Headingley, day one: SA 262-5

England, for once, showed some admirable aggression today. No, they did not finally play five bowlers. But they did something similar and played four quick bowlers leaving out Swann. Partly due to this and partly due to the conditions looking bowler friendly, Strauss also opted to bowl first upon winning the toss. There was plenty of criticism of this both at the time and subsequently, but I think it was the right move. I would have preferred five bowlers with Swann included, but knowing that was never going to happen this was the next best thing. Headingley tends to favour seamers and Swann in particular has never been effective there. England have to attack in this Test; they have to find a way to win and I do think that the best way to do that was to select the four bowlers who would be getting the most out of the conditions. If I had to make a change I actually might have brought Onions in, who probably would have used the conditions very well also. The same applies to the decision to bowl first, especially once it had been decided to play four bowlers. The conditions were cloudy for a lot of the day and should be so tomorrow as well and bowling first gave us an excellent chance to try to put South Africa on the back foot. It did not come off as well as Strauss would have liked, but I definitely do not think it in any way backfired (at least not yet) either.

The first part of the day was dominated by the controversy about Steven Finn being ‘dead-balled’ for hitting the stumps with his knee during his delivery stride. This is something that Finn does with some regularity, but for the first time the batsmen, Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen, complained to the umpire that it was ‘distracting’ and Finn was informed that the ball would henceforth be declared dead whenever the bails were dislodged. All of the actions did take place in accordance with the laws and the umpires did apply this consistently; both an edge to slip and a pair of boundaries were discounted so one certainly would not say that Finn was treated unfairly. That said, the fact that no other batsman has ever complained about Finn, the fact that there was actually no precedent of any batsmen having complained about a myriad of bowlers in the past who regularly hit the stumps and the fact that Smith was not so distracted that he could not dispatch a couple of the dead balls to the boundary suggests that the complaint was borne less out of distraction and more out of a desire to put Finn off. I have a lot of trouble believing that it was anything other than gamesmanship by Smith.

England did not do as well with the ball as they would have liked, but I do think that the general suggestion that by bowling first England should have South Africa all out by now are a bit harsh. I don’t think bowling first should be considered as radical a tactic as it is often is and if South Africa had one won the toss and batted I think most would say that it was about honours even now. Perhaps a slight edge to South Africa. Certainly England are still very much in the match. Alviro Petersen is still there overnight after making an excellent hundred today (as an interesting aside: his last three Test innings are now 156, 0 and 124*), but there is not a lot of other batting left. Of the other five batsmen who are yet to be dismissed, three are tailenders and two are Rudolph and Duminy. Rudolph is a good county player, but does not fill one with confidence at Test level and Duminy was actually selected after Rudolph. This does not mean that they can not or will not score runs, of course, but England will fancy their chances of getting through them pretty quickly tomorrow morning.

With the rate South Africa batted today they can probably expect to get to about 350 by lunch tomorrow and they will probably be thinking of 400 as something of a minimum total for the innings. Whether they can get that far will likely depend on Petersen; I expect that if he bats through to lunch South Africa will have a great chance of getting a score well over 400. One of England’s weaknesses in the past few years has been bowling out sides when a top order batsman has been shepherding the tail and even if the other players only bat to their fairly low averages alongside Petersen it should be enough to put South Africa in control of the match. On the other side of that coin though, if England can get him early tomorrow then they will have a great chance to knock South Africa over very cheaply. The second new ball is only seven overs old and the bowlers will be fresh as they always are at the start of a day. But regardless of South Africa’s total, I suspect tomorrow will mostly be about whether England can bat properly this time. It is that which will decide the match.

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