Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Second Test: England win by an innings and 98. Clinical. Strauss: Our best ever

CLINICAL. Ruthless. Emphatic. Words you wouldn't have associated with England's bumbling cricketers in the past. Words which spring to mind after this morning's innings and 98-run win over South Africa.
The second Test wrapped up by lunch-time. Incredible. The Barmy Army have just disappated under a sky suddenly clear. Around 1,500-strong, they sang for an hour to the England dressing room (pictured above). Not since 1964 have England beaten South Africa by an innings, when a certain Geoffrey Boycott, next to me in the commentary box, scored 73 here.
Andrew Strauss, whose blessed hand I have just shaken, said: "That has to be one of our finest Tests in my time. It's certainly the biggest away win I can remember. We always felt in control."
And Graeme Swann, Man of the Match for the second time in two Tests, was in top form after taking 5-54 and 9-164 in the match. He got five and scored a Test best 85 in Centurion, where England hung on to draw with one wicket in hand.
Now up to third in the world rankings, he said: "It's been a dream 12 months for me. I'll take two Man of the Match awards thank you and I'll go on as long as I can. I knew with four bowlers I would have to do the donkey work. It's nice to pick up a few wickets along the way!"
A few wickets? He's on fire, turning the ball a foot on a dead pitch, taking wickets with his first furious over four times in two Tests. The man who, as Ian Bell said last night, "always makes things happen".
If our footballers can perform like this here in June next year, the World Cup will be a doddle. This South African side, packed with real talent, simply couldn't live with Swannie and his Nottinghamshire team-mate Stuart Broad. England, it has been suggested, could go into the New Year Test in Cape Town next week with two bowlers. A bit like Fabio Capello picking nine strikers!
South Africa knew they had to win this four match series 2-0 to go back to the top of the Test rankings ahead of India. Now one of the world's finest sides are 1-0 down with two Tests to play. And England, a modest fifth in the rankings, are ready to add a series in South Africa to their summer Ashes win. Incredible. And Swann wasn't slow to remind us of that fact.
South Africa, 76-6 overnight, did all they could. But Broad (4-43 today and nine wickets so far in the series) got rid of the dangerous Mark Boucher while Swann accounted for Mornel Morkel, Paul Harris and Dale Steyn as South Africa were skittled for 133.
Their captain Graeme Smith, struggling manfully to mask his disappointment, mentioned the words "bounce" and "back" five times in his post-match chat. But he also admitted his team had "not been up to the standards the country expects".
I'm not sure that's fair on his team. Swann in this form is one of the finest finger spinners in the world. On wickets taken this year in Tests, he's second only to Australia's Mitchell Johnson this year - and Broad is third.
Patrick Compton, son of the England Test legend Denis, has been covering cricket for the Natal Mercury at Kingsmead for decades. He just told me this track may have to be re-defined after Swann's performance. It never takes spin... until this week, until Swann.
Strauss said of his impish companion: "It's hard to compliment Swannie when he's sitting next to me, but his impact on this team on the field and off it has been huge. As a bowler, he always attacks, always gets a wicket, even in the first innings. That's rare in Test cricket.
"In the dressing room he's the perfect man to lift things when we're down. He's helped a lot of players get back on their feet after a hard day."
And Swann, deadpan, told us why Strauss has helped turned England into a bunch of winners: "He's brought honesty, keeps it simple, works hard. He's phlegmatic. And everybody likes him. It's good to have a captain you can take the piss out of in the slips. And he comes back with some too! He gets grumpy sometimes, especially when he drops catches in practice like he did this morning... but he recovers quickly!"
As we pack up and head to Cape Town for the New Year, this is an England side at the peak of their powers. Strauss warned: "I hate to put a dampener on proceedings after that, it feels wrong. But we were beaten heavily at Headingley in the summer by the Australians and we came back to win the series.
"We expect South Africa to come back at us hard. They're a good side. But this result, after hanging on for that draw in the first Test at Centurion, has certainly filled us with confidence.
"Alastair Cook and Ian Bell have scored much-needed centuries. Cookie grafted at it and Belly when he plays his natural game is one of the finest batsmen in the world.
"If we've got the opposition scratching their heads about their selection, it just shows we're doing our job."
While England sweat on the state of Paul Collingwood's dislocated left index finger - they don't know yet if he'll be fit for Newlands starting on January 3 and have called up Hampshire's Michael Carberry as cover - the last word must go to the swaggering Swann who offers this explanation of his rise in fortunes: "Straussie dropped me out in Jamaica at the start of the year and I just thought I'd show him!"

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