A whole summer’s Test cricket falls short

2013-03-02 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s Test match summer came to an end with just one of the five home matches providing something of a contest.

The five matches occupied 15 out of the allotted 25 days, leaving 10 days worth of unsold tickets and an awful lot of vacant television time.

This is a poor return for those who have put their faith into Test match cricket as a worthwhile vehicle for sponsorship and broadcast entertainment.

Some of the responsibility for this summer’s shortcoming can be attached to the disparity in strength between South Africa and their opponents, but I am afraid that some blame should be directed at the poor pitches produced for the five matches.

The last pitch at Supersport Park was a shocker. From the first ball it was clear that batsmen would not be able to trust the bounce of the ball. This is the first requirement of a decent pitch at the start of a match. Without consistent bounce for at least the first three days of a Test match, batsmen cannot play with the confidence that is born of the knowledge that they can trust that the surface of the pitch will not deliver unpleasant surprises.

Without such confidence, batsmen cannot achieve the kind of timing that allows them the freedom to play the strokes which the spectators have come to see. The cricket may be entertaining for as long as it lasts on poor pitches because wickets are falling with regularity, but it is not what proper Test cricket is all about.

The Proteas were fortunate that the Pakistan pace attack was comprised entirely of apprentices. Had Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram in their pomp been in the Pakistani team, last week’s match would have been one of the shortest Tests of all time.

For some time, the players in domestic cricket have been complaining about the poor pitches served up to them, so perhaps the time has come for CSA to acknowledge that there is a problem here that demands attention.

Bearing all this in mind, it was inspired work from Andrew Hudson that allowed him to look past the domestic performances of various fast bowlers and settle upon Kyle Abbott as a replacement for Jacques Kallis. For some time, Abbott has produced evidence of the steady improvement in performance that indicates a fast bowler of growing ability.

Ironically, Abbott is another privately educated schoolboy to find his way into the Proteas just as I was lamenting their absence from the national team. He looks plenty tough enough to me!

Abbott is a big man who bowls at a sharpish pace with just enough out swing to find the edge of unsure batsmen. In his wildest dreams he cannot have anticipated that he would take nearly half the Pakistan wickets that fell to bowlers in his first Test match.

Nor can he ever expect again to be confronted with such a dreadful display of batting from tail enders such as we saw in Pakistan’s first innings when he took seven wickets for next to nothing.

For all that, Abbott looks to have plenty of promise and his selection is another feather in the cap of Andrew Hudson, who has steered a number of excellent debutants into the national team over the past 18 months. The most impressive thing about his bowling is that, like Philander and Steyn, he makes the batsmen play at most of his deliveries.

Philander, Du Plessis, Robin Peterson (though not strictly a newcomer) and Abbott represent a talented quartet of recruits that Hudson and Gary Kirsten have recently eased into the Proteas.

These selections have played a substantial part in maintaining the Proteas’ dominance of the longer form of the game.

More importantly, perhaps, is that their collective success is gradually reducing our paranoia about life after Kallis.

With JP Duminy and Marchant de Lange poised to make a return to the national squad there is every reason to look forward to several years of good Test cricket from South Africa if only some decent opponents can be found for them. Sadly, the next encounter with England, the only team that is close to matching the Proteas, is a few years away.

Now, however, the focus moves to one day cricket and the forthcoming Champions Trophy where the prospects are not quite so bright. Whereas the Test team is settled in all respects, the ODI team has problems to be solved all over the place starting with its captaincy.

De Villiers is back behind the stumps with the selectors reasoning that if MS Dhoni and Brendon McCullum do it all, so can AB. De Villiers has not looked the part of an international captain thus far and the responsibility has clearly affected his approach to batting.

Kirsten and Hudson will want to see from their captain a resumption of his match winning, free flowing batting in the ODIs. There were signs in the Tests that AB is close to his best form. If he can produce a couple of telling performances with the bat against Pakistan, it will go a long way to easing his life as a captain and giving the team a sense of what might be.

The ODI team is short of death bowlers and without Johan Botha, they struggle to control the middle overs of an innings.

A big hitter is needed to come in at number seven and no such character has emerged from the provinces. Quinton de Kock may fill that role one day, but he is certainly not yet ready to batter international attacks.

It is puzzling that the dominant Test team is settled while an uncertain ODI squad looks unable to impose themselves on ordinary opponents. The solution of this conundrum means that the forthcoming ODI matches against Pakistan will be of more than passing interest.

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