New Zealand in SA

Newlands: Place of funny spells

2013-01-02 22:16
Vernon Philander (AFP)
Cape Town - Is Newlands a field strewn with landmines, or is it still the haven for conscientious and skilful batsmen it has long had the reputation for being?

People who believe it is a deeply curious, wacky mix of both these days can hardly be castigated for their theory.

After all, two of the last three Test matches - including the current one between South Africa and New Zealand - at the scenic venue have featured both passages of sumptuous, utterly comfortable stroke-play and ones providing virtually once-in-a-lifetime memories for wicket-tumbling carnage.

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Early last season, day two of the Proteas’ opening encounter with Australia produced a crazy 23 scalps, including full innings of 96 by South Africa and 47 by the tourists.

On Wednesday, the first day of the series against the Black Caps, the phenomenon paid a return visit ... albeit that this time the devastation was curtailed to a single session, where if you blinked you were quite likely to miss two or three dismissals.

It made you wonder what it must be like sometimes to be in the shoes - or should that read slipslops? - of Evan Flint, the tall, laidback and genial head curator at Newlands, because inevitably eyes will turn critically toward the occupier of that portfolio when any Test team is rolled for 45 in the morning period of play after winning the toss.

Coming so relatively soon after that schizophrenic Aussie match would only have been a catalyst for some misguided souls, you can be sure, to surmise that the young groundsman has been falling short in the quest to provide fair five-day decks.

I say “misguided” with confidence and purpose, however, because just as the contest last summer ended with a fourth innings (South Africa’s near-effortless 236 for two to win by eight wickets) pooh-poohing any suggestions of an unplayable surface, there has already been ample evidence this time that the requisite application and nous will bring heavy-scoring reward for batsmen again.

Certainly with Alviro Petersen standing tall on 103 not out off 172 balls and Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis having played with rare urgency and enterprise en route to respective knocks in the sixties, you do not have the kind of credible ammunition needed for any “reporting” of the strip, do you?

Under such circumstances, Petersen would only be the dream witness for the curator’s defence: proof that diligence and solid footwork are perfect tools for prospering with the blade on a pitch that is - again, no crime? - keeping seamers at the very least interested.

The Lions stalwart will not be in any general hurry to brand Newlands some sort of dastardly mamba - this was his second century in as many New Year Tests at the venue, coming on the heels of his 109 against Sri Lanka, also in the first knock.
What, then, explains New Zealand’s rank capitulation in a pitiful 19.2 overs?

Shaun Pollock is as sound a judge of a Test pitch as any, and in commentary the former Proteas captain and all-rounder pointed above all to a “lack of application” by the tourists’ top-order, which basically triggered a disastrous, domino effect in an innocuous team troubled by camp turmoil and missing such feisty, stabilising characters further down the order like Daniel Vettori.

Of course an aggravating factor in the appalling mess was some new-ball bowling of highest aplomb - especially considering his injury-curtailed lead-up - from Vernon Philander, in particular.

He just found an exquisite line from the word go, not conceding a run to his name for his first 21 deliveries, and once he had got a sniff of blood in the wickets column there was no turning back for the stocky combatant in a first and only spell that read like something from a sporting cartoon-hero annual: 6-3-7-5.

Philander has now recorded at least one five-wicket innings haul in as many as seven of his 13 Tests thus far, and has 19 scalps in two-and-a-half Tests, bowling-wise, at his home ground.

The embattled Black Caps captain, Brendon McCullum, suitably gutted by his team’s plight, did tellingly concede after the eventful day’s play that Philander’s burst was right up there for quality with any he has seen or personally experienced – and he is a relative veteran of almost nine years’ activity at this level.

For those dazzled by the statistical magnitude of what transpired in the Kiwis’ ill-fated first innings, it is worth providing a tempering anecdote: six members of the Proteas team doing duty in this game, no less, are able to recall a similar case of opponents being bundled out before lunch on the first day of a Test.

That was as recently as April 2008 at Ahmedabad where India, also having won the toss, were trampled by Dale Steyn and company for 76 in 20 overs.

The various, now even wiser soldiers who did duty for South Africa then would do well to also note that the visitors did not allow that hapless scoreboard to spook them - the Proteas amassed a near-500 reply, with AB de Villiers notching a double century and the machine-like Kallis 132.

Yes, Evan Flint can sleep contentedly enough overnight: the Proteas’ ever-blooming reply of 252 for three, and at a shade under four runs to the over, is his passport to that right.

Nobody can finger him for dereliction of duty, even as Newlands keeps its penchant for modern, sporadic and quite hard-to-explain quirkiness ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
 

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