New Zealand in SA
Proteas wrestle PE 'demon'
Jacques Kallis (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Phew, just when we thought it was safe to watch the South African Test team in mid-summer because they’d sidestepped a fixture at the hoodoo venue of Kingsmead ... along comes St George’s Park.
It is strange examining how the modern Proteas side fares at the three main coastal cities for major cricket: near-unstoppable at Newlands here, but ghastly in Durban (four losses on the trot), and almost as sickly in Port Elizabeth, where their last four performances are three defeats, most recently, and an earlier draw against India in 2001.
You have to go back to December 2000 for South Africa’s last victory in the Friendly City, under Shaun Pollock’s captaincy - they beat Friday’s second-Test opponents New Zealand by seven wickets.
Not too surprisingly, the only “survivors” from that match who are expected to be in the respective line-ups for the latest encounter will be balding 38-year-old paceman Chris Martin of the Black Caps and the Proteas’ 37-year-old icon Jacques Kallis.
It was only Martin’s second Test cap at the time, coming immediately after his debut in the relatively sleepy hollow of Bloemfontein a couple of weeks previously.
So the Proteas, heavy favourites to clean up the series 2-0 though they will be after one-sided events in Cape Town, are certainly playing to bury a jinx as well.
Graeme Smith quickly pooh-poohed suggestions at the post-match press conference at Newlands that his currently ruthless, smooth-firing and No 1-ranked charges will be fearful of their fairly recent record at St George’s Park.
He believes, and probably not without strong justification, that his mentally more sturdy class of 2012/13 are up for all comers, anywhere on the planet.
Yet South Africa’s wonky record in PE is, nevertheless, a morsel of hope to cling to for Brendon McCullum’s problem-plagued tourists - they doubtless also fancy that the venue may offer up fairly benign conditions a little closer to those of their own backyards, albeit without the frigid temperature factor that can characterise some New Zealand strongholds.
They may wish to take heart, also, from the fact that when the Proteas crashed to their last defeat at St George’s Park, in 2007/08, it was to a ramshackle West Indies outfit barely rated higher then than the Black Caps are now on the global pecking order.
The Caribbean side rather humbled their fancied hosts by 128 runs in the first Test on that occasion, even though the Proteas predictably roared back later with some gusto to steal the series 2-1.
West Indies did what they say is traditionally advisable at St George’s Park: get in and make sure you post 400-plus if batting first, taking advantage of good conditions before the effects of the sun and wind stir up dust and open cracks, making for an “up-and-down” environment.
The obdurate Shivnarine Chanderpaul led the initiative, registering a century at a strike rate only just above 40, and neither South African innings was a glory-laden affair: 195 all out in their first dig and (not having been invited to follow on) 260 in the game’s fourth knock in pursuit of a victory target of 389.
There had even been the embarrassing possibility of the Proteas failing to register 200 again: they slumped to 192 for eight before the unlikely alliance of Andre Nel and Dale Steyn gave the total some semblance of respectability.
South Africa’s team on Friday will probably feature five participants in that reverse: Smith, Hashim Amla, Kallis, AB de Villiers and Steyn.
Player for player, the New Zealand team, whatever its composition for the second Test, will once again look notably inferior on paper in just about every department to that of their opponents.
But yes, a not insignificant source of solace and even inspiration will be knowledge of the Proteas’ dubious “ability” in recent years to turn Port Elizabeth into a bit of a graveyard for themselves.
Nevertheless, the current Proteas crop do appear to be relishing another opportunity to bare their teeth in a Test match, and in a mostly sunny, hospitable city with acceptably warm sea water.
“Port Elizabeth it is. Lovely people. No wonder it’s known as the #friendliest city in South Africa,” said front-line batsman Amla (@amlahash) enthusiastically in a reasonably rare tweet as the squad re-assembled on Tuesday.
He will know that it is time for the team to reciprocate their PE welcome with an overdue local victory ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing