Well, that was always going to happen. From our position overnight on Thursday – when on paper at least we were bossing the match – a major setback, and a South African counterpunch, were inevitable.
I had a bad feeling about the start of play on Friday, partly because the near-universal analysis was far too cock-a-hoop about our prospects. Hubris, complacency, and even arrogance, had set in across the board, even among such eminently wise observers as Mike Atherton.
The Saffers were already on their knees, was the consensus view, and our side were strolling towards 500. When people say that about England, only one thing can happen.
I’m not being wise after the event. Without wanting to sound a smart-arse, it seemed obvious to me that our batsmen had a newish ball and a new day to tackle. We were only 269-3, not 400-3. Pietersen’s late dismissal left us more exposed, I’ll argue, than most people realised.
As Geoffrey Boycott always says, try adding two wickets to that score – because 270ish for 5 wouldn’t look so clever. Suddenly, the pressure would entirely be on England: a total of 450 could then become a struggle.
And that’s exactly what happened.
It was only to be expected, really, against these opponents – another reason why our overnight bullishness was so complacent. Test matches, and series, between England and South Africa are always very close, hard-fought, full of plot-twists, and almost never is there a gimme on offer.
Our travails on Friday can partly be explained by the helpful bowling conditions, and Saffer competitiveness, but there were some soft dismissals too – not for the first time this year. This was not a good day for supporters of Ravi Bopara’s claim to an England test place: he played exactly the wrong shot at precisely the wrong time.
My problem with Bopara is that too often, as a cricketer, he appears to be plain gormless. Today’s dismissal reminded me of his dismal run in the 2009 Ashes – half-baked, diffident, wishy-washy, and borne of a decision making process determined possibly by cockiness, and maybe by laziness, but most likely by sheer stupidity.
Bopara inspires so little confidence in me because of the near-total lack of presence and authority he exudes at the crease. Bowlers know they’re going to get him out. He has a permanent air of impermanence.
Nevertheless, Bopara will play the whole series, and potentially has another five innings in which to come good. And if he hasn’t delivered by then, that must be the end of his test career. This is his last chance.
Where is this match heading? My natural instinct is pessimism, but it’s too early yet to panic. South Africa are 86-1. Add two wickets to that score, and it don’t look so clever.