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All Or Nothing In Johannesburg

In Cricket on January 12, 2010 at 8:28 pm

England head to the Wanderers in Johannesburg this Thursday for the final Test of the series, and they have every chance of completing an astonishing victory on South African soil. They hold a 1-0 series lead after the first three Tests, and need only a draw to notch their third series victory in a row, and their first over the 2nd ranked South Africans since 2005.

The home side will be bitter at trailing the series, as they have arguably been the better side. Certainly at Centurion and Newlands they had the winning of the match. But their inability to take 20 wickets has cost them dear. It means they have let England off the hook twice, and after Andrew Strauss and his side found their form in the second test at Kingsmead, they are now on the brink of losing a series they really should be leading.

England prepare for the crunch final Test

To a certain extent, their worries are self inflicted. But injuries have also played their part. The loss of Dale Steyn for the first test robbed them of their biggest threat with the ball, and even when he returned at Kingsmead he was still recovering. The injury to Friedel de Wet in the last game also left Graeme Smith short of attacking options.

There have been some baffling decisions though.

It was clear early on at Centurion that Makhaya Ntini was a fading force, and his retention ahead of de Wet was clearly the wrong decision for the second test. Smith also left it far too late for his declaration on day four at Newlands. Anything over 300 was going to be a big problem for England, and 350 would have been enough to win it. 400 was the mark they should have set, but in batting on past lunch they wasted valuable time, and 466 was overkill.

They also showed a puzzling lack of urgency in setting that mammoth total. Jacques Kallis has shown a selfish streak before with his obvious reluctance to bowl, and his painstaking 46 had a touch of the Boycotts about it. He should have been thrashing the ball rather than nudging it around.

Youngster Wayne Parnell is likely to come in to the South African team

Having said all that though, it took two marvellously gritty performances from the English to secure those draws, and that kind of bloody minded determination and will to win (well, draw!) is what Test cricket is all about.

We knew Paul Collingwood would thrive in a situation like that, but Ian Bell’s newfound ability to produce under pressure is an encouraging sign for England fans. With such a shallow pool of top class batsmen to choose from they need the likes of Bell and Cook to perform. So far this series, it’s actually been the world-class Kevin Pietersen who has looked the weakest link. That is testament to the work the coaching staff and the players themselves have put into shoring up their technique. The two Ashes wins have made a big difference too, as the mental tapping which we’ve seen from England sides in the past looks to have been overcome.

With Matt Prior looking solid behind the stumps and quality bowling options like Swann and Broad coming in down the order, the side has a settled look about it. That is reflected in the fact that they have remained unchanged throughout the three games.

The same cannot be said for Graeme Smith’s side however, and they look set to make another couple of tweaks for the decider.

De Wet has had an unfortunate recurrence of his back injury, and he looks likely to be replaced by one-day sensation Wayne Parnell. The 20-year old has been outstanding in the pyjamas so far in his young career, and he will galvanise this attack. If he can make inroads on what’s likely to be a result pitch, then the South Africans will fancy their chances of levelling things up with Steyn and Morne Morkel providing able back-up.

Kevin Pietersen, dismissed here by Dale Steyn, will be determined to score some runs against his countrymen

Paul Harris could also step aside for Ryan McLaren, depending on how much moisture the pitch soaks up. This looks like it could be a good move as the spinner has looked pedestrian so far in the series, and with the month’s average rainfall already cascading down in the first two weeks, he could be out of luck.

As long as that rain holds off, we should have ourselves a result one way or the other. Dale Steyn has looked sharper with every ball he bowls and Parnell will make a difference. Having said that, Pietersen is due a score and will be determined to make up for his lack of runs so far.

Providing we get five full days of play, I think the home side will level things at 1-1. Their batting order is still formidable, and they will be driven by the hurt and frustration of the past three tests. England won’t make it easy for them though, as this is the toughest side I’ve seen them produce in a long, long time.

These sides are so evenly matched, it could all hinge on a close decision or a stroke of luck. Odds on the winner of the toss deciding the outcome?

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