Steyn wrecks anxious England
Published 15/01/2010 | 02:01
From the first ball of the match yesterday, England's destiny was shaped. It was then, as their captain Andrew Strauss was thrillingly caught at short leg, that the Fourth Test against South Africa began to slip away from them.
As the first day sizzled onward it was never to be in their grip again. A wicket down after one solitary ball became 39 for four and 180 all out. It was not exactly the jaw-jutting, clenched-fist, bring-it-on performance that had been both promised and expected.
In essence, it was an exhibition by an anxious team. Proper bowling, especially by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, who were usually as precise as Swiss timepieces and as hostile as Genghis Khan, was assisted by improper batting.
South Africa's innings was shortened by rain and bad light. The reply had reached 29 from 12 overs when play was called off, the openers not being entirely untroubled but, crucially, surviving intact.
With four days of the match nominally remaining there is time to recover, time for England to hang on to their precious 1-0 series lead or double it. But from hereon in this decisive Test match they will be trying to extricate themselves from a deep hole.
The display diverted attention from England's unexpected, nay astonishing decision to drop Graham Onions, the stalwart batting hero of Centurion and Cape Town, whose eight wickets in the series have cost 45 apiece.
The stated reason was that they wanted the fresh legs of Ryan Sidebottom, presumably in the hope of swing. But Onions could consider himself unlucky.
Toss winning made it crucial for England, in the modern parlance, to create scoreboard pressure. But they succumbed and in too many cases they went meekly.
Few excuses can be found in the condition of the pitch. It offered bowlers reason to believe that their efforts may not entirely be in vain but it was far from the demonic piece of turf that many observers had been predicting.
It needed vigilance and care, above all it needed the new ball to be seen off. Neither occurred. At least three of the top order played a full part in their own downfall and nobody was more culpable than Kevin Pietersen for whom this has become a wretched tour.
He has one innings left for redemption and while it would always be risky to back against a batsman of his resplendent talents he now occupies that place where he does not know whether to play his natural game or amend it. By now, he might have forgotten what his natural game is.
When recovery briefly seemed possible, again through Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, it was swiftly undermined. England's insipid and hapless batting should not be allowed to detract from some wonderful fast bowling by Steyn and Morkel.
Steyn deservedly finished with five wickets; he is a fast bowler operating at the peak of his powers.
Strauss could hardly believe what had happened as a casual defensive flick off his pads was snaffled by Hashim Amla swooping to his right. He was the fifth England batsman to be dismissed by the first ball in a Test match - Stan Worthington was the last, Archie McLaren, Tom Hayward and Herbert Sutcliffe were the others — and the 28th in all.
Jonathan Trott, perhaps unsettled by having to come in so early, looked agitated. He took his usual inordinate amount of time to prepare, he scored one four from an inside edge, swatted at a couple and then played across a full ball to be lbw.
Morkel offered Pietersen a short ball, England's troubled star understandably went for the pull, made a horrible hash of it and saw it go straight to debutant Wayne Parnell at mid-on.
Shortly after, Alastair Cook, who had already been dropped once, was lbw to Morkel, stuck in his crease.
For 20 almost joyous overs Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell responded. Improbably — until Steyn came back after lunch. The best of many threatening deliveries was to Bell, dismissed by one coming back at him.
England insisted on going for strokes which were ill-executed. There was a sense that the match and the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy was going with them.