England has just lost the 4th Test in Pretoria by a country mile. As usual, the commentators avoid the obvious conclusion, which is that it was a win the toss, win the match pitch.
Understandably there is jubilation in the South African camp and they have indeed uncovered two rare talents in Rambada and Bavuma. But to suggest that this can be a sure sign of recovery in their team may be premature.
Rambada apart, their bowling resources remain stretched. Anno Domini has caught up with Steyn and Morkell is not the force he was. Both are nudging 34 years of age. Nobody has mentioned what has happened to the superb Philander but, there again, he is no Spring chicken.
Going back to the match, once they had nearly 500 runs on the board in the first innings, the result was never in doubt. Lending substance to the notion of very easy pitch conditions is the fact that there were TWO maiden hundreds – an extremely rare occurrence.
I can pay the diminutive Bavuma no greater compliment than to compare him with the great Tendulkar. Look how still he remains as the ball is bowled. His bat is geometrically vertical in defence. When he drives there is a good stride forward but he forces off the back foot and pulls the short ball with equal aplomb. I will be surprised if he does not continue in the same vein for a while to come.
Rambada is an interesting case because his action is not particularly impressive. But what happens the other end certainly is. Despite a quite gentle run-up (none of the rushing in which is so much part of Steyn’s armoury) and despite not much of a “gather”, he rotates his body smoothly and powerfully giving him plenty of pace. He was as much the best South African bowler as was Finn for England before his injury.
England’s upper order remains a real problem. It is extraordinary that no opening partner for Cook has been able to establish himself in all the years since Strauss retired. Compton has the right attitude but his technique will still get him into trouble.
He stands bolt upright with his bat raised when facing the quicker bowlers – not against the spinners – so now has to bend forward to allow room for the bat to come down straight. While this alteration is taking place the bat wavers off a true line.
Throughout our batting line up, there is a ridiculous habit that has creaped in i.e. making a practise stroke after every ball. The only signal that it sends to me is that they are trying to learn the job as they go along. Then there is the abiding problem of not getting the front or back foot across close to the line of the ball. Which is almost impossible to do from a square – rather than sideways- position.
We can only thank heaven for the marvellous example set by Joe Root who is largely blameless in these two respects. Perhaps he should be the batting coach. Mind you, how I would love to have half an hour with some of them in the nets. I doubt I would do them any harm.
It is not often that you find batsmen pleading the case of bowlers in the eternal struggle between bat and ball. But there has to be first and this is it.
I must be a bit slow because it has taken me a long time to reconcile the pluses and minuses of the Decision Review System, despite being basically a supporter. But a "not out" umpiring lbw decision on appeal from Ben Stokes against Amla got me thinking.
England asked for a review which showed a good 45% of the ball hitting the top of the stumps. But in these cases anything less than a full 50% of the ball hitting, means that
the decision remains with the original judgement. Which is unfair in one major sense.
Were the umpire to sense it was a marginal call but give it OUT, then that would give a just and proper reward to the bowler. If the review showed that the ball was missing, then no harm done - the batsman is reprieved and the game continues without incident.
By favouring the "NOT OUT" option there was indeed harm done. Harm to the bowler's figures and harm to the proper progress of the game. The only possible harm of giving a completely incorrect decision would be to the umpire's reputation. But he is already in the dock for giving a not out decision for a ball which would have sent the bails flying.
My message to umpires must therefore be to give the "marginals" OUT in the best interests of the game.
Oh! And another thing from yesterday's first day of the Test Match at the Wanderers - or is the Joburg ground called something else these days? No matter.
The Bazuma run out. Commentators deliberated on whether it was too short a single. Only one of them, the thoughtful and reliable Michael Atherton, mentioned the tell-tale matter of " ball watching" by the non striker. The otherwise admirable Mr Bazuma was brazenly guilty of turning his head to follow the ball instead of trusting the batsman and responding instantly to the call. Had he done so, he would have been home with yards to spare. The only good and decent thing he did was to try to complete the run. I can think of one Yorkshire opening bat of my time ( who ran me out the first time I batted with him) who would have taken the precaution of saving himself!
Harking back to my recent lament about bowling tactics, or lack of them, to certain batsmen - here we go again, with Enland's fast men against De Villiers. In common with the Australian Steve Smith, DV walks across his stumps before the ball leaves the hand.
Is it coincidence that these two are rated perhaps the two most successful batsmen in the world? I think not.
They have it in common that the moment the ball is aiming for the stumps, they are adept at turning the ball through the open spaces on the leg side. As the bowlers become increasingly frustrated, their reaction has been to bowl wider and wider of the off stump. As Willis and Underwood used to do to Viv Richards to their cost.. The " beauty" of this batting system, or at least the bowling reaction to it, is that they have virtually excluded being bowled or lbw.
