Cape Town – So the Proteas’ love affair with Newlands goes
on ... and really, they should be as grateful as their hordes of supporters
there and more widely are.
Sunday’s four-wicket victory over Pakistan in the second
Test not only secured the three-match series early, but also represented a
fourth victory on the trot at the ground and stretched South Africa’s unbeaten
run there to 11 Tests.
It was a satisfying, praiseworthy triumph for the world’s No
1-ranked side, achieved in the lengthening shadows on the fourth day after a
splendid, well-attended cricket match in which the tourists had also enjoyed
meaningful spells in the driving seat.
VIDEO: SA v Pakistan second Test day 4, highlights
In the end the cohesive, mega-talented and unyielding SA
package proved just too much once more for the Pakistanis, who are certainly no
mugs – even if a feeling probably persists that their fits of genius and presence
of some truly classy individuals in the ranks all too seldom translate into a
well-oiled team ethic and consistent good standards.
Yet reading between the lines, you get the feeling that there
is a wee bit of unrest in paradise for the Proteas, and it has to do with their
reservations – is that even putting it mildly? -- over the pitch presented for
battle over the gripping past few days.
In short, my information is that they’d wished for something
spicier in pace-bowling terms; ideally some sort of continuation of the
conditions prevalent when they won more convincingly and in greater gung-ho
style at the Wanderers.
Even as he accepted the quite rightful plaudits for
engineering (and fittingly in his 100th Test as national captain) yet
another match and series triumph, Graeme Smith could not resist lamenting the
strip they’d had to sweat pretty hard on to set up the Newlands win.
In his immediate post-match interview with SuperSport’s Mike
Haysman, he said: “It was a tough Test ... conditions suited (Pakistan) a lot
more; they looked at home in them.
“It was like the Subcontinent (but) we have to play on what
we’re given ... (we prefer) pitches with pace and bounce.”
His words would doubtless not have come as music to the ears
of the host union or the curator at the venue, Evan Flint, who may be
scratching his head as to exactly what he did wrong: he has mostly produced Test
tracks in recent seasons that have produced some thrilling, see-sawing action.
And yes, statistically the matches in question have
generally been notably kind to the Proteas, which ought to represent a pretty
compelling bottom line, shouldn’t it?
I have often been branded “Smith partial” over the years,
especially through times when the national side wasn’t so routinely winning
major Test series, and tended to retort that I make no apology for my
admiration for his leadership and personal playing skills and iron resolve.
That hasn’t changed a bit – and why would it in this era of
unrelenting conquest by his team? – but for the relatively little it matters, I
take minor issue with him in this instance.
Of course all countries in Test cricket do everything they
can, when at home, to present pitches best suited to their own needs; it’s a
time-honoured and acceptable principle, within reason (too rank a turner or too
green a mamba may rightly fall foul of the ICC).
So I understand to a good degree Smith’s wish for his team’s
traditional strengths – read: pace bowling – to be made provision for to the
best extent possible.
It is also quite admirable for him to seek them, being an
opening batsman who has to cop the initial onslaught from the opposition
quickies on challenging South African surfaces – often enough he and his
fellow-Proteas batsmen deal with this potential drawback remarkably well,
figuring that if crease occupation is relatively tricky for them it will be far
worse for visiting foes less accustomed to and comfortable with the ball
whistling past their ears.
But was this Newlands pitch really such a graveyard?
In my several decades of watching first-class activity at
the ground, I have seen many, many more pronounced featherbeds, ones more
genuinely deserving of the title “back-breaker” to the faster men.
This pitch – healthily, you would think -- had something for
everyone: respective first-innings totals of well over 300, centuries for two
batsmen and half-tons for four others, a 10-wicket match haul for masterful
off-spinner Saeed Ajmal ... and, instructively, even a game analysis of nine
for 99 by a wonderfully nagging, industrious medium-fast seamer, Vernon
And if it was so devoid of pace or bounce, why then did Dale
Steyn crank up some deliveries to 147km/h and Mohammad Irfan come close to that
figure? Why, also, did Steyn achieve the feat of thudding one into the mid-ribcage
of the impossibly tall Irfan?
So the game did not lack in testosterone moments for those
who wanted them, and frankly I found it a breath of fresh air for a South
African-staged Test to mercifully include two full weekend days’ play (when the
working and crucially paying public obviously most desire them), even if it
didn’t go all the way to the scheduled fifth anyway.
Wham-bam, three-day Test matches have a variety of drawbacks,
and we have also just witnessed a Sunfoil Series season a little worrisomely
marked by some pathetically low totals and short innings, with too many
intended four-day fixtures ending in, say, two and a half.
It suggests that our pitches are still too lopsidedly geared
toward fast bowlers, giving them inflated thoughts on their own abilities, and
impeding the art of durable batting.
Here’s something else to chew on: if the Newlands strip over
the last few days did bear some slightly surprising hallmarks of the type you
expect in the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan’s temporary “home” environment,
isn’t the Proteas’ win heartening psychological ammunition to carry into the
return series there later this year?
A word, maybe, to the very person Smith expressed his pitch
misgivings to, Haysman. In a later tweet (@HazeCricket) the pundit and
ex-player observed: “What a thoroughly enjoyable Test ... the best thing about
it was South Africa had to finally scrap for a victory and dig deep at times.”
It seems that, like me, he’s ever so slightly at odds with
“Biff” on this occasion, similarly considering it counter-productive for the
Proteas to always be able to pitch up and click straight into bullying,
Some cleverness, versatility, and essentially varying doses
of patience and acceleration were required in this memorable victory.
They were great to see.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing