SA in New Zealand

Proteas face race against time

2012-03-10 09:05
Graeme Smith (File)
Cape Town - A slight surrender of their grip in the final session of day four, combined with a fair prospect of persistent rain on Sunday, means South Africa potentially have an uphill battle on their hands to win the first Test against New Zealand in Dunedin.

The tourists still hold the aces, with the Black Caps 137 for two in pursuit of an unlikely 401 to seize the match themselves, but the weather – decent by South Island standards for large tracts of play thus far -- seems as much an obstacle as the budding third-wicket stand of 82 at four runs to the over between captain Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum.

Forecasts I have monitored throughout the game have been largely accurate over the course of the first four days, and they still point stubbornly to the possibility of moisture throughout Sunday’s match hours, even if not exactly in torrential amounts.

There is still plenty of work to be done by the bowling side, bidding to go 1-0 up not only for the key psychological value in a three-Test series, but also to keep alive their quest for a clean sweep which is required to the take the Proteas to No 1 in the rankings.

It would be a shame if the elements do prove fatally disruptive, because New Zealand also having a sniff (requiring another 264 runs on a pitch not showing major demons apart from occasional balls staying low) makes for an intriguing Sunday prospect.

With Jacques Rudolph pleasingly to the fore, Graeme Smith’s side showed commendable intensity again for the first two sessions on Saturday, building powerfully on the wonderful fresh batting foundations laid a day earlier by the skipper himself and Jacques Kallis as they were able to surge well past the 400-mark with five wickets in hand before Smith signalled the declaration.

This time Rudolph took centre stage, reaching his sixth century for South Africa and first since he played a major part with an unusually stonewalling Justin Kemp in saving the first Test against Australia at Perth in December 2005.

The left-hander, 30, is settling very nicely into a middle-order role after an iffy stint as an opening batsman earlier this season: successive half-tons at No 6 (one against Sri Lanka, the other in the first knock here) have been followed by this morale-boosting new landmark one slot higher – a short-term strategic decision -- at No 5.

He has carried on where he left off on his sparkling last Test tour of New Zealand, albeit some seven or eight years ago, and currently averages a dizzy 98 in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Rudolph has looked in excellent nick more or less from the moment he took guard in the first innings, slap bang in the midst of Chris Martin’s mayhem in which he ripped out Kallis and AB de Villiers for ducks.

He has looked authoritative on the drive and shown nice soft-handedness at times, too.

Sharing an 82-run unbroken stand with Mark Boucher before the “bell” would have been a tonic also for the slightly embattled wicketkeeper with the willow.

The South African attack roared straight into action in the Black Caps’ chase, Morne Morkel bowling with great hostility at times and even Vernon Philander, who tends to focus more on his wonderful line and length, illuminatingly joining the chin-music bombardment.

But the alliance between old hands McCullum and Taylor extracted some of the venom from the Proteas in the slightly light-curtailed session before stumps – the South Africans were also hampered by Dale Steyn clearly still struggling with a swollen big toe and being down on both pace and rhythm.

As this is only the fourth Test at University Oval, there is no reliable yardstick yet in fourth-knock fates at the picturesque venue.

New Zealand won the first Test there in 2008 after only having to chase down 35 to whip Bangladesh, the next against West Indies was badly weather-affected, and the last game at the ground in November 2009 saw Pakistan bowled out for 218 in pursuit of a victory target of 251.

The key for the Proteas on Sunday?

I guess just keep believing. Besides, Gary Kirsten will allow no less ... 

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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