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In a Test series between such evenly matched teams, England’s strong tail-end batting may prove to be a trump card.
While former Proteas bowling coach and the current Cricket SA High Performance manager Vincent Barnes believes the South African side has the skill and ability to match the series triumph achieved in England in 2008, he sounded a warning about the area in which he believed the hosts held a major advantage.
“The key is eight, nine and 10 (in the batting order) and maybe England hold an edge there,” said Barnes. “(Stuart) Broad, (Graeme) Swann, (Tim) Bresnan can all bat, and Jimmy (Anderson) is no mug either and knows how to hang around. I’m sure the (South African) guys will take cognisance of that because those guys score a lot of runs,” Barnes added.
England’s lower-order batting has certainly been a major contributor to their recent success and the South Africans won’t need any reminding of how England’s tail – most significantly Graham Onions – cost them a series win on home soil in 2009/10.
South Africa have had problems bowling out the lower order, as Barnes recalled from series in England and Australia in 2008. The Edgbaston Test is remembered for Graeme Smith’s heroics, but it should never have come to that after Paul Collingwood – fighting for his Test future – and Ryan Sidebottom put on 78 for the eighth wicket.
In Australia, the fourth innings chase of 414, should never have occurred had the Australians not scored 147 runs for their last three wickets in their second innings.
While recognising that bowlers are no longer as inept with the bat as 20 years ago, there have been some lethargic displays from South Africa’s bowlers in recent seasons.
“They will have to plan for the low order. Even if you run through the top order those guys have scored an aggregate of about 1 500 runs between them in the past three years.”
Their career statistics bear that out. Bresnan is the only one of England’s lower order who hasn’t played a Test against South Africa, but he averages 40.22 from Tests. Anderson (34) and Swann (87) made their highest scores against South Africa, while two of Broad’s nine half-centuries came against the Proteas.
“You do have to plan for them, like you would plan for a top-order player. Swann scores quickly and Bresnan can hit it a long way.”
South Africa’s lower order isn’t quite as strong, although Dale Steyn will reference his magical knock in the 2008 MCG Test as an example of his ability with the willow. Vernon Philander has more skill with the bat than what he has shown in his brief Test career and over the course of the series must make a contribution of the kind that once saw him described as an all-rounder. Morné Morkel enjoys batting, but a Test average of 14.23 won’t be causing concern for the England strategists, not when they have Swann’s brilliant off-spin, which has accounted for left-hand batsmen of far loftier standing than Morkel.
Ironically, the enforced absence of Mark Boucher, may in fact strengthen the South African lower order.
If, as seems most likely, JP Duminy steps into the starting team at No 7, the depth in the batting order looks stronger, notwithstanding Duminy’s own problems against Swann.
In a series that already had plenty of intrigue, the unfortunate absence of Boucher and the hole it leaves in the South African team – from a personality and strategic perspective – seem to have tipped the scales in England’s favour.
They haven’t lost a Test series on home soil since Smith’s heroics at Edgbaston four years ago.
In the absence of his chief lieutenant, the South African captain will be called upon to redouble his efforts and match the kind of scoring which has seen him make four Test centuries in England.
“I think the sides are very evenly matched. You can’t actually separate them. They’re quite similar, but I feel SA can take it,” remarked Barnes.
*The first Test of the three-match series starts on Thursday at The Oval in London.