It’s actually been quite good fun, scratching our temples and stroking our beards about what those few days at The Oval actually amount to in the broader picture of England’s story.
For far too long this team has only really dealt in harmonious blandishments; now, suddenly, and in the space of just a few sessions (a week is a long time in cricket), there appear to be the first shoots of bracing discord. At last we’ve had something juicy to talk about…
So the calls get ever louder. England’s bowlers were insipid at The Oval, neutered by the pitch, the heat, South African grit and dawning misery. A little bit embarrassing by the end, it prompted many of us to decry the absence of their fastest, tallest, rawest and most intriguing fast-bowling talent. Steve Finn should be playing Test cricket. The ICC Young Cricketer of the Year for 2010 and the youngest Englishman to 50 Test wickets has become adept at pouring drinks and keeping his counsel but he must be climbing up the walls. South Africa don’t want anything to do with him, while all of England do; the only question is how to get him in…
If Finn does come in, Tim Bresnan may have to step aside. He looked down on pace at The Oval, was manful but ineffectual, and averages 40 with the ball in 2012. Stuart Broad struggled too, and although he’s perhaps a more obvious swap for Finn, it is hard to envisage one of England’s gun players making way for anybody. So if the England think-tank are veering towards popular opinion to accommodate Finn, they may just be tempted to dispense, just for a match, with Graeme Swann. Spinners rarely get much joy at Headingley (Warne took three Test wickets there in as many matches), it’s a result pitch, and with Kirkstall’s famous clouds due to roll in, a four-man pace attack becomes quite enticing. “An all seam attack is an option for us,” Andy Flower said, adding in classic bet-hedging style: “But we haven’t done that for a long time.” The counter argument to dropping Swann revolves around what England would do if Smith, Amla et al bed down and blunt the battery, with a long haul in the field without a spinner swiftly becoming gruesome. But England need to win at Headingley – their status demands it. It may be time to go for broke.
When we heard on Sunday morning that Ravi Bopara had made himself unavailable for Headingley due to “personal reasons”, we just felt sorry for the kid. He’d fought so hard to get back in the team – overcoming various challengers, dips in form and ill-timed injuries along the way – and now he was out again. But in his place, just like that, had come Jimmy Taylor, a prolific England Lion and renowned big-match player condensed into four-and-a-bit feet of dynamic talent and innings-building smarts. He becomes England’s fifth No.6 of the year, and by far their smallest, stepping in to the new problem position in the side. Taylor could not have asked for a tougher opening challenge but in this respect he has little to lose and much to gain: runs count heavy in this match, and if he can weather the early storms and scavenge a few in this arena against this attack, it suddenly opens up for Taylor what Flower calls the chance of a “wonderful international career”.
Erratic, changeable, retiring one week, backtracking the next, England’s one-man news feed has had a vintage summer; all that’s been lacking is a truly worthwhile contribution on the field. At The Oval he was duffed up by Morne Morkel in the second innings in a way not seen since Brett Lee went after him before lunch on the same ground in ’05, and this time, when the deep square leg goes out, as it will, early, Pietersen will push out his chest and come out swinging – we know that now, and have learnt to live with it. But if memories of The Oval embolden the South Africans, they may also serve to bring out the best in Pietersen. He made his first Test double-century at Headingley, he likes the ground, and is never more dangerous than when the catcalls have reached fever pitch and the spotlight shines stark in his eyes.
This week won’t even come close to defining Andrew Strauss’s time in charge, whose achievements are already cast in marble. But what happens at Leeds could reveal a bit more about how he’ll leave the scene. Captains, cricketers – public figures in general – rarely get the ticker-tape treatment when the end comes, but then Strauss is not most people. He needs two wins to equal Michael Vaughan’s record for the most wins as England captain, and with a ‘who-writes-your-scripts’ sense of timing, we have the prospect of Strauss seeing England to victory at Headingley and then at Lord’s to clinch the series in his 100th Test, equalling Vaughan’s record in the act and, why not, creaming Test ton No.22 (he’s currently on 21) to equal the best century tally of any English batsman ever. And you wouldn’t discount it: there were many smart folks predicting 2-1 to England before the series began. With Strauss, 35 now (Atherton, Waugh and Vaughan had all called it a day by then) we are somewhere between the last hurrah and the first cigar. As with all great leaders, there comes a point when thoughts shift to one’s ‘legacy’. Strauss is too classy to hang around and wait to be pushed. But when he does finally go, will it be in a gold-encrusted carriage parading down Pall Mall, or bundled into a Hackney cab to exit out the back door? It’s a significant week for one of England’s greatest leaders. And so for his team.
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