait myself. It's been a delight of a series all the way through, and this finale should polish things off perfectly.

    LancashireSwinger - I think a recall for Siders is unlikely - Strauss and Flower are all about stability of selection, and even if it looks like a seamer's paradise, I can't see Swanny getting dropped. Too many wickets, too much variety.

    leydaes - lots of supportive chat from the England camp about KP. Remarkable though it may seem, hie mught be suffering from a lack of confidence, even though he averaged 47 last year and has scored more runs in this series than his skipper.

  • Comment number 16.

    Tom, Tom, Tom. You did also manage to sneak a ticket to the rugby World Cup final and what happened? We lost. Did you apologise to us all in the Frog and Princess? No you didn't. Now, had we chased down the small matter of 470-odd in Port Elizabeth, I would be the first to exalt you to the highest reaches of England cricketing legends, but you didn't. I fear the selectors must be worried at your inconsistent form.

  • Comment number 17.

    Not harsh Tom. You should see it as a compliment that we want you there on the last day..indeed, from what the groundsman says, we may well get our wish as the last day could be day 2.

    Now you have cemented your place, will there be a new KP like flamboyance to your innings, with superstition going out the window? Or will you still be waiting til drinks every time you need the loo? I know which one i'll be doing...

  • Comment number 18.

    Given the bad blood over the ball-tampering issue, surely polishing the cherries with relish would unnecessarily re-ignite claims of cheating, with little benefit to the swing bowlers...not to mention the logistical difficulties of getting the relish on to the field of play in the first place.

  • Comment number 19.

    How quickly they forget, Barham, how quickly they forget - was I not there for the quarter-final triumph over the Wallabies and the semi-final seeing-off of France? We won't mention every subsequent defeat. Or being there at Headingley last summer. Shudder.

    gustav1 - I'm just looking to put it in the right areas, keep a positive mindset and control the controllables. Or something like that.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mr Fordyce, I thought you made of tougher stuff!! Take the unwarranted abuse like a man!!

    In terms of the test this week has taken ages to pass and cant wait for tomorrow morning! If our top and bottom order fire (in their specialist departments that is!) then we should win this. If Strauss and cook can play out the new ball (Which cook is excelling at at the mo, and the old ball, and the new ball again!) And Jimmy and onions use the new ball well we can win this test.

    Just realised that I have written the basics of cricket but its what we need to do!!

  • Comment number 21.

    But it must be you Tom, otherwise it was me, and that simply can't be true...oh dear. I was at the Oval you know, and there's no truth to me clutching at straws here.

    So are we going to see a KP special this time around? I have a feeling this is when he will step to the fore. Last test of a series where we need a draw and all that.

  • Comment number 22.

    Big things are expected of our Kev in this Test. Was watching Spinal Tap t'other day, the bit where they are explaining what happened to all their drummers. I really wouldn't put it past KP to spontaneously combust after reaching a match winning ton.

    P.s. No other sport in the world can give you the feeling of absolute horror of knowledge that it was you, and only, that caused defeat by pressing f5 too many times. I love it.

  • Comment number 23.

    gustav1 - that could be my favourite PS of the year so far...

  • Comment number 24.

    Oliver's revelation at least means i don't have to try and be witty for the first 4 days, no matter how good the e-mail, Tom and Ben never publish me!!! Mark Mitchener all the way!!!!

    As for the wicket, unless Steyn is awesome, SA are clinging at straws getting a seamers paradise, on paper, even if Jimmy fails, Onions and Broady can do the damage and seam/swing potential will get Broad bowling a better length than his back of a length rubbish, Chuck it up there at high 80's and you can get wickets if you can swing it, England 3-1 South Africa.

    As for dropping Swann, be crazy, his gungho batting is a great strength at 9 and you know he will get wickets!

  • Comment number 25.

    If England beat South Africa 3-1 I'll buy you a pint Exiledportfan - how's that?

  • Comment number 26.

    Drop KP for the match. move Bell to 4 and bring in sidebottom. you know it makes sense. or not. comments?

