South African cricket writer Neil Manthorp told a wonderful story on Sky’s Cricket Writers on TV the other day.
He told how, on the Proteas’ tour of England four years ago, Morne Morkel, stressed, worried, and having a bit of a rough time of it with his bowling, knocked on Hashim Amla’s hotel room door.
“What can I do for you, Morne?” said Amla.
“Nothing,” Morkel said. “Can I just come and sit in your room?”
He did nothing for the next half hour or so but sit quietly in Amla’s room, watching while the devout Muslim South African batsman of Indian descent prayed. Morkel would say later that the calmness and serenity exuded by Amla helped settle him, made him feel less anxious.
I imagine batting with Hashim Amla must be equally as calming. Manthorp said: “If you’re in his presence, your worries just disappear.”
He certainly made the ball disappear, during his marathon 13-hour innings of 311*, running England’s below-par bowling attack ragged as they failed to live up to their pre-match reputations.
Amla is all soft hands, swivelled wrists and perfect timing, “minimum of effort, maximum of effect”, as CB Fry once said about that other great stylist, Victor Trumper. Regardless of whether or not you have Amla’s level of faith, just watching him on television is an experience spiritual enough to confirm cricket as your religion; his batting makes converts of us all.
Gary Kirsten said before the Test that preparation isn’t about runs and statistics and warm-up matches against counties. It is about mental readiness. It is about the focus and intensity that is only experienced in Test matches, and can only be honed by playing international cricket at the highest level. Amla is the most conspicuous example of this focus; captain Graeme Smith, an impressive, imposing individual who leads from the front, personifies its steel, and if you want an example of intensity, look no further than Dale Steyn’s scream of celebration when Graeme Swann became his 5th wicket on the last day.
So much for an “undercooked” South Africa. With the exception of the first day, the rich fare they served up proved too spicy in the end for England’s weak stomachs.
The sheer extent of England’s capitulation at the Oval – and a comprehensive defeat by an innings and 12 runs is even worse than it sounds, and is about as humiliating as it gets if you’re the world’s No. 1 ranked team – was surprising, and if you’re an England fan, not a little worrying, especially when you consider that of the nine Tests England have played since beating India and attaining top spot, they have lost five of them. That, beyond the specifics of this Test that make especially grim reading, is concerning. Andrew Strauss talks a good game, and is always careful to warn against underestimating the opposition, but a few of us will have considered the possibility of complacency, before hastily smothering that thought, lest voicing that accusation make it true.
The simple fact is that a batting surface that Matt Prior called “attritional” and on which he hoped England’s bowlers would get wickets “in a cluster” proved the most benign of surfaces for South Africa’s batsmen, and while Dale Steyn steamed in like the last rhino in Africa faced with the poacher’s rifle and determined to make a fight of it, England’s quicks looked down on speed and devoid of aggression. South Africa took 20 wickets; England could manage to take only 2 over the course of the five days. Graeme Swann, worryingly, is having a dismal summer: in home Tests this year he has taken only 6 wickets for 433 runs. That is only 2 more wickets than his South African counterpart, Imran Tahir, took in this Test.
It’s too early to panic, of course. We wanted a competition, and we’ve got one. England have not ascended the Test tree without showing they have their own inner steel and the mental fortitude to bounce back from setbacks, as they demonstrated after their drubbing in the 3rd Ashes Test at Perth.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is being a pretty resilient bunch,” said Strauss at the time. Subsequent events were, of course, to prove him right.
The Proteas may have made mice of England’s men at the Oval, but now these mice must roar at Headingley.
If they do not, then might be the time to start panicking.