Cape Town – South Africa were really left none the wiser about their true levels of sharpness or strategic readiness to tackle No 1-ranked India very shortly, following their two-day demolition of Zimbabwe in a lone Test in Port Elizabeth.
The painful gulf in quality between the neighbours was only evident all over again as the Proteas wrapped up the much-trumpeted, novel, intended four-day encounter well inside two at St George’s Park on Wednesday.
This was also the first floodlit Test on our shores, but the artificial illumination ended up only being “trialled” once, in the night session of day one when the hapless Zimbabweans were put on the hop to a particularly acute extent as the pink ball jagged around prodigiously.
Mind you, they didn’t look too shipshape at the crease even when the sun was blazing high in the day-two sky, either, so as an experiment simply on that basis we will have to wait until the Proteas tackle properly top-tier foes in such conditions for better judgement of the merits and demerits of day-night Test activity in South Africa.
Some traditionalists may have formed fairly cutting, unflattering opinions already, adopting the Michael Holding point of view – expressed with typical candour on SuperSport commentary – that the change in pitch and atmospheric-related behaviour is just too vast after sunset to justify more widespread expansion of the concept worldwide.
Others may yet harbour a more hopeful, patient view, figuring that the concept remains in relative infancy and can yet be successfully made to pep up interest in Test cricket with further tweaking … plus, of course, a stronger emphasis on strength versus strength within specific tussles.
Put it this way: the Zimbabweans were butchered by day every bit as painfully as they were by night in this fixture, so it is well worth cynics remembering that.
There was another element to this Test match that did serve as a potentially helpful yardstick going forward, too: confirmation that a reduction from five- to four-day scheduling, when a “big four” country encounters one from the lower echelons of the ladder, is an extremely feasible consideration.
As things stand, most purists would -- rightly -- be reluctant to see any Test matches specifically between any of long-time dominant India, Australia, England and South Africa among themselves slashed in duration from customary five days.
But there may also, and increasingly, be times when one of those powers is due to play a considerably lesser outfit that four-day status is enough (and then some, PE has just revealed) to offer a decent prospect of a reasonable contest yet still with ample time for a result to be forced.
Cricket’s bean counters can be quick to remind that five-day Tests ending well within their intended duration effectively lose money, given the logistical and other considerations at play.
Had this particular game in the Friendly City been an orthodox five-dayer, the time loss at the supposed business end would only have seemed that much more regrettable and economically crippling, wouldn’t it?
Here’s something else to chew on: much was made on television during the just-completed massacre about Zimbabwe’s mere 105 Test matches since 1992 – an average of little more than four per year.
Such meagre activity is hardly going to aid the lesser powers in their quest to catch up to the big guns, and if the superpowers are prepared to consider more prolific employment of four-day statuses against them, then there is also a better chance in a cluttered global roster of, for example, a once-off Test against Zimbabwe becoming two, or a two-Test series swelling to three.
Remember that the latest SA v Zimbabwe contest was primarily pencilled in only as a once-off because the Proteas suddenly had the Boxing Day slot vacant a couple of months ago – when financial juggernauts of the game India revealed that they would not arrive in South Africa for their blue-chip series until around the New Year.
Perhaps the International Cricket Council, which approved the PE clash carrying official Test status, might be more inclined now to invite more, heavyweight teams entertaining weaker foes to at least consider running such Tests over four days.
Port Elizabeth ended up being the 20th occurrence in history of a Test match ending within two days, although only five of those have come in the period beyond World War II.
One of those more “modern” ones also features SA against Zimbabwe, the March 2005 contest at Newlands when the Proteas – AB de Villiers is the lone customer to have featured in both – prevailed by an innings and 21 runs.
From a purely cricketing point of view, SA coach Ottis Gibson and company were left with more unanswered questions than they might have liked from the violently lopsided affair of the last two days, considering that India lie in wait for first combat from next Friday in Cape Town.
Certainly they would have wanted their charges more greatly “pushed” in PE, and stand-in skipper De Villiers admitted afterwards that the players would have liked “a bit more time in the legs”.
Still, by enforcing the follow-on, he also enabled -- as he reminded in the TV post-match interview -- the bowling unit to get “70 or 80 overs in a row” in terms of workout.
Sometimes, too, a bit of bonus time to prepare ahead of a red-letter Test match isn’t the worst development in the world …
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