South Africa outplayed England at their own game… pray for cloud cover at Headingley and Lord's
15:12 GMT, 24 July 2012
Sometimes sport seems to go out of its way to confound. Traditionally the tightest of the international fixtures, England and South Africa have just produced a Test which the statisticians are calling the most crushing win in the history of the game. English fans are calling it something rather less erudite.
How are we to make sense of a game in which the team at the top of the world rankings – as opposed to the world’s most-rounded Test team – claimed only two wickets in 189 overs and failed to reach 400 on a belter which yielded 637 for the opposition
After all, we're used to England not doing so well away from home: of their most recent trips to each of the other Test nations, they have emerged victorious from only Australia, Bangladesh and New Zealand.
Low ebb: England captain scored a total of 29 runs in the first Test as England were thrashed by South Africa
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But at home In England The land of seam and swing The place where seven series have been won in a row, and only two Tests in that time lost This is where we enter the territory of one of Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers. Or do we
In last week's column, we argued – hilariously, you may now think – that England had the edge because of their greater strength in depth. While England’s only weakness, we said, was Ravi Bopara, South Africa had three soft batting targets either side of the ‘awe-inspiring peaks’ of Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers.
But while Alviro Petersen duly conformed to stereotype, England never got a crack at Jacques Rudolph or JP Duminy. The peaks proved too much. ‘High mountains are a feeling,’ wrote . They won in Colombo, and lost the rest. This can no longer be dismissed as the stuff of aberration.
Is it possible we are witnessing a
failure of collective imagination In the UAE and at Galle, England’s
bowlers did fine, plugging away with their usual accuracy and punching
above their weight on heartless tracks. But their batsmen, discovering
quickly that Plan A wasn’t much good, seemed unable to locate even Plan
Bowled over: The Proteas' attack was in impressive form as England floundered at The Oval
At The Oval, it was their bowling that deserved more scrutiny, poor though the strokes were from Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss on Sunday evening to contribute to the terminal loss of four second-innings wickets.
For against South Africa, England discovered that plugging away wasn’t enough. In this respect, they have been warned: by Mike Hussey in the Ashes; by Rahul Dravid a year ago; by Azhar Ali and Younis Khan in Dubai; and by Mahela Jayawardene in Sri Lanka. Hell, even by Marlon Samuels.
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But the warning came mainly from individuals. At The Oval, they were faced with three men in the same side all capable of superhuman concentration. Smith, Amla and Kallis are not the kind of men you can bore out on good tracks. Refusing to take the bait, they made England look bereft of ideas.
The best teams produce a bit of magic when they need it, but England’s route to the top has hardly been full of conjuring tricks. They are an honest, hard-working, skilful side, who know their own minds to a degree that may be unhealthy. This is a strength – and occasionally, as we saw at The Oval, a weakness.
The trick now for England will be of the confidence variety. Convince themselves, as they did with the Pakistan whitewash, that The Oval was a freak, and pray for cloud cover at Headingley and Lord’s – the two English Test venues most affected by overhead conditions.
If not, interesting times lie ahead. After this series come four Tests in India. England will need all the imagination they can muster.
Hash of it: Amla (above) scored 311 as the tourists cruised to an innings victory in south London
THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS
Sweeping it under the carpet
England’s one decent Test win this year that we mentioned earlier came in Colombo. It may be no coincidence that it was their one Test out of five in Asia in which they more or less banished the sweep shot until they felt comfortable with the conditions – so much so that neither Andrew Strauss nor Alastair Cook played the stroke until the 39th over of England’s reply.
At The Oval, both Strauss and Matt Prior got out sweeping – Strauss in an over of hand-grenades from Imran Tahir, Prior to a ball he should have padded away. The sweep has its place. But when will England accept they don’t play it as well other nations
A genius in the making
When people wonder where the next generation of Indian batsmen is coming from, one man rises regally above the fray. On Saturday, Virat Kohli scored his fourth one-day international hundred in five innings (a sequence that has produced 596 runs off 549 balls), and his 12th in all from only 83 innings. He is 23.
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Big hitter: Kohli scored his fourth one-day international hundred in five innings against Sri Lanka
If events at The Oval were a reminder that rankings must always be handled with care, then further confirmation came with the news that the fourth-best Twenty20 team in the world are… Bangladesh.
That's right: following their 3-0 victory over Ireland, the Bangladeshis have now overtaken both Pakistan and Australia, with India trailing everyone in eighth.
Clearly these calculations have their method, but it’s worth noting that prior to beating the Irish, Bangladesh had lost 13 of their 14 previous T20 internationals. Truly, we live in interesting times.
Irish eyes are smiling: Bangladesh are cruising up the ODI rankings