England has made this series into a battle of the quick bowlers – but in doing so they risk negating their home advantage.
It may seem rather odd to criticise England after an excellent opening day. But England may have already made one crucial mistake this Test match: not playing two spinners.
Perhaps England’s management, normally possessing such enviable equilibrium of temperament, was simply unable to ignore the hype about this series being a battle of pace. Perhaps the two Andys simply didn’t conceive of a strategy that few in the media had so much had contemplated. Yet if England do beat South Africa in this Test series, they will owe virtually nothing to home advantage.
Undeniably, England possess a coterie of quicks that, cumulatively, cover it all: devilish late swing, express pace, ferocious bouncers, canny reverse swing and, above all, sheer relentlessness. But, despite what an underwhelming first day may have revealed, so do South Africa. This series should be a salivating shoot-out of the quicks, the sort of which Test cricket lovers have been denied since the retirement of the great pace-bowling pairs – Donald-Pollock; Wasim-Waqar; and Ambrose-Walsh – in the late 1990s.
But home advantage isn’t meant to be about providing the best possible spectacle. It should be about providing the home side with the greatest chance of winning – something England’s strategy may not have done.
In any analysis of the two sides, there are legitimate debates about the superiority in batting and fast bowling. But there is no comparable debate where spin bowling is concerned. For all the intoxicating excitement of watching Imran Tahir’s variety, no South African would choose him over Graeme Swann. Indeed, it is most questionable whether they would choose him over Monty Panesar.
Boldness is seldom a quality associated with the England hierarchy, but now would have been the perfect time for it. With the first Test at The Oval, England had an opportunity to genuinely surprise South Africa. For all the hype about a pace war, there was nothing stopping the management from pressing for a pitch a la The Oval in 2009, when Graeme Swann’s eight-wicket haul underpinned England’s reclaiming of the Ashes. It may in fact prove that this wicket is not too dissimilar – in which case Panesar would have been a perfect selection.
True audacity would have resulted in Panesar replacing Ravi Bopara in this side, allowing England to field three quicks and two spinners. Given that there is a strong argument that England’s two top spinners are both the Test match superior of Tahir, and his replacement, Robin Petersen, has not played a Test in over four years, it would have been the best way of giving England a genuine home advantage.
On his recall in the UAE last winter, Panesar showed he is a high-class Test match performer, taking two five-wicket hauls against Pakistan. Given the manner in which Andrew Strauss preferred him to Swann against Pakistan’s right-handers, Panesar may have been a potent weapon against South Africa’s powerful trio of right-handers – Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB De Villiers – in the middle order.
If England are unable to force a win in the opening Test – and indeed even if they do – they may reflect that they missed an opportunity to give South Africa’s batsmen a challenge they genuinely would not have been expecting. But if the series is one-all before the final Test at Lord’s, perhaps then it will be Monty’s turn.