IPL is on a very good wicket in South Africa

2009-04-28 00:00

Watching the IPL tournament unfold on South African soil has given me a few reasons to feel smug. Firstly, it’s great that the cricketing world recognises our ability to host such a prestigious tournament and, in my opinion, we are doing a fantastic job. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s reminded me that South African conditions are as true a test of a cricketer’s ability as you will find anywhere, irrespective of the format.

So much has been made of the IPL Twenty20 “hit and giggle” format where any “slogger” could have his day, but it’s interesting to note that in South African conditions it’s some of the world’s finest cricketers — Matthew Hayden, Herschelle Gibbs, Sachin Tendulkar and AB de Villiers — with their sound techniques, who are making their mark in the IPL.

Besides our world-class grounds, wickets and practice facilities, South Africa is unique in that it provides pitches that assist both batsman and bowler. Obviously the pitches are not uniform throughout the country, with each having particular characteristics and varying methods of preparation. But generally, touring teams know that they need to be on top of their game to succeed here, and it’s been no different in the IPL.

South African wickets provide much variety: up-country there are days where conditions support the batsmen and the bowlers are under huge pressure, but that can change from day to day. A differently prepared wicket could see batsmen not having it all their way, where at the coast the ball can come on to the bat beautifully at times and at other times hold up, bringing the spinner into play.

As expected not many of the young Indian players have excelled in the IPL tournament, as they have little or no experience of conditions here. South African pitches don’t permit you to simply shove your front-foot down the pitch and have a swipe, as you can on the subcontinent where the ball hardly gets above hip-height.

Our wickets have been the nemesis of many a player from the subcontinent, players who have embarked on tours of this country with huge reputations and flattering averages. Many have battled to come to terms with conditions here and have returned to the subcontinent with their tail between their legs and the uncomfortable label of a player suited only to home conditions.

On the subcontinent you can have a go at the bowlers from ball one, but in South Africa it takes time to feel the pace and bounce of the wicket and this is where the more experienced players certainly have the upper hand.

Seam bowling does not feature prominently in India so the teams in the “South African” IPL have had to change their tactics. Spinners play a crucial role in the limited overs format. Muttiah Muralithiran has asserted his dominance, making the most of the wickets, which exhibit far less turn than those he is accustomed to. He has instead used other aspects of his technique, varying his flight and pace perfectly. Unfortunately for the less experienced spinner, South Africa can be particularly harrowing as the grounds are small and any bad deliveries can go the distance.

By hosting the IPL, South Africa is showing the rest of the world just what a great cricketing country it is with ideal cricket conditions — it also confirms the fact that the IPL is on a very good wicket right here in South Africa.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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