Sunday, August 10, 2008

de Villiers brawls but England scent victory

AB de Villiers unveils a rare attacking stroke during his defiant 97.

A disciplined bowling performance by England limited their target to a gettable 197 on the penultimate day at The Oval. The one man to stand in their way was AB de Villiers who fell three short of a fine hundred, but with the weather forecast set fair, England are favourites to wrap up a consolatory win and start the Kevin Pietersen era on a successful note.

What other note could possibly be more appropriate for someone of Pietersen's relentlessly positive demeanour? Some pundits have called him a "lucky" captain only four days into his tenure, but there is brain behind the bravado too. Should England win, it will partially heal a wounded summer that has seen them lurch from the relative high of beating a poor New Zealand side, to losing their best-ever captain in Michael Vaughan. 197 should be a formality, but nothing is ever plain-sailing for a talented but inconsistent batting line-up.

If they need inspiration they should look no further than de Villiers, a batsman who not long ago couldn't separate one-day extravagance with Test-match thinking. Remodelled, he is nearing the complete package. His 97 today, and a vital eighth-wicket stand of 95 with the obdurate Paul Harris, has at least gave South Africa a slim chance of making it 3-0.

It was Steve Harmison and England who stole the early honours, however. With both of South Africa's big guns at the crease, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis, South Africa could very easily have batted England out of the contest. But Harmison is a bowler reinvigorated from his stint with Durham, and a nasty straight bouncer accounted for Amla in the third over of the day to set England's wheels in motion. Ambrose's wheels nearly went in the opposite direction, but for a desperate and successful dive to his right and the ball juggled into his gloves safely. His relief of finally contributing an outstanding effort to the team was palpable, but it seems increasingly unlikely - bar a matchwinning innings tomorrow - that one snaffle will save his Test career.

With Amla gone, all the pressure was on Kallis's immensely broad shoulders. For someone so desperately out of form, Kallis craved a slice of luck - and he got a fat tranche on 9 when he drove Harmison low to Pietersen's left at mid-off. Yet the very next ball, England ended his series horriblis on 104 runs when he fended a sharp and rising delivery from Harmison low to Paul Collingwood at third slip. South Africa were effectively 16 for 4.

James Anderson gave Harmison excellent support, as did all England's bowlers. There was balance in the attack - so much balance, in fact, that Andrew Flintoff was left resting in the slip cordon until half-an-hour before lunch. His relentless pace did for Prince, whose lack of feet movement barely resembled the unquenchable centurion earlier in the series, and Flintoff soon troubled de Villiers with a vicious bouncer that grazed his visor. A second bumper cannoned off his back, as England scented a victory in four days.

Fifty quiet minutes calmed South Africa's fluttering nerves after lunch. They needed a grafting session if they were to challenge England with a testing total: but captain Kev struck with an inspired change of bowling. Switching Anderson to the other end, he had Mark Boucher fending to gully.

However, de Villiers' denied them. His once petulant attitude in the face of aggressive tactics is now long gone, and he settled himself down for a satisfying (if bruising) innings. A sublime cover drive got his feet moving, and he was content to work balls into the gap and rotate the strike. England rather took their foot off the gas in the afternoon, allowing de Villiers to move anonymously closer to his ton with nudges down to fine-leg and two emphatic fours off Panesar.

Morne Morkel came and went to Panesar, again, but England were again frustrated by Harris. Using his height to good effect, and not afraid of the occasional blow, he offered ideal support: unflappably helping his senior partner, and infuriating England with regular flashes past slip. Not many batsmen can say they have faced more balls in a series than the brilliant limpet of Kallis but, remarkably, Harris managed just that.

Another flash off Stuart Broad, who bowled with encouraging rhythm and pace all day, found Flintoff's Hulk hands at slip - and from there South Africa folded. Panesar maintained his leg-stump line to de Villiers, who for once showed panic at the rabbits he had supporting him, and lost his leg-stump attempting a wild slog over midwicket. The last three fell in four overs, and England's openers survived eight balls in pursuit of 197 before the Kennington rain curtailed the day.

Only a remarkable bowling performance from South Africa - or a stupendous collapse from England - can prevent this match going to script. The Pietersen regime may not always be this successful, but it promises never to be dull.