Sunday, 3 January 2010

Third Test: Day One: Lunch: Smith dropped, Ntini axed, the tension mounts in the shadow of the mountain

JUST two overs into the rain-delayed third Test in Cape Town this morning and we witessed one of the key moments of this topsy-turvy series which sees South Africa 51-2 at lunch on the first day of the third Test.
With out-of-form opener Ashwell Prince falling to James Anderson in the first over, the hosts were reeling at 1-1 when, in Graham Onion's opening over from the other end, captain Graeme Smith prodded needlessly at a wide one.
He got a huge edge and time stood still beneath the clouds next to Table Mountain as the ball carried to Graeme Swann at second slip.
England's greatest living cricketer - he has been magnificent on this tour so far - took it in the midriff. And spilled it. Gasps from the huge New Year crowd at Newlands. Fury from Onions. "Smith" and "dropped" are the two words you don't want to hear in one sentence on tour in South Africa unless it accompanies news that the locals have decided to axe their stubborn skipper.
Two balls later a relieved Smith dispatched Onions to the leg side - twice - for four. Normal service resumed. With the clouds clearing and Cape Town's weather returning to its summer January normality, that might have been one of the big drops in cricket.
And of course Paul Collingwood, who normally fields at second slip, was down at fine leg, protecting the left index finger he dislocated before the fourth day in Durban. Out behind the stands here, I've just seen Michael Carberry, the Hamshire lad flown out as cover for Collingwood, practising his slip fielding in the nets.
But Collingwood, despite discomfort, plays in an unchanged England side after Andrew Strauss won his seventh toss out of nine and opted to bowl. Smith has won one of his last eleven with the coin. He's saving his luck for his batting, perhaps. By lunch, South Africa were a highly-fortunate 51-2 with Prince caught behind by Prior for a duck, and Hashim Amla, who fell lbw to Onions for 14, the two victims. Smith has 30, Jacques Kallis is off the mark with one and the conditions are gradually calming down.
There are other huge issues boiling away here as the sun comes out for the first time during the lunch break. The big one? The African cricketing legend that is Makhaya Ntini has been axed. A nation is in turmoil.
Neil Manthorp, the face of the South African Broadcasting Association, twittered helpfully before the start: "Makhaya not even warming up with rest of squad. Understandable that he wants to avoid spotlight. He's been dropped - no one died!"
In a purely cricketing sense, he's right. Friedel De Wet, the 29-year-old seamer who nearly bowled his side to a glorious first Test victory in Centurion on his debut, has been recalled.
He should never have been dropped for the crushing second Test defeat in Durban.
Ntini, the fifth South African to reach 100 Test caps in Centurion, has taken 2-233 in the two Test so far. And both of those were in Centurion, where sponsors South African breweries were offering free beers to the fans every time he took a wicket. Some members of the Barmy Army became severely dehydrated on the back of that promotion.
While Ntini laboured, De Wet - already featuring in a tug-of-war between head of selectors MIke Procter and coach Mickey Arthur - grabbed the new ball late on the fifth day in Centurion and took three quick wickets in a devastating debut burst.
But when the last over was bowled, captain Graeme Smith opted to rest De Wet and give Ntini the final over at Graham Onions in an attempt to produce a romantic triumph. It didn't work. England survived by a single wicket. Ntini, 32, failed to work his magic.
De Wet, who waited so long for his first Test cap, was the hero. But there was no room for him in Durban when the world's top-ranked Test bowler, Dale Steyn was able to return after a hamstring injury. His last-minute breakdown in Centurion had paved the way for De Wet, his return meant South Africa went back to a three-and-a-half-pronged attack of Steyn, Ntini, the excellent Morne Morkel and the half-fit Jacques Kallis.
The rest is history. England made merry, with out-of-form Alastair Cook and Ian Bell both getting centuries. Strauss, Collingwood and Matt Prior all got 50. The South Africans were dispatched to all corners and beaten by an innings and 98 runs.
Steyn didn't look anything special, Ntini failed to take a wicket, Kallis was clearly still strugging with his rib and Morkel was the pick of their pacemen.
So today's decision to axe Ntini is no real surprise. In cricket terms. But of course, this is South Africa. Just down the road from here, a local coloured lad called Basil D'Oliviera, arguably the best player of his generation, was forced to play for England because Apartheid meant he couldn't play for the land of his birth. And he wasn't allowed to tour here with his adopted country.
From 1970 to 1992, partly because of the D'Oliviera affair, South Africa were in sporting isolation. Until Ntini came along at the forefront of the Rainbow Nation's colourful return, to encourage a generation of black cricketers in this country to don their whites.
Worryingly, there is no obvious candidate to replace his face in the line-up. Apparently the sports minister was asked if dropping the only black man in the side - JP Duminy, Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla are still considered "coloured" and "Asian" here - and captain Smith admitted: "Obviously it is a sensitive issue in South Africa - that's being honest."
Sensitive or not, it's happened. Ntini is now rumoured to be on his way to Middlesex next summer, keeping him out of the way of the political fall-out from this decision. And South Africa must try to ride the fall-out.
A couple more dropped catches and a win here would help. As they walked off at lunch, England's South African Kevin Pietersen was in heated conversation with Smith. We're in for a fascinating five days which reverberations going way beyond cricket.

1 comment:

  1. With the africans tottering at 131/5, the question remains to be seen whether england can wrap up the innings quickly.