Super Swann is flying high
A Test to remember for golden Graeme Occasionally, there comes along an immaculate exhibition.
Had a panel of experts been asked to sit in judgement and award marks for England's performance in the second Test against South Africa, only those for whom life is always a bowl of rotten tomatoes could have gone below the maximum.
It was the sort of gloriously efficient display that cricketers perpetually imagine and prepare for but which is inevitably spoiled as early as the toss. Not this time. From the first morning of the match — except at the toss, as it happened, which they were probably grateful to lose — England were in control of affairs.
They duly completed victory by an innings and 98 runs yesterday, barely an hour into the fifth day, when Graeme Swann speared one through Dale Steyn's defences to win a straightforward lbw verdict.
It was all that Swann and England deserved. If they were assisted in their endeavours by a brittle performance from South Africa, hesitant and imprecise by turns, it was also propelled by a collective effort.
Swann finished with five for 54 from 21 overs of off spin which were never less than searching and were usually a good deal more. After his four first-innings wickets he was a shoo-in for his second successive man-of-the-match award and is also up to third in the world bowling rankings.
Stuart Broad, up to seventh, ended with four for 43 and had six wickets in the match. This joint effort was something of a reprise for the Swann-Broad duo. At the Oval last August it was they who had brought Australia to their knees.
But this whole performance was altogether more clinical, unmatched by anything that England have achieved overseas in recent years. It was their first Test win in Durban since 1964 when they won by an innings and 104 runs.
This England team are rapidly becoming greater than the sum of their parts, down almost entirely to the ethos forged by the leadership axis of captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower.
If this was almost a perfectly executed performance they are not
yet a perfect team. As they had last summer against Australia, England assembled this demonstration after getting out of the first Test with a draw by the skin of their teeth. One more wicket at Centurion last week and they would have been in much different order here.
But their ability to regroup, to continue to trust in each other —and that means recognising the frailties as well as the strengths —has been a feature of this team under Strauss and Flower. It is an essential component which is often missing.
Swann has taken 54 Test wickets in 2009, more than any England spinner before him. Broad has taken 47 wickets and they are second and third in the world list, behind only Mitchell Johnson, of Australia, who has 63. Between them, Swann and Broad have taken 50.5 per cent of England's wickets this year.
While Strauss was at pains to point out yesterday that everybody in the team had to perform properly for the result that was achieved at Kingsmead — and they did — it was always likely to be the Swann and Broad show yesterday. So it proved.
Swann, sticking to routine, struck in his first over. He had just had Morne Morkel put down by Strauss at slip but then forced him on the back foot with something quicker and won an lbw appeal. Broad had Mark Boucher caught down the leg side off one that lifted although it took a review, requested by England, to confirm that Boucher had indeed gloved it.
For reasons known only to himself Swann declined to ask for a review of his first lbw appeal against Steyn — replays showed the ball would have done serious damage to the middle of the leg stump —and it seemed that his fourth haul of five wickets might elude him.
When Jimmy Anderson was recalled and had the cheekily resistant Paul Harris caught at mid- on only one wicket was left to fall. Swann had to act quickly and did so with another awkwardly drifting ball to Steyn that always seemed likely to pierce the defences.
On the first morning of this match, England had South Africa reeling at 10 for 2 after incisive opening spells from Anderson and Graham Onions. By the afternoon they made further, significant breaches through Swann, and South Africa were 170 for five.
Always, England looked authoritative, a point reinforced when they had to bat following an irksome 10th-wicket stand of 58 by the home side. Strauss shot out of the blocks and then England's most vulnerable batsman, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, both made centuries.
If they were of contrasting vintage, they were both notable for the casting aside of personal demons which was required. These innings were of considerable importance to the idea of England as a team. The two men who have perhaps contributed least lately contributed most. Somehow it encapsulated what Strauss's England is about.