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Delightful South Africa, Disastrous England and KP

Kevin Pietersen's outburst has overshadowed England's preperation for Lord's

Meanwhile, in some distant, faraway land of non-Olympics, cricket is taking place. South Africa and England are playing a Test series. Whilst the Olympiad has been enthralling, and impressive, and exciting, the cricket feels a bit neglected. In truth, it has hardly been the series it was billed as: the best two sides in the world, head to head, toe to toe. Not that many have discovered what has been going on amid all the “Olympic fever”.

So here’s how we stand two thirds of the way through. The first Oval Test was a convincing victory for South Africa; humbling England and diluting their world number one arrogance.

The second Test at Headingley was more promising for the hosts, and less so for spectators in the Highveld, though a draw amid rain could not provide much of a hint as to what is to follow at Lord’s on Thursday. Oh, and Ravi Bopara got injured – again. And then Kevin Pietersen opened that big gob of his – again.

When England invited India to come and play four Tests last year – in a series hailed as one of the most anticipated, most competitive battles of the decade – the hosts won in a series as boring as it was one-sided, 4-0. We hoped that South Africa would provide more of a challenge.

In fact, they have hitherto provided an insurmountable challenge. Conquered by an innings and 12 runs, Andrew Strauss and his forlorn, inadequate side trudged off the South London grass looking dejected. Defeated by Hashim Amla’s sumptuous triple century, and Jacques Kallis’ wonderfully assistive hundred, in addition to captain Graeme Smith’s own one.

According to former captain Michael Vaughan England were “hammered”. ?The biggest pasting they have received in modern memory,? wrote Paul Newman in the Daily Mail.

Newman added that “we did not see this coming”. Should we have seen, to an extent, it coming, though? Vaughan also said that “it’s a performance we haven’t seen from England for a long, long time”. Yet, was it not reminiscent of performances that we witnessed quite a short, short time ago?

England, earlier this year, were embarrassingly whitewashed 3-0 in a series against Pakistan in the Emirates. One of those losses was by 10 wickets. Then, subsequently, against Sri Lanka, England just scraped a drawn series, after losing the first Test, against a side with a bowling attack that would look poor in this country’s domestic set-up.

England’s ineptitude was so stark, their lack of batting skills in particular so conspicuous, that it should have had a jarring effect on those who follow and manage the team. Expectations should have been recalibrated; hopes beyond the Test arena put on hold.

This period was certainly the nadir of Andy Flower’s coaching era. Perhaps 2012 is the year when, like all great reigns (and this is probably not even a “great” one), everything comes crashing down.

Meanwhile, South Africa were merrily beating New Zealand, and Sri Lanka – who England failed to triumph over – and have lost just one marginal series in 20 stretching back to 2006. It will be 21 soon.

If this was portentous for Strauss and Co, West Indies’ arrival at the beginning of the summer allowed for complacency to return. A simple win: 2-0 in three matches. Everything was back on track. The Windies – who have become inexorably worse year on year, hindered by the fact their best players choose the Indian Premier League (IPL) over Tests – were vanquished.

Whilst England and their supporters hold much respect for the touring South Africans, the extent to which they have performed in such an adept, brilliant way was unexpected, and surprising. Why, though, were England startled by South Africa’s magnificence?

Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world – official. Kallis is the best all-rounder in the world – semi-official. (I don’t think it’s rash or injudicious to say he’s probably slightly better than Shakib Al Hasan.)

Couple Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander to Steyn, and you have the premier seam attack in the world. For not only are they individually excellent, they also complement each other superbly. The pace and swing of Steyn contrasted to the subtle nip of Philander is much harder for batsmen to combat than to have two similar types at both ends – say, for instance, Steven Finn and Stuart Broad. Add Morkel’s intimidating bounce, and the attack looks fearsome. Their productivity has been, also.

Yet, what separates this South Africa side from the India squad of last year is their suitability to the conditions. England is notoriously tricky to master, yet all the fast bowlers are ideally suited, in their own ways, to the unique subtleties. And the batsmen are comfortable; unlike Tendulkar and Laxman and Gambhir in 2011.

