Aug 30, 2022: It is unusual for a result to be reversed almost identically in successive Test matches. And yet this has happened in the ongoing England-South Africa series. While the visitors won the first Test by an innings and 12 runs in three days, the home side took little time in squaring the contest by romping home in the second Test by an innings and 85 runs, also in three days. But perhaps in a way this is not surprising given the current ICC rankings which has South Africa at No 3 and England at No 4. In any case the series is now all set for what could well be a pulsating decider staring at the Oval on September 8.
It is clear from events that have unfolded during the first two Tests that both teams are stronger in bowling, especially pace bowling. England might have notched up the only two hundreds in the series so far courtesy Ben Stokes and Ben Foakes but there is little doubt that the batting, particularly the top order, is extremely vulnerable. The same can be said about South Africa whose batting is perhaps even more wobbly.
It is a tribute to the bowlers of both sides who have kept up the hopes of their team despite tremendous pressure on them. Bowlers need at least some support from the batsmen to back their efforts and when this is not forthcoming it can lead to the kind of denouements that we have seen in the two Tests. Both England and South Africa are fortunate to have the services of several skilled fast bowlers with spin being reduced to a nominal role. Keshav Maharaj is an able purveyor of spin bowling but in the kind of conditions and pitches we have seen so far, he has been reduced to playing less than a supporting role to the pace trio of Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Marco Jansen. England of course have not had an outstanding spin bowler since Graeme Swann retired nearly a decade ago. But the long serving duo of James Anderson and Stuart Broad continue to exhibit their wicket taking skills and they are well supported by the likes of Ollie Robinson and skipper Ben Stokes. And to think that England are without some of their leading fast bowlers, thanks mainly to injuries.
With all the great England fast bowlers we have seen of late it must be said that South Africa’s ability to produce lethal pace bowlers off the assembly line is next only to the West Indian line-up of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Since their readmission to Test cricket 30 years ago South Africa have showcased to the world the skills of such outstanding bowlers as Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Rabada with the likelihood of Lungi Ngidi, Nortje, Jansen and Duanne Olivier continuing the lofty tradition.
Yes, it is always a great sight to see fast bowlers knock down stumps or swing the ball so much that the hapless batsmen can only edge the ball to the keeper or the slip cordon. But skillful batting too is a key element in cricket and the true connoisseur can only hope that the batting of both teams comes good at the Oval. There is nothing more absorbing in the game as a riveting contest between bat and ball and with both sides capable of providing high quality cricket and being evenly matched – reinforced by the rankings – the final Test could well be a close contest. At least that’s what all cricket fans will be hoping for.
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal.)