Australia in SA

Home pitches failed Proteas

2014-03-06 13:30
Graeme Smith (AFP)

Cape Town – Perhaps it is necessary to make it clear at the outset: South Africa didn’t use them as an excuse.

Outgoing captain Graeme Smith was clear and magnanimous, after all, in his praise of the 2-1 Australian Test series victory, summing it up fittingly: “It’s been a fighting series for us more than a well played series ... Australia deserved their win.”

But the pitches offered for the home series?

For the most part, I am convinced they played a little too much into Aussie hands during the course of a classically hard-fought set of battles.

What’s more, I believe several senior Proteas personnel would have loved to say as much, but they are aware sour grapes is a poor phenomenon and they have overwhelmingly – at least thus far -- desisted.

For all the competitiveness and occasional flare-ups of animosity over the last few weeks, there is also a pretty deep-rooted respect between these powerful cricketing nations, and it is intact after the latest series.

The Proteas, in short, will take this setback on the chin.

At varying times, though, the surfaces played on have come under harsh focus, and there is little doubt in my own mind that the Baggy Greens, generally speaking, would have pleasurably and surprisingly found them a tad more “Australian” in character than South African.

Smith was largely non-committal when grilled on that very score at his emotion-charged final press conference as national captain at Newlands on Wednesday evening (where the bilateral army of assembled scribes gave him a tribute and protracted bout of applause).

Yet it was so easy to read between the lines as he first considered his reply and then said: “I don’t know if this is the right place to get into that now ... (but) there are some important things that need to be tightened a little bit.

“An environment needs to be created that can make success for the (SA’s) players.”

Interestingly, in a television interview during the third Test, the very recently retired great all-rounder Jacques Kallis had also made reference to strips during the series not making things too suitable for South Africa’s strengths – if you’re not going to create a hullabaloo from within the team ranks, why not make use of an authoritative, loyal spokesperson from just outside it, eh?

Discerning domestic enthusiasts will know that the Proteas’ bowlers -- most traditionally in modern times, with Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander strongly to the fore – are at their best when there is just a little (or even a bit more than that) deviation off the seam.

Not only are our bowlers most familiar with that “sideways” hallmark, but South African batsmen are also well-versed in playing to combat it.

In Australia, pitches tend to be fast and bouncy but don’t provide the same levels of nip: they are truer, so the flavour of the cricket is crash, bang, wallop ... a la the way David Warner, the clear-cut man of the series in South Africa, plays, with his swashbuckling blade.

The notable failure at any of Centurion (where the spitefully up-and-down nature only had Aussie left-arm wrecker Mitchell Johnson in his element), St George’s Park and Newlands was to tee up conditions sparking seam movement and swing – and I mean conventional swing.

Instead what we more dominantly witnessed were conditions conducive to reverse swing ... a characteristic that comes into play, especially toward the back end of Tests, when surfaces are dry, pretty grassless and abrasive.

It is deeply educative that well less than a year ago, this Australian side lost an Ashes series 3-0 in England, where orthodox seam movement is also common, before roaring back on Aussie turf, where the ball comes through to the bat gun-barrel straight but briskly, to take the return series 5-0.

In short, South Africa needed to have tried harder to make the local environment more “English”.

It has been successfully done before, and should be revisited in some earnest.

At present, I am not convinced the all-important national team and its brains trust are on the same song-sheet as the administrators and ground-staff at the countrywide, well-entrenched Test grounds.

People say Smith’s rather sudden decision to quit was the culmination of “a variety of factors”, and they may be right.

I fancy pitch preparation for the Australian series may have been one string to that particular bow.

Bottom line: when at home you’ve got to make that advantage count.

Other teams do.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  ozinsa  |  graeme smith  |  cricket
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