  • Comment number 27.

    by the way dropping KP is not completely about this important match, but about his future attitude, whether it's about the team or his ego. he needs to take a drop and then come back to his best.

  • Comment number 28.

    Its gonna be a ripper-South Africa to win it in style Steyn and Parnell especially to do the damage. I dont feel England have players capable of a hundred in poor batting conditions like Kallis' hundred in the first innings in the 3rd test.

    Love to be proved wrong come Sunday/Monday

  • Comment number 29.

    not sure how I said that twice. sigh

  • Comment number 30.

    Tom, I am pleased to see that you recognise your responsibilities and understand that millions of ex-pats like me will be looking for you to do your stuff with bat and ball. England expects and all that...

    This series and the just have completely re-defined what "nervewracking" means for me. Fortunately I missed the Headingley catastrophe, apart from seeing a scoreflash while having lunch in an Inverness pub. The 7 Tests that I have followed ball-by-ball in these series though have put years on me. Thank heavens that the next series is in Bangladesh and should be a little more relaxing, although the 2003/04 series there was not exactly for the nervous, even before that cobra got loose among the spectators. I have been following England for something over 40 years, including some thick and rather a lot of thin and cannot remember so many Tests when England have done things the hard way (if you think back to the Carribean, how many heart-stopping finales have we had in so few Tests over the last 12 months?)

    One request Tom. Most of us can't see what is happening. We can't hear the commentary. We are desperate to know what the heck is going on and get a clear and neutral account of incidents to build pictures in our minds. Speak (or write) to us as if you were describing the match to blind people and add the atmosphere to the action, instead of adding the action to the atmosphere (some of your colleagues are inclined to do the latter).

    Oh and yes, we do genuinely believe in the commentator's curse. Don't let us down! :-)

  • Comment number 31.

    Bumble seems to think England are going in with Sidebottom instead of Onions! I want to see Sidey get another chance, but if Onions is fit I think he has to play. After his last few batting performances I consider him the new Flintoff!

    As for dropping KP, I think that might be a bad idea. On paper he's out of touch and maybe a candidate to sit this one out, but like a lot of people have said, there is always a feeling that a big score is round the corner with KP, and I think mentally he is strong enough to be unaffected by his poor run.

    Some players on a bad run look like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders (take a bow Ian Bell!) but KP, for better or worse, seems to just want to go out and play his usual way.

  • Comment number 32.

    Lancashire, it would be a very bold move to play Sidewinder for Onions. For one thing it seems this would be the first time for more than a century that England have fielded the same side for a full series; continuity has been part of the recipe for success. For another, Sidewinder has been apallingly out of sorts for almost two years, in part through playing while injured; Onions has done little wrong apart from being unlucky, would Sidewinder be a better bet. And finally, because he has barely bowled for the last 4 months: can we risk putting in a bowler who played very little last season and has had just one meaningful bowl, albeit a successful one, on this tour?

  • Comment number 33.

    Couldn't agree more in regards to him replacing Onions. I think Onions has done a fine job. I'd like to see Siders in the team, especially if he is the bowler he was a couple of years ago, but whichever way I shuffle the teamsheet it seems to have 12 players on it!

    We'll find out soon enough though. See how good David Lloyd's sources are. Perhaps Onions is carrying a niggle? Can't see the usually conservative Strauss making a wild card change without being forced.

  • Comment number 34.

    If Onions were to miss out it would be a huge blow to have to replace him with someone who has done so little bowling recently and has been injured-plagued. I admit that I called for Sidewinder to get the nod initially and suspect that he would have done pretty well but, having missed so much cricket it is hard to see him getting what would probably be a last hurrah unless there is an injury.

    It is hard to imagine that Sidewinder will go to Bangladesh (OK, they did take Martin Saggers in 2003, but that was because of an injury crisis and the need to have a reliable workhorse). Next summer he'll be well into his 33rd year and getting no younger. His role is most likely to be as a sort of Jon Lewis-like super-sub who can be brought in if someone goes lame half an hour before the start of a Test.

