Saturday, August 16, 2003

Cricket update

It's been a couple of weeks since I discussed my favourite game here. We are now half way through the third day of the third test between England and South Africa, being played at Trent Bridge in Nottingham, and a very interesting game it is so far. But more on that into a moment.

After England's heavy defeat in the second match, there was speculation as to whether the old guard of the England side, especially former captains Nasser Hussein and Alec Stewart, would continue in this side. And there were issues with injury prone fast bowler Darren Gough, who had been very effective in the one day series. And the question of whether Grahame Thorpe would be recalled. Thorpe is one of the best batsmen in England, but due to a messy divorce his concentration has not been on the game for the last couple of years. (He has gone home from tours, declared himself available, been selected and then has withdrawn from tours, and similar).

As it happened, Gough announced his retirement from test cricket a couple of days after the second game. It appears that the strain on his body was too much, and that restricting himself to one day games was all he had the strength and fitness to do. The British sports pages published generous summaries of his career, in which they sidestepped the basic point, which was that he had the potential and attitude to be a really fine player, but that the various injuries stopped him from quite getting there.

Anyway, the Thorpe question was deferred by the fact that Thorpe managed to injure his back and wasn't fit. If they had been going to drop Hussein, this development just about ruled out the possibility. The selectors more or less acknowledged that the selection of Anthony McGrath this season was a mistake, and brought in in form up and coming Cambridge man Ed Smith. Everyone thought this was a good selection, as he appears an outstanding prospect. And James Kirtley was brought in to make his debut in replacement of Darren Gough. And that was it, only two changes.

For South Africa, the important change was that Jacques Kallis returned from South Africa, where he had been attending his father's funeral. Gary Kirsten made way for him because he was injured. If Kirsten is back for the next match, someone will have to make way for him.

In any event, the pitch at Trent bridge had cracks and looked dodgy. It was clearly going to get worse as the match went on. Vaughan had some luck, won the toss, and batted. After an hour England were 2/29 with both Vaughan and Trescothick out. It looked look South Africa were going to continue their dominance. However, England then had an excellent day, with Butcher scoring 106, and England being 3/296 with Hussein on 108 and Ed Smith on 40 at the close. Overnight there was plenty of speculation as to whether England could score 550 and whether Hussein could score a double century, and whether Ed Smith could score a century on debut.

None of this happened. Hussein ended up with 116 and Smith 64. For the really big score to happen, one of them had to go on with it, and neither did. Alec Stewart batted well for 72, and although England lost steady wickets they ended up with a still pretty good 445 all out. One negative for them was that Flintoff got a duck. After his heroics at Lord's this was a bit disappointing, especially considering that this was a much more important occasion. The thing that England would have found encouraging was that the pitch was very clearly deteriorating. Bounce was very variable, and given that South Africa have to bad last, England would have found this encouraging.

South Africa batted, and for once England got the wicket they wanted quickly. Gibbs (who wasn't the wicket in question) was bowled for 19 and then Graeme Smith trod on his stumps and was out hit wicket for 35 and the score was 2/66. Not much credit to the English: it was a pure mistake on the part of Smith. But England would have been pleased.

This morning, Robert Kirtley took his first two test wickets off successive balls in the first over of the morning. South Africa were 4/88 and things looked very good for England. Kallis was out bowled by Anderson (after misjudging the bounce and not playing a shot) a little later, and then 5/132. People were speculating that England would be out for 200, and wondering whether Vaughan would enforce the follow-on if so. (I would have thought not. On this pitch the one thing you do not want to do was bat on the fifth day, even chasing a very small target).

Somehow though the pitch appeared to improve, or was it just that McKenzie and Boucher batted very well, but the two batsmen batted to lunch and then tea, and batted very well, before McKenzie was out for a fine 90 just after tea. The partnership was an excellent 129. Boucher followed soon after to an incorrect LBW decision, although a poor shot. (The umpire on this occasion misjudged the amount of bounce, so it wasn't an easy decision). The score was then 7/284. Soon after that, Hall was given not out to an LBW appeal when he clearly was out, so I guess you win some and you lose some. (Electronic systems are now clearly better than human umpires at judging these. At some point the ICC is going to have to address this issue).

In any event, the score is now 7/297 with Pollock on 24 and Hall 6. It seems likely that England will end up with a lead of at least 100. If they do, and they can score a couple of hundred runs in the second innings, then I think England should win. The pitch is still unpredictable, and if South Africa have to bat on day five they will likely find it difficult, unless someone like Smith or Kallis can do something miraculous. I am still predicting an England victory, although my record on doing that in this series is somewhat less than perfect.

Also, there is one other fact to observe, which is that South Africa are slowly pulling back into this match. England were a long way ahead at the end of day one. They were still well ahead, but a little less so, at the end of day two. And they are still ahead now, but by a little less than that. A good finish is possible. And the state of the pitch on day five remains crucial.

Plus of course does what happens now. Pollock has scored test centuries and Hall's best score is 70 (and he averages 32). If this pair could take the score up over 400, then that would be a very good effort and you could just about argue South Africa are back in the match, although South Africa would still have to bat on day five.

But a South African victory remains unlikely. They would have to outplay England quite dramatically for here. That said, that is what they have done in the series so far.

Update: Hall is out bowled, having played on to Anderson. Since then, Adams has had a very close lbw shout, and has been given not out after being caught behind, when the umpire didn't see a very fine edge. England are not having luck with the umpiring, here.

Further Update: South Africa were all out for 362 , giving England a first innings lead of 83. Pollock scored a very useful 62, as England had difficulty finishing things off. They weren't helped by another bad LBW decision. Ntini was absolutely plumb, but was given not out. Still, it was a good recovery from South Africa to get from 5/132 to 362.

England had to face one over before the end of the day's play. As it was, they ended up only facing one ball. (The rules state that if a wicket is lost in the last over of the day, then the over is not completed until the next morning). Pollock bowled the first ball of the innings to Trescothick, it went near the bat, the batsman's led, the batsman's forearm and there were a couple of noises. Adams caught it, there was a big appeal, and umpire Daryl Hair gave Trescothick out. The replay showed that the ball did not hit the bat, and the decision was incorrect.

Not a good evening's umpiring, but a great finish to the day for South Africa. England are still in front in the match, but they are under pressure. Dare I say it, a lot depends on Michael Vaughan. There are few times when a century from a captain would be more valuable.

This has the potential to be a fabulous game of cricket.

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