The first line uttered by Andrew Strauss at Wednesday’s pre-match press conference included the phrase “steely determination”. Clearly, the England captain has galvanised his charges ahead of one of the most important Tests they’ve played under his captaincy.
Strauss is a composed character. In his dealings with the press he is polite and clear, but he gives little away. On Wednesday, though, there was an edge to his tone – an indication that England have had enough of the admonishment they’ve had to endure at the hands of the press and public and were keen to get on putting behind them the events of The Oval.
“There is clearly a steely determination among the troops to show that we are better than what we showed last week,” Strauss said. The use of a colourful military analogy is unlike Strauss, but there is a sense in the England camp that another tough battle awaits.
Headingley doesn’t conform to stereotypes about a green top assisting the seamers, or a brown one being good for batting. “Look up, not down” is the advice. If it’s cloudy, it swings; if the sun shines, make hay with the bat. And overhead conditions constantly change here, making flexibility and durability important.
Strauss confirmed that James Taylor would be given a debut on Thursday, but what the make-up of the bowling attack would be, remains a mystery. Strauss wouldn’t say if Steven Finn would slot into the starting XI. “We’ll look at conditions in the morning, before making up our minds.”
While Strauss was all steely determination, Graeme Smith cut a far more relaxed individual. His team is likely to stay the same. He has also had a marked change in his life following the birth last Wednesday of his first child, Cadence. There was a paternal glint in his eye, but while changing nappies occupied life over the weekend, a trip back to the UK from Cape Town also provided ample opportunity to switch focus.
“That alone time (on the plane) allows you the opportunity to put things into perspective and get yourself in a space where it was about focusing on preparation, and now getting myself technically ready for the challenge,” Smith remarked.
When a series and the No1 ranking are on the line, that kind of perspective is vital. “Anyone would understand that is an emotional moment, and having the support of the family is crucial. My family understand the space that I am in at the moment, and what we are trying to achieve as a team. The support from them is a crucial factor in moving forward.”
While England’s quest over the next five days is all about redemption, for South Africa it’s about continuation. “There has been enough time to come back down to earth and refocus on what we want to achieve as a team,” said Smith. “Coming to Headingley there is a very different mind-set. We have a few guys who have been here a few times and understand what it takes to play well here.” Those memories will serve South Africa well, but the state of the series in 2003 and 2008 were different to what they are this year.
Then the series were still tied, with South Africa going ahead before losing at The Oval. Now there’s the chance to claim the No1 ranking.
“Our goal is to push forward and so is England’s. We are training everyday to, hopefully, consistently be that team that will go forward … We need to walk that walk and play those games in the middle to prove that to people.”
England: Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, James Taylor, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Steven Finn
South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morné Morkel, Imran Tahir
Officials: Match Referee – Jeff Crowe
Umpires – Steve Davis, Rod Tucker. 3rd Umpire – Asad Rauf
Radio: Radio 2000
TV: SuperSport 2 (from 11.30am) – The Star