  • Comment number 35.

    I agree with those who think we don't need to change the team; they've done very well so far in this series, weathering the SA bowling as well as a great deal of advice from our side of the boundary as to who should be playing and who should be dispatched forthwith to the gulags. Yes, I'm aware of the analysts who can demonstrate session by session who took the honours, but when all's said and done we're 1-0 up in a series we were not clear favourites to win!

    They're the ones with the selection problems, not us! Let them stew overnight in the morasse of indecision: Prince or Amla to open with Smith? Harris in or out? Can Duminy take the spinner's role effectively? Steyn, Morkel & who?

    We don't have those problems. Our lads will be sleeping soundly right now. They, hopefully, will be tossing and turning. In seven hours it will all begin to unfold. I think this team has a good chance of taking them. - We'll see.

  • Comment number 36.

    Totally agree, FleetJack. Mind you, it will not assuage the revisionists who say that we lost the Ashes 3-2 (or 3-1) and that we have really lost this series. Funnily enough though, Wisden seems to believe that we actually won last summer.

    Good night! I'm hoping for another thumping win and a 2-0 margin, which will put us breathing down the necks of Sri Lanka in the ICC Ranking Table.

  • Comment number 37.

    grumpyspindoctor (#26&27) - great point. KP, our most consistent player over the past few years, has had a couple of bad games since coming back from injury so its hard to see how we can't drop him. On that note, Strauss has also been pretty dependable with the bat until this series so he needs to go as well. Thinking about it, Swann didn't get a five-fer in the last test so I'd quite like to see the back of him too.

    I realise you made a serious comment and wanted a serious response but lets get real. Someone else made the point that in the same way that Bell hasn't become England's godsend because he's had a few good matches, KP hasn't become useless because he's been a bit below par. And please don't give me the nonsense about him being selfish and not playing for the team. Every player in that dressing room is selfish - to be a test cricketer you have to be. When it comes to the team factor, I don't think there are many players who'd like to see the back of him. His commitment to training and improving his game is massively well documented and, surprise surprise, over the course of his test career it has bought both him and England results.

  • Comment number 38.

    It's official, Siders in for Onions and no mention of an injury. England going for swing over seam? Seems a bit harsh on Onions to me, especially as we might need his batting! Speaking of which, Strauss wins the toss and bats first. bit of a suprise as well.

  • Comment number 39.

    I must admit that I'm amazed, but this is Strauss showing his ruthless streak and saying that even batting heroes are expendable when the series is at stake. I just hope that we see the Sidewinder of 2007, not the Sidewinder of 2008/09!

  • Comment number 40.

    @first ball: - Oh blimey!

  • Comment number 41.

    And a manic innings from Trott that ends a few balls later.

    Are we in for an England disaster that will make Headingley look like a triumph? Did some damned Australian get at the fire alarms again? Oh for a fighting 250 from the ginger warrior.

  • Comment number 42.

    The luck of the England team on this tour has been exceptional.

    Look at the statistics on how frequently there is a draw with 9 wickets down.

    How we did be beat Australia in the summer.

    Why take Durham’s no 2 no 3 and no 4 bowlers but leave No 1 at home.

    Thank goodness for Swann having a wonderful tour.

    So we have all this luck and a genuine quick attack has shown what good quick bowling can do.

    All we have is Anderson and Swann and on this wicket I am not clear how effective Swann will be but I hope his fortune continues.

    I have no confidence in the selectors as highlighted by the presence of Sidebottom. I do not like criticising players as they are all good but we lost the series against the West Indies with him playing when Harmison should have played.

    So this time we draw and do not loose but we could of won but will we ever be this lucky again?

    I say this before the South Africa innings as the fact that we have no genuine quick will determine the outcome of this match.

    Yet all the professionals like Agers say we are moving forward?

    We need new selectors and a coach.

  • Comment number 43.

    I don't see Strauss or England smiling...


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