By Madan Mohan
Not surprisingly, sections of the English media have since lamented that The Oval pitch was not to the liking of the English bowlers and didn’t play to their strengths. Considering that the media had judged the South Africans to be undercooked after Day One, such pronouncements should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.
On the other hand, The Oval surface offered a good opportunity for the famed English batting line-up to do what they are best at: batting the opposition out of the game. It was, supposedly, docile and slow and England were supposed to milk away to eternity, leaving South Africa to match a huge first innings total or face defeat.
Thus, a more honest self-examination might reveal to England that they had simply fallen well short in ideal conditions against a more than worthy rival. For all the fleeting moments of genius from Kevin Pietersen’s bat, England have thus far relied more on unwavering accuracy and consistency than overwhelming flair.
It worked against an Australian side in the throes of a transition and a poorly-equipped India. Against South Africa, they were up against a wall of consistency and sustained application. After England failed to capitalise on a great opening day, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis demonstrated what they could have achieved on that pitch with better application.
Thereafter, Steyn underlined the difference between solid, collective effort and pure brilliance. Sans much assistance or a mountain of runs to improve their confidence, Anderson & Co were eventually rendered toothless by the obdurate firm of Hashim Amla & Jacques Kallis. Whereas Steyn and Morne Morkel could generate lethal pace and bounce from the same surface and attacked the wicket consistently enough to pounce on the first error that an English batsman committed.
And that is probably why sections of the English media have expressed a wish for a pitch with more bounce or movement, the theory being that this could bring their bowling attack closer to South Africa’s. On the other hand, it was precisely in Oval-like conditions that England could thwart Australia and, earlier, South Africa in South Africa.
On the other hand, in relatively hostile conditions at Johannesburg and Perth, the South African and Australian attacks outperformed their English counterparts and contributed to convincing victories for their respective sides. Whatever England could do, Steyn, Morne Morkel & Co could do much better.
Juicy wickets may have done the trick for England last year against a toothless Indian bowling attack which could not make the most of helpful conditions. But it could be akin to waving the red flag to a marauding bull where the formidable South African pace battery is concerned. Vernon Philander, who had a quiet outing in the first Test, may well come into his own on a pitch that encourages him a bit.
We have not heard much grumbling about the pitch from the English squad themselves and, hopefully, they are a little less eager to chalk it down to the pitch. England would know that they lost the plot when they failed to make the most of a good platform on Day Two and when they pressed the panic button early in their second innings.
These are lapses of mental strength they can ill afford against this powerful South African side. England would be aware of South Africa’s tendency in the recent past to let an early series lead slip away. But they would also need to play the big moments better to be in a position to capitalise on such a lapse from South Africa. Else, comfort may elude them even in their comfort zone.
(Madan Mohan is a 26-year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)