Wednesday, 16 December 2009

England choose to bowl as stubborn Steyn is removed

SOUTH AFRICA lost the world’s best bowler on the eve of the first Test against England in a sizzling hot Centurion (see my super snap, right) this morning.

Paceman Dale Steyn, currently No1 in the world Test rankings, pulled up complaining that his hamstring injury had “tightened” over night.

Having lost the month-long battle to get Steyn fit, South Africa were forced to opt for 29-year-old debutant Friedel De Wet in the pace department - he didn't even make the glossy match programme, so late was his call-up to the Test squad. The Highveld Lions seamer's sudden appearance has reportedly created tension in the camp between head of selectors Mike Procter and coach Mickey Arthur, who prefers Wayne Parnell, who was sent back to his province on Monday.

Moments after hearing the news, England captain Andrew Strauss won the toss and – surprisingly - opted to bowl despite the searing heat.

After six weeks of rain and cloud, England had awoken on the Day of Reconciliation – a public holiday in South Africa – to find the sky cloudless for the first time in weeks. With no rain forecast until the weekend, England decided to go without a fifth bowler, sticking with Ian Bell to bat at No6.

But as they awarded Bell his 50th cap, huddled in a circle while the locals poured into a ground heading for a capacity 14,000 crowd, they would have felt the sweat building on a day where temperatures are likely to his the high 80s. Not the best conditions for a side containing three paceman - Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Onions – who have not come across that sort of heat on this tour so far.

Ryan Sidebottom, the Nottinghamshire seamer who took five wickets in the last warm-up in East London, will sit it out in Centurion with Durham’s Onions preferred. Luke Wright, who may have come in as an all-rounder for Bell, might have been a fall-back option if the heat overwhelmed the attack.

After winning the toss, Strauss said: “We think it might do a little bit this morning, so it's a good opportunity to get stuck in and put some pressure on the South Africans. We’ve gone with six batsmen and four bowlers. We don’t know much about De Wet, but it won’t make a massive difference.”

Graeme Smith responded: “It’s a blow to lose somebody of Dale’s calibre, but it’s a big opportunity for De Wet. If I’d won the toss, I would have had a bat.”

With South Africa’s leading wicket-taker Makhaya Ntini winning his 100th cap amid much hullabaloo before the start, Smith added: “He deserves it. Obviously we wish him all the best over the next five days!”

England : Cook, Strauss, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bell, Prior, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Onions.

EARLIER: UNBELIEVABLE here in Centurion for the first day of the first Test between South Africa and England. Clear blue skies for the first time in a month (see my brilliant snap, right).
And it's Reconciliation Day.
Yes, a public holiday on December 16, just before Christmas. Used to be called the Day of the Covenant under the old Apartheid government. That was to celebrate the Boers seeing off the Zulu at Blood River.
The new government thought it prudent to celebrate reconciliation rather than massacre.
Expect little in the way of reconciliation at Centurion today. It's going to get bloody tough.
For the first time on tour, England will face steepling temperatures and - according to the weather forecast - little in the way of relief until Saturday. You can never say when a tropical storm will loom over the horizon but it looks unlikely at this point.
We're waiting for the final teams to be named and the coin to be tossed. Me? I'd bat. The pitch will dry out, the fielders will wilt in the heat.
The pitch looks a lot less green today... and when the clouds return over the weekend, we'll want Jimmy Anderson to be swinging it.
We'll wait and see. England looked in fine fettle getting out of the bus, rarely have we gone into an away series overseas with such hope against such a strong side. But as the sun climbs in the African sky, they'll feel the heat. And after over a month of rain and cloud, they may not be ready for it.
Back in 1999 at The Wanderers, England batted and lost four wickets in the first hour. Let's hope there's no repeat.

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