Long, long way back

South Africa’s miserable performance over the first three days of the Lord’s Test was hard to digest but even harder to explain. There is no single reason to account for it, just a series of contributing factors, some of which were controllable and others which were not.

The management’s decision to bring the team to Lord’s on Monday, three full days before the Test began, in an almost purely ‘Tommy Tourist’ capacity was a wise and sensible move. The first-timers brought their cameras and soaked up as much atmosphere as possible so as not to be overly distracted on match day.

But on match day, they were clearly overawed by the occasion and a capacity crowd of 28,000.

The bowlers’ plans to acclimatise to the Lord’s slope were washed away by two days of relentless rain before the Test which prevented anyone from having a gentle jog on the outfield let alone experience a full pace run-up on an adjacent pitch. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel struggled for rhythm while the two pace bowlers who do have experience of the slope, Makhaya Ntini and Jacques Kallis, had only muscle memory to go by and as Vince van der Bijl (who played a season of county cricket for Middlesex here in 1980) said: “Sometimes it took me a week to get used to it again after we’d been away.”

Mickey Arthur and the senior players spoke of being ‘happy’ to accept the ‘favourites’ tag while the senior players in the touring squad were comfortable with talking about the fragility of the England top order and the lack of pace amongst the bowlers. It didn’t sound arrogant or complacent but, in print, it looked like it.

Having won six out of their last seven series, with a highly commendable draw in India, perhaps the Proteas were just a little too comfortable. Complacency and arrogance are nasty and vicious criticisms, and almost certainly unfair, but there is a modicum of truth in the fact that South Africa were not mentally prepared for tough and resilient opponent.

Physical preparation, too, was badly lacking. Three of the four pace bowlers had spent a lucrative and comfortable six weeks playing IPL cricket before departure, a form of the game described by Shaun Pollock between commentary stints at Lord’s as “not physically taxing at all.”

The two warm-up games against Somerset and Middlesex were nothing more than nets. In fact, many Proteas net sessions have been conducted with a great deal more meaning and intensity than the two county games. The tourists were absolutely right to try and maximise as many of their players to English conditions as possible, and to disregard the result, but professional competition without ‘edge’ is meaningless.

If it is money which motivates today’s professionals, then perhaps the answer would have been to offer the bowlers R10,000 per wicket and the team a bonus of R100,000 for winning those games. As it was, they cruised. And they were still in cruise control when the rain finally relented before Lord’s.

It seems highly unlikely that defeat can be avoided although Sri Lanka batted for an astonishing 199 overs to avert defeat after following on at Lord’s just two years ago. Like then, this pitch remains a magnificent batting surface. Anything is possible. But at least two of South Africa’s top six will need to produce the innings of a lifetime to save the game.

After Thursday and Friday, it is safe to say that South Africa had not endured two worse consecutive days of Test cricket since readmission. Only Ashwell Prince’s century on Saturday prevented it from being their worst three days ever.

It is now a very, very long way back for Smith and his men. If they needed a kick up the backside, they have got it. As well as several slaps in the face and a fist or two in the teeth.

It is time to show England, and the rest of the world, that the recently ‘earned’ number two ranking is not a computer joke.

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