SA in New Zealand

Crumbs for Proteas in Cake Tin

2012-02-17 12:51
Rusty Theron (Gallo)

Cape Town – There is still no indisputably stellar Richard Hadlee or Glenn Turner in their midst, but as a collective New Zealand’s modern cricket team remain a bunch of uniquely spirited street-fighters.

Defeat in a bilateral Twenty20 international seldom represents a train smash, let’s not forget that, but the Black Caps can claim, nevertheless, to have fired quite a firm shot across the Proteas’ tour bows by winning the first of three contests in this code fairly convincingly at Wellington’s well-subscribed “Cake Tin” on Friday.

In doing so they also served notice that their knack of getting under more highly-touted opponents’ skins is undimmed: whatever happens over the remainder of the three-course tour menu, we are in for an enthralling few weeks, it appears.

The match went into the last over, which is at least a healthy sign that South Africa never really surrendered their competitiveness, because from an overall perspective this was one of those games where the losing side seemed to be playing catch-up just about all the time.

New Zealand sent the tourists in and, with feisty captain and ‘keeper Brendon McCullum immediately up at the stumps – presumably whispering not-so-sweet somethings into the batsmen’s ears – and his brother opening the attack with his off-spin on a track that both gripped and skidded at times, it was akin to letting loose a pair of bulldogs from a box and gleefully onto a bowl of partially-cooked mincemeat.

South Africa were quickly on the back foot (some us will forever harbour memories of Dipak Patel sharing new-ball duties against them at Auckland at the 1992 World Cup and suffocating the rookies virtually instantly) and achieved solid momentum only sporadically for the remainder of the fixture.

Armed with their handy local knowledge, the home-nation TV commentators believed a minimum requirement batting first was 160 and they were ultimately near-smack on the button: the Proteas ended on 147 for six and had they just managed another 15 runs or so the outcome might have been different.

Instead they did fairly well, in truth, to land up just short of 150 after being curtailed to a glaringly sub-standard 57 for four at the halfway mark.

It’s true: South African top orders minus a certain JH Kallis (resting ahead of bigger-picture needs in the ODIs and Tests) do still offer a certain sense of fallibility, and at No 3 the left-handed Colin Ingram again looked a touch over-eager to sparkle, to his very rapid detriment.

To say that the Proteas are “stuck with him” for the remainder of the T20 series would be disrespectful, because he has already shown that he can play a bit at the top level.

But at the same time any other batting options are limited: the men among the 14-strong squad who did not turn out at the Westpac Stadium were bowlers Robin Peterson, Wayne Parnell and Marchant de Lange.

One bright development in the otherwise unremarkable South African knock was the fact that the middle-order player to effectively start their engine belatedly, after taking guard under unfavourable circumstances, was Justin Ontong.

The Cape Cobras batsman and occasional all-rounder has often been accused in the past, after all, of just being “too nice” and when he entered the battle the chirpy Black Caps were all over South Africa like the proverbial rash.

So for him to seize the initiative for a while -- smacking a timely 32 off 17 balls including a juicy salvo of sixes and posting a 50-run stand with more senior partner JP Duminy -- was good evidence of the stiffened resolve he apparently now boasts to go with his undoubted talent.

A key detrimental moment for the Proteas in their innings, I felt, was Hashim Amla’s agonisingly narrow run-out, to an inspired bit of fielding from Martin Guptill – he torpedo-dived in Jonty Rhodes fashion at the stumps – just as the bearded accumulator was looking threateningly set.

Amla is better than most batsmen at quickly summing up conditions and pacing needs and his exit for 19 off 15 balls was a major blow.

While it was probably true that the tourists were made to rue not adding Peterson to their specialists spin arsenal on the night, the general bowling effort in defence of a modest total could not be faulted in any great way.

There were encouraging levels of fire from Morne Morkel and Rusty Theron; the lanky former ripped through two deliveries in one over timed at 150km/h, whilst the latter sported higher levels of personal pace than we are accustomed to seeing.

Theron is inclined, arguably, to overdue that specialist delivery he has, full-pitched and speared in at leg-stump; it makes him vulnerable to glances for four and wides as well.

So when he wisely resorted to a bouncer once against Guptill, he surprised the batsman and delivered him a resounding whack to the helmet – it was a handy little mental note for the SA pacemen broadly to bank against this astonishingly in-the-groove player.

If a New Zealand opener was going to bat through, as Guptill did, there was really only going to be one winning side, and he hit some formidably long and high balls en route to his man-of-the-match 78 not out off 55 balls, including one unceremonious heave onto the rugby venue’s roof off Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

South Africa will hope that, in Guptill’s case, the theory that form is temporary in cricket pays dividends for them sooner rather than later ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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