Surely it is worth a try, bowling at the stumps and putting fielders where they hit the ball !! Freddie Trueman told me that he was only looking at the batsman's feet as he ran in to bowl. You can bet your bottom dollar he would have had two more leg side fielders with at least a couple of attempted yorkers every over. When I buttonholed Captain Cook on the subject at the end of last season I got a shrug of the shoulders, little more. Unless a little common sense dawns on our heroes, they are in for some long spells in the field.
If you are a "take it or leave it" cricket follower, then stop here. What follows is an in depth diatribe on the LBW and other Law changes before and during my lifetime and their effect on the way the game is played.
Time was (anyway in Don Bradman's era) when the ball had to pitch in the line of the stumps and be hitting for an appeal to be upheld. Thus the faster bowlers needed to bowl from close to the stumps i.e. wicket to wicket. Away swing was another way of achieving the desired result.
Bowling from close-in meant a degree of pivot on the front foot to avoid running down the pitch. Thus there was less rushing through the crease and more body action to achieve pace.
By the time I arrived on the scene, the law had been altered to allow the ball to pitch outside the off stump - with the proviso that the point of impact was still between wicket and wicket. This meant that I could still pad up to anything so long as my pad was outside the off stump. It meant still being able to play more off the back foot, which was just as well because a new breed of bowler came along delivering from wider on the crease and rushing through full tilt.
I emphasise here that lbw law changes are not usually followed by wholesale changes in how any existing group of bowlers go about their business. What they Do do is to dramatically improve the chances of types of bowlers to whom they suddenly hand an advantage.
A further change came along which allowed the point of impact to be outside the off stump if the batsman was judged to have played no stroke. This led to an era of pad play against spinners, hiding the bad behind the pad as though pretending to make a stroke.
A major beneficiary from this change was Derek Underwood whose slow-medium cutters bowled for quite wide round the wicket were ideally suited to this new regime. Unlike the old timers who had to bend their backs over the stumps get the ball to "pitch on and straighten".
Coming right up to date, that new kind of "pretence" pad play was conveniently sent packing by the advent of DRS (Decision Review System) which made any form of pad play a more perilous proposition.
Another very lucky guy was Graham Swann who, thanks to DRS, was given LBWs galore with the leading pad well down the pitch. His proportion of LBWs compared with those of, say, John Emburey was so considerable as to be almost embarrassing. Batsmen have been forced to play the ball more in front of their pads and also to go down the pitch more - to "get to the pitch".
With the successive changes to the Law, and with the majority of the world's fast bowlers being right handed, I felt so certain of the advantage given to left handers that I predicted a rash of lefties coming to top. Hence the make-up of the two current Ashes teams where every other batsman is a lefty. What was that advantage? Simple. The ball goes down short to the right hander and he shapes to pull. The ball keeps low- out LBW. Exactly the same ball to the left hander - not out because it has pitched outside leg.
But there is an almost Darwinian undercurrent of natural selection in the game of cricket. Is it by chance that the Australians have two or three top quality fast left arm bowlers? Or is it natural selection at work as they pose the left hand batsmen an equal number of problems to the "right to right" combination.
Another straw in the wind is the increasing popularity of right arm quickies e.g. Broad and Anderson and Stokes too, going round the wicket and getting the ball to spear in and then move away, both in the air and off the pitch.
It would have been unthinkable a generation ago when bowlers' "sideways" actions would have meant running on the pitch and only bowling in swingers to left handers. Because the current generation of bowlers are more open chested 1. they will naturally cut their fingers down the inside of the ball to move the ball away. 2. they naturally follow through straight down the pitch and are able to keep clear of the sensitive pitch areas.
So the great battle between bat and ball continues with small advantages shifting the balance of power, not exactly from match to match, but slowly and surely over a period of time.
I have stopped watching the Oval Test. Steve Smith is in charge and England have no clue how to counteract his unusual and extreme footwork. It beggars belief that he has suckered the England Captain and his quicker bowlers into NOT bowling at the stumps. He cannot be bowled. Nor can he be LBW. So before the ball has left the bowlers' hand, Smith has reduced his chances of getting out by at least 50%.
They insist on setting an off-side field which is just what he wants. Any length ball can be left alone. Over pitched or short and he has all the room in the world to swing hard. He is extremely gifted at his leg side placements when the occasional ball drifts onto his pads. And because there are only two fielders that side, ones twos and threes are there for the taking.
Is it so hard to grasp that the way to make Smith think hard about his tactics is to bowl at the stumps and set a 6/3 on-side field. Then all methods of dismissal are back where they should be.
Via Andrew Srauss, I made my views known to the England coaches before a ball was bowled in the Series. It was pretty galling to watch the Australian get a faultless double hundred at Lord's, without any change of mind by the Captain. Not even an experimental over or two in case it happened to work.
The fact that hey got him out on some very sporting pitches at Cardiff, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge is neither here nor there. Every batsman, bar the excellent Joe Root was struggling for runs in those matches.
To sum up - if any batsman can persuade bowlers, for whatever reason, not to bowl at the stumps, then he is already the boss and the fielding side will pay dearly.