Results so far in the England vs South Africa Test series have largely been decided by conditions. With two slow pitches, where only early moisture and cloud cover have given bowlers hope, the timing of each teams' innings have proved crucial.
In the first Test Graeme Smith won the toss, but was fooled by the wet weather leading up to the match into putting England into bat. He suffered the indignity of watching England exploit a flat batting track to score 593 at a decent lick (3.79 runs per over). To add to South Africa's woes the clouds rolled over Lord's giving England's bowlers a chance to enjoy by far the best bowling conditions of the match. The pitch also offered some turn and was at its fastest, allowing Panesar to show his quality. South Africa were bundled out for just 247.
However, those who expected England to stroll to victory should have remembered the previous 5 Tests at Lord's, all of which ended in draws. As in those matches the pitch flattened out and offered nothing to the bowlers for the last two days. South Africa needed no second bidding to bat, bat and bat. Pretty it wasn't, but highly effective, leaving England's bowlers sore and resulting in the deadest of draws.
Of course, the Match could have been different, as Tests always contain pivotal moments. England were on 117 for 3 when Pietersen and Bell came together at the crease. Just one more wicket might have seen a far lower score for the home team. Likewise, Panesar was cruelly denied the wicket of McKenzie relatively early on in South Africa's second innings by a mistake from Harper. How crucial would such a blow have been, breaking what proved to be a huge opening stand? In the end England, under Vaughan's leadership, threw everything at South Africa, but could not get the required breakthroughs. In the end a draw was agreed with South Africa on 393 for 3.
And so the series moved onto Headingly and heavy cloud cover on the first day. Again Smith won a crucial toss and again he put England in. This time ideal bowling conditions prevailed all day and the South African bowlers fully utilised them. England were loose in some of their shots, but the ball swung all day and the home team crumbled to 203 all out. Certainly this was below par, regardless of the conditions, but it was never easy to bat and England could be forgiven a poor score under the circumstances.
Hope remained for England as the cloud cover stayed until the close of play. In that time England managed to claim three wickets. They should have had four, but Amla was the beneficiary of more poor umpiring. Having walked after being caught by Vaughan he was three-quarters of the way to the boundary when his coach and captain sent him back, believing that Vaughan may not have taken the catch cleanly. Despite the referral system not having been adopted so far the umpires referred the decision the third umpire, who could not be certain. Amla was reprieved and England failed to take any more wickets that evening.
The next day started sunny and stayed sunny and runs were there for the taking. Prince and de Villiers duly obliged, racking up big hundreds and putting South Africa into a great position. By the time they were all out South Africa had amassed a huge 522, a lead of 319.
England wobbled in the tricky evening session, losing Strauss and Vaughan, but fought hard the next day, as the sun continued to shine. Despite expectations they acored 327 and made South Africa bat again, albeit only needing 9 to win.
Again the match was not decided just by overhead and pitch conditions - no Test ever is - but conditions were the major factor in determining the result. South Africa used the cloud cover brilliantly when they bowled and fully exploited the flat pitch when they batted. They were the better team over the four days, but England were the better team at Lord's and only got a draw. Such is Test cricket. Yet, those who think that there is a gulf between the two teams should consider how much conditions and key moments played in the two results so far. They should also have a close look at the averages for each team, which reveal a batsman dominated series, with only Morkel and Sidebottom having bowling averages below 35.00.
But for one crucial innings the pace battery of South Africa has been blunted and England have only managed one coherent team bowling effort, though they have plugged away gamely, giving few runs away. It is, perhaps, this excellent economy rate, which England should gain some hope from. So far South Africa have intelligently applied themselves on wickets offering little to bowlers - scoring slowly, but heavily. Such old school Test batting is fine when there is no threat of wickets. However, such tactics cannot be applied when the ball dominates the bat, as a team will die in the hole.
England must hope, therefore, for pitches at Edgbaston and the Oval which offer a bit more assistance to bowlers. They should also hope that Vaughan wins the toss and is able to exploit any favourable conditions. With just a modicum of luck it could be England holding a 1-0 advantage or, at worst, the series could be tied 1-1.
If England go on to lose this series, perhaps they will reflect on how ill-served they have been by some of the pitches. It would be wise to learn these lessons quickly before the Australians come onto the horizon.