View from the Vauxhall End: England need to find lost mojo
It's easy to blame England's batsmen for squandering a strong position, but the greatest gulf was between the two pace attacks
For all but the first day, England were hammered by a South African team hellbent on taking their number one status away. The margin of defeat was an innings and 12 runs, an extraordinary result given that England were 267-3 after a day’s play.
The temptation is to blame England’s batsmen for squandering such a good position. And it’s true that the England batting was full of mistakes in both innings.
There were examples of profligacy throughout the game, but just focusing on the last day, only one of the six wickets went to an unplayable delivery, This came when James Anderson was trapped lbw to a shooter from Imran Tahir and it was a bit late for a rally by then anyway.
The multitude of errors came when Ravi Bopara (22) dragged on from wide of the stumps, Matt Prior (40) rashly swept the legspinner out of the rough, Ian Bell guided a delivery from Steyn into the hands of second slip, Stuart Broad (0) was strangled down the legside and Graeme Swann (7) drove Steyn in the air straight to cover.
South Africa's batsmen, of course, did not make so many mistakes and remorselessly ground England into the dirt.
But to focus on batting ignores the biggest difference between the two sides at The Oval, which was in the pace-bowling department. South Africa were streets ahead in pace and hostility.
England’s three-man attack was one-paced, with all three seamers operating at around the 80-82 mph mark.
Tim Bresnan’s speeds have dropped a little in the past 12 months as he has focused on accuracy and keeping control of the game with the old ball. And James Anderson has never been lightning fast, but he was England’s quickest bowler in the match.
The biggest disappointment was Stuart Broad. A year of so ago, Broad regularly topped 90 mph, but in this game he was down at Bresnan’s speeds of 80-82 mph.
The slow pitch played a role in sapping England's morale and energy, but England’s attack will need greater hostility to take 20 wickets at Headingley. South Africa's Morkel and Steyn were regularly two yards quicker at 87 or 88 mph.
The other disappointment with England's bowling was the slightly negative approach, especially against Graeme Smith. England tried to bowl wide of Smith's off stump so as not to feed his favourite leg-side areas. But Smith won the game of patience. He ground out his slowest fifty in Tests, then blasted a further fifty runs in 41 balls to go to a hundred.
England need to try a more attacking line against the South African captain. They fear his prodigious ability off his legs, but a more imaginative field, which packs the legside between wide mid-on and backward square leg, including a couple of sweepers on the boundary, has much greater potential to frustrate him.
This would also be a more attacking approach that would not disrupt the bowlers’ rhythms by asking them to bowl an unnatural wide line. Fielders could be moved from cover, and even mid off, and placed in the legside. Smith should be encouraged to drive to the offside, which is out of his comfort zone.
Aside from their negative tactics, England needed to vary their bowling more. There were very few short balls on the thid day, when South Africa took the game away, as England stuck to a regimented, pre-arranged plan of frustrating the batsmen.
But England ought to have learned the value of more attacking lines and the use of the short ball from South Africa.
The wicket of Kevin Pietersen in the second innings was a perfect indication of how short-pitched bowling can upset a batsman’s rhythm and make his footwork more hesitant. Pietersen hooked a couple of boundaries off Morkel’s barrage of bumpers, but then he missed a full and straight ball because he was expecting another short one.
Steyn, in particular, bristled with aggression. When he reached five wickets in the second innings he signalled five with his fingers and shouted the word “five” over and over again.
South Africa’s performance was that of a team which believes it is the world’s number one "elect" side. And England face a tough battle to hold onto that status.
But, in a strange way, most England fans will have relished South Africa’s performance after the weak capitulations of recent visiting sides.