ENGLAND claimed the prize scalp of South Africa captain Graeme Smith in the second over of the first Test at a sizzling-hot Centurion this morning and held the edge with the hosts 70-2 at lunch.
Smith, usually so patient, opted to chase Stuart Broad down the leg side, got a touch to one that bounced, and Matt Prior took a lovely diving catch to provide the first wicket of the series after just nine balls.
The South Africans were wearing black armbands as a tribute to Smith’s grandfather who died over the weekend, which might go some way to explaining his uncharacteristic loss of concentration this morning.
As a furious Smith ducked out, Broad continued to get bounce but the South Africans battled their way through the first hour with Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince surviving numerous oohs and ahs from the English slip cordon.
When Durham’s Graeme Onions came on to bowl his first balls in anger for some time on this tour, he had Amla in trouble twice in as many overs, prodding hopelessly and defending his wicket with his pads – both produced huge lbw shouts.
Strauss considered using the review system, chatting to Onions and explaining the situation to his slips, before deciding not to beg for the wicket. Just as well. Hawkeye showed both going millimetres over the bails.
Onions thought he’d finally struck in the 19th over when umpire Steve Davis, under constant pressure, finally responded to a third, huge appeal – this time for the wicket of Prince, who thought he was out for 19. But despite the fickle finger being raised, the new-fangled review system was called into operation and once more, showed the ball was going marginally over the top and Prince was reprieved.
Onions got his reward in the 21st over of the day, with Amla’s attempted drive producing an edge to the diving Paul Collingwood in the slips. The man with the mighty beard was gone for a less-than-fluent 19 off 67 balls and South Africa were 51-2 with all-rounder Jacques Kallis, who is unlikely to bowl in this Test due to his rib problem, striding to the crease.
In the very next over, Anderson nearly got the wicket he deserved when Prince cut over Alastair Cook at point. The Essex opening bat got a hand to it, but the ball popped from his grasp.
After his second let off, Prince finally produced the first authentic shot of the day – in the 25th over – when he pulled Onions for a sumptuous four to move into the 30s.
Smith's shock dismissal had piled the pressure on the hosts, who lost paceman Dale Steyn, currently No1 in the world Test rankings, an hour before the start. He 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, controversially sent back to his province on Monday.
Moments after hearing the news of Steyn’s removal, England captain Andrew Strauss won the toss and – surprisingly - opted to bowl despite the searing heat. The early wicket suggested he might have been right, but it will be stifling in the field.
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 hit the high 80s. Not the best conditions for a side containing three paceman - Anderson, Broad and 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 but that duty will now fall to Collingwood’s dobblers.
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.