Pakistan in SA

Biff’s pitch gripe off the mark?

2013-02-18 07:14
Graeme Smith (Gallo)
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.

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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 Philander.

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, bombarding mode.

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


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