TELFORD VICE, Durban
IF SA’s players pause to look in the mirror on their way out of the Kingsmead dressingroom on Saturday before the start of the test series, who will they see? England’s players, it would seem.
“Both teams have come from their previous tours having lost the series,” Hashim Amla said. “Both teams are looking for a good start to start the resurgence.
“We lost in India and they lost in the United Arab Emirates. Both teams are probably searching for a bit of hope.”
Yes and no. SA and England will indeed be keen to reassure themselves and those keeping an anxious eye on their progress that their most recent series should not be regarded as an accurate measure of where they are as teams.
But the truth is that Pakistan’s 2-0 win over England did not hit the headlines nearly as hard as the 3-0 klap SA were dealt by India.
A series between two middling sides was never going to be as big as a rubber involving the No. 1 team, a drama that was played out in the country that has become the home of the modern game. Cricket doesn’t get bigger than that, even in comparison to the Ashes.
So when SA went down in an away series for the first time since 2006 – and went down hard on pitches prepared to ensure they did – seismologists would have been forgiven for thinking they had another Asian earthquake on their hands.
Now SA face a fight to keep the No. 1 ranking they have held for all but three months since they took it from England at Lord’s in August 2012.
Mere months ago, Amla’s men held a lead of 19 points in the rankings over a pack that wasn’t so much chasing them as trying to stay in the race. In the wake of the Indian tour, the gap has been slashed to four points. Simply, if England win the series SA will no longer be on top.
Feeling the pressure much, skipper?
“In international cricket, there is always somebody under pressure in every team,” Amla said. “It’s just how it is. Every game has a lot of consequence.”
Which is not how Keith Miller, having hung up his fighter pilot’s helmet, famously perceived the relationship between pressure and cricket: “Pressure? Pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse.”
But in Miller’s day cricket was just a game. He didn’t have to put up with Amla’s world of sponsors who think they uber alles, administrators who think they know everything, and a media Medusa that thinks its job is to hiss and spit theories and controversy.
Going into Saturday’s game, the biggest bang of a theory concerns Dale Steyn and James Anderson. Both are fine fast bowlers but both are in the twilight of their careers. These days, they take appointments with the physio almost as often as they take wickets.
A groin strain limited Steyn’s series in India to the home side’s first innings of the first test. Anderson is doubtful for Saturday with a calf problem.
“If (Anderson) doesn’t play it’s a big blow for England,” Amla said. “He’s been one of the better bowlers in the world for a few years now.”
Steyn is “fully fit and he’s been bowling really well”.
What might that mean beyond an opportunity for Chris Woakes, Anderson’s likely replacement?
In their last Durban duel, six years ago, Steyn and Anderson took five wickets between them: four fewer than off-spinner Graeme Swann.
Kingsmead swings if the conditions are right – Stuart Broad claimed six scalps in the same match, and England won by an innings – but more often that not it offers a slow surface that wears conventionally.
“In two days’ time we’ll have to make the call,” Amla said about the make-up of his attack. “Kingsmead tends to turn a bit towards the end of the game, so there’s always merit in playing a spinner here.”
That means SA’s Dane Piedt and England’s Moeen Ali, spinners both, could make the biggest difference.
When they look in the mirror after this game, one of them is likely to see a matchwinner.