SA in New Zealand

SA pull back from precipice

2012-03-16 10:06
Vernon Philander (Gallo)

Cape Town – Was this the day we may eventually look back on that swung the fate of the Test series in New Zealand the way of South Africa?

We are only roughly midway through the three-Test hostilities, so there is still plenty of time for further volatility, but the second day’s play of the second game in Hamilton on Friday was remarkable for the way it took the tourists very close to mortal danger ... and then dramatically back into a position of clear ascendancy.

Consider that the Proteas were truly tottering at 88 for six in their first innings, still almost 100 adrift of the underdogs’ prior total, during the first session.

There seemed every chance under the circumstances that New Zealand might actually command a first-dig lead, leaving Graeme Smith’s side in a serious pickle given that they would be the ones having to negotiate the so often challenging fourth innings in this format.

Instead the situation proved a catalyst for the South African tail to show some timely, hugely welcome resolve – it is often considered one of the more vulnerable ones in the business, remember – and later for that incredible strike combo of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander to powerfully wrest back the overall advantage with two scalps apiece before stumps.

There is no doubt which dressing room would have been the chuffed one after the close of a gripping, sunny day’s play at Seddon Park: the Black Caps are a bilious “minus three for four” with Daniel Vettori already at the crease. (For all his admirable strides in recent years as an all-rounder, I still can’t quite bring myself to view the seasoned left-arm spinner as a thoroughly credible No 6.)

So a crack at the tail-proper is not much more than a whisker’s length away for the consistently ruthless, pressure-applying Proteas attack.

It is tempting, upon examining the entire match scoreboard at this point, to say something like: “South Africa wouldn’t want to be chasing anything above 170 to win” – and of course they may yet have the luxury of the target being well below that.

But would that really be the case?

On a pitch seemingly requiring patience, more than any special reason for naked fear, it is hard to escape a feeling that batsmen have generally under-delivered on both sides and that there are still good runs to be had by those who fancy them in a match unlikely to require fifth-day conditions as it is so fast-moving.

As South African batting legend Barry Richards put it in commentary: “It still seems a 300 to 350 wicket to me.”

And if the Proteas manage to repeat their Dunedin trick of making up in an emphatic second innings for what they largely failed to deliver in the first, then they ought to romp home in this one.

The lower order knuckling down as it did in a stressful situation would have delighted coach Gary Kirsten and company, not least because when they tour No 1-ranked England later in the year, tail-end competence with the blade is certainly an area where the host nation will fancy themselves for superiority over the Proteas.

Significantly, the veteran, under-fire Mark Boucher helped kick-start the rearguard action through his stabilising partnership of 63 in some 22 overs with senior batsman AB de Villiers: the book will show in the cold light of day that he only scored 24 himself before deflecting a ball unluckily onto his stumps from geed-up seamer Mark Gillespie.

But it was a critical, rot-stopping act considering the climate he took to the crease in, and he only underlined his “scrapper” qualities.

The admirable De Villiers, who comfortably top-scored with 83 in greatly making up for his unusually unproductive Dunedin Test, then found further stubborn allies in Philander and Morne Morkel as the Proteas got ahead of the New Zealanders and even started to prosper.

For those who remember, Morkel had looked so accomplished as a batsman in his very debut innings of 31 not out against India at Kingsmead in December 2006 – although subsequently the gangly customer has sometimes got himself into a horrible tangle at the crease against top-quality spin on dustbowl tracks.

Here, though, he played confidently against just about all comers and might have gone on to a maiden half-century, instead of 35 not out, had last man Imran Tahir, who wisely played his own natural, breezy game, not holed out on 16.

Nevertheless, all of Nos 8-10 on the day “contributing” ... it was just what the doctor ordered, and now South Africa are sitting pretty.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    dale steyn  |  vernon philander
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