They are also experienced: Smith and Kallis have played over 100 Tests each, and have played (and beaten) England away previously. Hashim Amla, Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen – who constructed a delightful 182 at Headingley -have participated in multiple seasons of county cricket with distinction, so will be familiar with, for example, the notorious swing and bounce. Leg spinner Imran Tahir is more experienced on English pitches than most, having played for Warwickshire and Hampshire.

This perhaps explains to an extent the awful defeat at the Oval, especially South Africa’s astonishing first innings total of 637-2d. It was more the dexterity and efficiency of Smith, Amla and Kallis than the predictability of the English bowling that resulted in the amassing of such a staggering number of runs; ultimately a victorious margin.

England’s batting, however, is still a problem; they have continued their poor performances on from the subcontinent. Alastair Cook made a typical century at the Oval; but Strauss (86 runs in four innings) Jonathan Trott (146) and Ian Bell (82) are repeatedly scoring low, or failing to convert starts into Graeme Gooch’s “daddy hundreds”, which was a crucial part in England’s past success – and why South Africa are leading the series this year.

The persistent problem of the number six position (just 56 runs in three innings from Bopara and James Taylor) remains. Five players have occupied the spot in eight Tests.

Matt Prior secured, if he needed to, his status as the world’s leading wicketkeeper-batsman. Yet, if comparing position for position the two countries so far in this series, Prior is the only England player who would replace his South African counterpart. Despite Pietersen’s stupendous 149 in the second Test, Kallis is probably more valuable at number four.

And then Pietersen – England’s best player this series – plunged the national side further into disarray. He told the venerable Jonathan Agnew of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special, in response to a question asking if the next Test will be his last: “I can?t give any assurances. I would like to carry on, but there are obstacles that need to be worked out.”

Despite saying “I love playing for England” – Pietersen quit all forms of international one-day cricket earlier this year – his outburst and damaging text messages caused him to be sensationally dropped by the frustrated and irritated selectors, replaced by Jonny Bairstow.

Egocentricity perhaps stimulated his fateful soliloquy. As The Independent’s Stephen Brenkley wrote: “No matter how much Pietersen says he is doing it for the team he can never quite dispel the notion that he is doing it for himself.”

Strauss maintained after Pietersen’s comments that “we all pride ourselves” on “the team unity we have” – which is, apparently, “outstanding”. This theoretical solidarity, it appears, does not appeal to Pietersen. He was probably dropped for this very reason, the equilibrium too much disturbed. This message was reinforced by leading fast-bowler James Anderson who wrote damningly in his Mail on Sunday column: “No player is ever bigger than the team – you need all eleven players pulling in the same direction.”

Another crucial reason for his omission was the Daily Mail’s revelation that Pietersen had texted South Africa players De Villiers and Steyn complaining about Strauss and other team-mates, using “less than flattering comments”. The texts allegedly include Pietersen encouraging Steyn to bowl Strauss out. It seemed the final straw had come; Pietersen had betrayed the core value of Team England.

Despite a personally organised interview – branded by the Mirror’s Dean Wilson as a “truly cringe worthy vanity video” – in which Pietersen reiterated his desire to play for England, saying he wished to commit to all formats by reversing his retirement and that he no longer sought to participate in a full IPL season, the saga had gone too far. Indeed, by missing the recent Australia ODI series, he had already gained the break he so publicly demanded, so this move was far from generous.

Pietersen is still, undeniably, England’s best available player. His saving grace could be coupling this unquestionable talent with genuine contrition. Yet, sorry seems to be the hardest word – he did not utter it once in his conveniently non-examining interview. Overall, as Sir Elton also said, it’s a sad, sad situation.

This fiasco followed a draw that was at times enthralling, particularly on the last two days, and quite often formulaic. With rain meaning no chance ever arose where either side could win the game, the third and, unfortunately, final Test at Lord’s will be decisive.

South Africa need only to continue their outstanding work, as must the English bowlers; who will, presumably, welcome with open arms Graeme Swann, who was desperately missed in the second match. The English batsmen, however, just need to play with increased pragmatism and thought; they are surely weakened without Pietersen. Rash shots seemed to contribute too greatly to English downfalls, in contrast to last year when sensible stroke-play was favoured. If this does not change, South Africa could leave these shores with the world number one title, and England back where Flower started.

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