The English test summer finishes on Monday and for the first time in this miserably wet season the media are all over cricket like Edgbaston’s long unlamented Brumbrella. The distractions of football, cycling, mass forelock tugging to The Queen and The Olympics are all behind us. Cricket gets its moment in the sun at last. And what does cricket do with that moment? It erects an enormous parasol fitted with malodorous bile squirting sprinklers.
But hard as cricket tries to self-destruct, we on The Sofa aren’t going to let that happen. This preview of the third and final test is going to be a largely KP text scandal free zone. Apart from anything else there are few things more enervating than trying to navigate one’s way through a story in which all the participants come across as unspeakably wretched individuals; whether it be the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the management, the ill advised shit-wittery of KP or the underhanded and sinister knavishness of whoever leaked the contents of KP’s digital whinings. So that’s it. “No mas” as Roberto Duran would say. And if you really can’t keep away, listen to our podcast (episode 9 of A View From The Sofa) featuring George Dobell, Andrew Miller and Stuart Hess (who gives us an excellent etymological lesson in Afrikaans) here: http://www.thecricketer.com/TestMatchSofa.aspx
The test match itself doesn’t look too promising on paper. With the series poised at 1-0 to South Africa and Lord’s having developed a reputation for producing run drenched monstrosities you could be tempted into thinking this match will be dominated by the visitors’ in form batsmen. There is no incentive for them to move the game along, and in Graeme Smith they possess a batsman and a captain who is brutally unafraid of boring five inch holes through your cranium and deep into the inner recesses of your pleasure-sensors. Kallis and Amla are in great form, AB de Villiers waits in the wings; even the supposed weak link Alviro Petersen has a mega-ton to his name.
But strangely after a period of bore-draws, Lord’s has, of late, yielded an avalanche of positive results, exclusively in England’s favour. A trip to the home dressing room for a perusal of the honours board will confirm England’s recent mastery. In the last seven tests, the home side have racked up 10 hundreds (KP responsible for only one of them) and 6 five-fers. In those same tests visiting sides have produced just four of each.
This period of dominance at the Home of Cricket has coincided with the appointment of Andrew Strauss as captain; a man extremely familiar with Lord’s.
Much is made of the slope, but Graeme Fowler speaking on Test Match Sofa back in May pointed out the tiny effect the slope has on the actual wicket. More important, perhaps, is the management of bowlers. It is at Lord’s that Strauss, a usually pretty conservative captain, has demonstrated his willingness to think laterally. In 2009 he opened the bowling with Graeme Swann against the Windies. In that same year Swann was instrumental in breaking the Aussie resistance with a great spell of bowling to Michael Clarke, a man famed for his mastery of spinners.
It is Swann who holds the key for England. He’s not looked in devastating form all summer. There has been speculation about his injured elbow and concern that he isn’t getting as much action on the ball as previously thereby reducing his “dip”. But he hasn’t had much luck with the pitches served up this year. Trent Bridge often is a spinner’s graveyard, The Oval was surprisingly lacking in turn and the monsoon conditions of early summer certainly didn’t help. But the weather has, of late, taken a turn for the better.
However, discard any hopes you may have that the Olympic Archery event will have resulted in an under-prepared pitch. Mick Hunt is a master of his craft who additionally will not have made a pitch specifically to suit England. That isn’t his style.
As for team selection, expect the South Africans to go in with the same team as played at Headingley, provided Alviro Petersen is fit. The one nagging concern for them will be the bowling fitness of Jacques Kallis. If he isn’t up to providing 15 overs an innings the seamers may come under greater stress. The forecast is good for tomorrow and were England to win the toss and bat, the Saffers could end up toiling in the field longer than they are used to.
For that to happen, England’s batsmen need to find the form that has deserted them collectively for the best part of a year. Individually the top four have all hit tons, but seldom have two batsmen got in and dominated. Trott’s sudden propensity for uncharacteristic rashness needs to be eliminated. In Bairstow and Taylor at five and six they have two inexperienced batsmen who will need to come in with runs on the board.
There may even be a temptation, hitherto always resisted, to play five bowlers. After all, if one of the batsmen is averaging a shade under 13 in his three tests, you might argue that you’re not going to miss him. And with England desperately needing to take 20 wickets to square the series now may be the time for a change of plan. But changes of plan happen rarely in this England set-up. When they do, it is usually with poor consequences. Swann should have played at Headingley as KP’s occasional off spin proved on the last day. And as for Darren Pattinson’s only test in 2008, the less said the better.
So whom to leave out? Despite Finn being on home turf it will almost certainly be him. The lack of KP at number 4 undoubtedly weakens the batting, so Bresnan will surely keep his place. Furthermore, Finn goes for around 3.6 an over which England believe they can ill afford in a four man attack. This route is a dangerous one, though. Finn is by far the quickest of the England bowlers and possesses a strike rate of 47.7, that’s a wicket every 8 overs. He needs to play.
The smart money may be on a draw if England bat first, and a South African win if they don’t. After all, England have been largely outplayed by what we thought was an underprepared team. They are certainly prepared now. But I bring home fans a glimmer of hope. South Africa have been on the brink of the number one spot ever since they defeated the Aussies down under in 08/09. They have never quite made it. A series of home draws featuring at least one disastrous batting collapse have undermined their hopes of global domination. They stand on the brink of achieving their goal, balancing just below the precipice of the ICC rankings but they have proved themselves to be vertiginous in the past. A lethal combination of that fear of success, Andrew Strauss’ familiarity with Lord’s and a resurgent Graeme Swann may just be enough for England to square the series, hold on to the number one spot and who knows, maybe keep KP out of the news for a day or two.