Friday, 15 January 2010

Smith was out for 15. But now he's got 84 and South Africa have got this one in the bag

SOUTH AFRICAN captain Graeme Smith enjoyed an incredible let off as the second day of the final Test at the Wanderers got underway amid growing controversy this morning.

Luckless England were all out for a paltry 180 yesterday as their attempt to engineer the draw that would clinch this absorbing series fell flat. They were able to take only one wicket as South Africa moved from their overnight 29-0 to 160-1 at lunch today with Smith looking imperious on 84 off 155 balls and the reliable Hashim Amla also unbeaten on 53 off 80.

Together they have put on 125 in 30 overs – a record second-wicket partnership at this historic ground against England – at a cracking rate of just over four an over. Only rain can save England now, and the clouds are rolling in after a bright morning.

A win for South Africa– which would see this absorbing series drawn 1-1 and the hosts retain the Basil D’Oliviera trophy – looks more likely by the over.

And with every run Smith makes, England’s sense of frustration will grow given the events of this morning, where the review system once more failed to ensure Test cricket isfree of grinding injustice.

The South African leader, not the most lovable of cricketers, should have been long gone. After patiently guiding his side through a sticky evening session involving a rain break and floodlights last night, he had a wild slash at birthday boy Ryan Sidebottom after just four overs this morning – when he had scored just 15.

Sidebottom, 32 today, certainly thought Smith had got a touch to wicketkeeper Matt Prior with his uncharacteristic attempted cut off the final ball of his second over – and the entire England side went up with Stuart Broad particularly vociferous in his appeal, marching around his his arms up.

While on-field umpire Tony Hill remained curiously unmoved, England captain Andrew Strauss immediately called for a review. And after the initial problems with the new-fangled system, he only does that when he’s sure something’s wrong.

The music played, the replays rolled... and England’s celebrating fielders could hardly believe it when television umpire Daryl Harper said he heard nothing on the stump mike and backed New Zealander Hill’s not-out verdict.

Ashes-winner Matthew Hoggard, emerging from the SABC commentary box, told me: “There was a definite noise. I don’t understand why it wasn’t given. Once we’d turned the sound up, it was quite clear.

“Perhaps the television umpire had a problem with the feed from the pitch mike. But without hotspot, it’s so difficult.”

Hotspot technology shows an infra-red image of where the ball hits the bat. Though it is functioning for reviews in Australia’s current series against Pakistan, it is not available here, making catches behind difficult to give.

But since then I’ve even had fans coming up saying they heard the nick – and texts from South African fans in London, watching Sky, laughing at their captain’s luck. In fact, I’ve just been interviewed by SABC television, giving the Evening Standard’s verdict on their conscience-free captain.

Australian television umpire Harper, already under fire for not giving a no ball when Alastair Cook was out LBW yesterday, will come under further scrutiny from the England camp – though Paul Collingwood said last night England were more acceptant of that decision after further review of the tapes.

But he confirmed England coach Andy Flower had made a brief visit to match referee Rohsan Mahanama after that decision.

Another visit may be required after Smith’s let off. The Standard’s Jon Agnew, seething in the Test Match Special box, twittered: “Interesting how Smith deals with this afterwards. Will it be a 'special' innings in light of having stood on 15? There will be replay after replay.”

England’s disappointment was eased an over later when they grabbed their only wicket of the morning (see picture above). Ashwell Prince prodded forward at Broad – who looked really fired-up this morning after being told where to go by Jacques Kallis when he got out yesterday – and the thick edge flew to Graeme Swann at slip. No doubt about that one.

The first slip catch of the Test so far left South Africa, 29-0 after those 12 sticky overs last night, 36-1 in the 17th over. But that was as good as it got for England.

The batsman formerly known as Prince (as they like to call him here) did brilliantly to survive two hostile spells amid the rain break and badlight last night, but all that hard work -19 runs off 48 balls - was in vain and he attempted to fend off a good, rising delivery.

Amla marched out to join his captain and together they survived a difficult early morning session. With the sun baking the life out of yesterday’s jumpy strip – and limiting the swing for England’s seamers - South Africa’s 50 came up six overs into the morning session.

Broad and Sidebottom were getting movement and finding a good length... but without the constant menace provided by the pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in their devastating opening 12-over spell yesterday, when four England wickets fell for less than 40 runs.

As Steyn said last night: “When you have conditions like this, where the ball is doing things off a track like this, you have to fill you boots. It doesn’t happen that often in Test cricket – but it often happens at the Wanderers.”

Steyn, who took 5-51 yesterday, also expressed his surprise at the decision to axe Graham Onions – the legendary No11 bat and useful seamer – for Sidebottom. He said: “Sir Graham Onions, that’s what they’re calling him isn’t it? He might have been dangerous on this pitch. I don’t understand why they changed a winning side.”

Sidebottom was unable to justify the selectors’ decision with a wicket – he has bowled 13 overs, 0-32 so far- and before lunch England had resorted to the spin of Graeme Swann and the medium pace of Collingwood as smug Smith and ambling Amla helped South Africa take a stranglehold on the final Test.

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