ANDREW STRAUSS was out first ball at The Wanderers this morning as the fourth and final Test between England and South Africa got underway amid incredible scenes.
The captain was soon followed by Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook as England found themselves 39-4 after 9.4 overs with Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell required to produce their now-traditional rearguard action within 45 minutes of the start on the opening morning.
South Africa’s opening pair, Morne Morkel (6-1-20-3) and the world’s top ranked Test bowler Dale Steyn (6-0-26-1) were almost unplayable in their opening barrage.
Fortunately, they were replaced by two debutants – Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell – and the resilient Collingwood (44) and Bell (19) began the business of resurrecting England’s innings, going to lunch at 100-4, having added 61 for the fifth wicket.
Thank God for Colly (my old netting partner, see picture) is the cry. The hero of Cardiff, Centurion and Newlands, the man described by coach Andy Flower as “Our typical British Bulldog” is carrying four separate injuries. But he celebrated the end of the first session by slapping Jacques Kallis for six over square leg. Some guy.
But what a opening spell we had. An assault on the senses shared by a crowd of around 8,000 as the press box, packed with former Test stars, went into meltdown.
Steyn got things underway after Strauss – near-perfect with the coin on in this series - had done his usual thing and won the toss. The England captain’s decision to bat is something he will have to live with for the rest of his career.
There was a hushed silence for the opening ball of a Test England only have to draw to clinch the series. Then Strauss turned that first delivery of the day straight into what the stadium commentator instantly described as “the magic hands of Hashim Amla” at short leg. Great catch. Uproar.
England’s stunned Barmy Army, who had their traditional chorus of Jerusalem drowned out by the sound system at the “Bull Ring”, were immediately silenced. Strauss had become the 28th person dismissed on the first ball of a Test, a fate which befell the great Sunil Gavaskar three times. Last time this happened to England? Stan Worthington in Brisbane against the Australians. You won’t remember Stan. He did that back in 1936.
Ball two from Steyn flew inches wide of Jonathan Trott’s off-stump and reports of a bowlers’ paradise had been confirmed in a matter of seconds.
Groundsman Steve Scott was told to prepare a result wicket by South Africa coach Mickey Stewart, whose side need to win here to square the series at 1-1 and retain the Basil D’Oliviera trophy. It worked like a charm, but only because Strauss chose to bat. And he knew all about the South African scheming.
The first over ended with England 3-1, nerves still jangling. Back in 1999, when the Wanderers hosted the first Test between these two sides, the carnage went on all day as England were skittled for 122 and went on to lose by an innings and 21 runs. Yesterday, out on the balcony overlooking this huge arena, I talked to then-captain Nasser Hussain about that epic morning a decade ago. Surely Straussie would have been told about it? Surely he must have known what it can be like here on the first morning?
Morkel’s first over from the other end was equally worrying. His third ball was edged by Trott for four. His second beat the bat completely. The sixth did for him, plumb LBW, England 7-2. Trott, who had swung at everything he could see, almost walked. A bizarre five-run, eight-ball innings of swishes and hopeful prods. What was he thinking?
Pietersen emerged to a reasonable reception given he spent his formative years in South Africa - and he appeared to have settled, hitting the first genuine four of the morning off Morkel as he settled in with Alastair Cook at the other end.
But three balls later, on seven runs from 16 balls, he did what he has been doing all tour. Made a rash decision just as he was beginning to look good. He went for the big pull, didn’t quite make it and Wayne Parnell took a sharp catch at mid-on. England were 32-3. It was all so fast, the poor bloke, making his debut, even thought about a shy at the stumps after taking the catch.
Cook, somehow keeping his sanity at the other end as three South Africa-born English batsmen perished, was next, Morkel’s third victim. His LBW decision went for review and though it looked like a no-ball, the decision stood. England coach Andy Flower went to the match referee to complain, but by then it was too late. Far too late. Cook was gone for 21 off 31 balls and England were past shock and into intensive care at 39-4.
Collingwood and Bell survived the last of the Steyn-Morkel onslaught and they relaxed visibly when two debutants – Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell – were handed their first overs in Test cricket. But already this entire 20-day Test series has swung South Africa’s way.
Thing is, Arthur finally has his dream attack here. Right from the start of the series, there was a feeling Makhaya Ntini was past it, but they had to pick him for Centurion and Durban, where he won his 100th and 101st caps but took just two wickets for plenty.
Friedel De Wet, the Johannesburg-based paceman who replace him in Cape Town, is 29 and apparently the choice of head of selectors Mike Procter. He did his back in after just five overs at Newlands.
So here, by default, Arthur has Steyn and Morkel on top form plus Parnell – described by Kent team-mate Robert Key as “the new Wasim Akram” – making his debut in place of De Wet and all-rounders McLaren and fit-again Jacques Kallis.
It’s some attack that. And if they want a spinner, they can always turn to JP Duminy, who turns it more than their specialist spinner Paul Harris, axed for McLaren this morning.
England are in trouble here – and they must survive without their best batsman. Yes, Graham Onions, the world’s greatest No11, is out. The legend is no more. Replaced by Ryan Sidebottom, who can swing it a bit. He’ll have to swing it a lot to turn this one around.