Less Tests hurt SA big gun

2014-12-20 00:00

IF AB de Villiers glanced last week into his rear view mirror to check on the progress of his rivals for the title of the best batsman in the world he might have had a shock. Kumar Sangakara, of course, remains just ahead of him but, hurrying up quickly, he would have seen two young pretenders who were nowhere near him 12 months ago.

David Warner and Virat Kohli, by dint of their sheer weight of runs, have moved closer to the gifted South African while he has been indulging his talents in an assorted range of activities not including Test match cricket. This is not AB’s fault but rather that of an ICC programme that has assigned so few Test matches to his national team at a time when his career is approaching its zenith.

The example of Warner and Kohli was a message to AB that it is runs that count and not the ridiculous ease with which he seems to be able to bat irrespective of the quality of the bowling. Both of them scored separate hundreds in the recent Test match between Australia and India, the second time that Warner has accomplished this feat within the last year and one that was denied to Kohli for want of just two runs at the Wanderers last December.

Earlier in his career De Villiers was a prolific scorer of big centuries but more recently he appeared to have been caught between the different batting styles required by the three distinctive types of cricket that he plays. The measured pace of his Test match batting seems to have been infected by the frenetic requirements of the shorter versions of cricket. It is almost as though AB was no longer prepared to accumulate the big scores but was tempted by his mastery of all bowling to throw restraint to the winds of fortune.

Huge scores, however, are the offspring of immense powers of concentration and it is this that AB needs to harness if he is to produce the big performances that once rolled off his bat with such regularity. His great advantage over most others, though not messrs Warner and Kohli who also have high strike rates, is that even batting at less than full throttle he scores quickly enough to make hundred plus scores without unduly taxing his mental and physical resources.

One felt a few years ago, when Ricky Ponting, Jaques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar ruled the world, that it would be some time before cricket was blessed again with three such predictable run-scoring machines. In fact, De Villiers, Kholi and Warner have seamlessly filled the gap and are, if anything, more watchable than their immediate predecessors. For me the main interest of this series against the Windies will be to see if AB can reassert himself as a producer of massive innings.

If the first day of the Centurion Test is any indication, AB looked determined to put the extravagance of his batting in limited overs cricket into appropriate slots in his psyche. The Windies do not possess a quality bowling attack but, reassuringly, AB treated all bowlers with the sufficient respect that is required of any batsman who wants a big score.

It is pleasing that Stiaan van Zyl has, at last, been given a chance to play Test cricket. There were some who felt that he might have received a call ahead of Faf du Plessis who was the beneficiary of JP Duminy’s first injury break from Test cricket. His century on debut could now see him in the team beyond Duminy’s return. Neither of the incumbent opening batsmen, Alviro Pietersen and Dean Elgar, is assured of a place in this team.

Pietersen, in particular, is in need of some decent scores. It is some time since he scored a hundred and he continues to be guilty of giving his wicket away when well set to take advantage of a good start. He has not been in good form this season and must show an improved desire to do well if he is not to yield his opening spot to someone like Van Zyl.

This series will also be a chance for Quinton de Kock (if he can recover from yesterday’s injury quickly enough) to secure his place in the team.

The young man’s performances with the bat have slipped away in recent times as opposition teams have latched onto his technical weaknesses. The ­Windies bowling attack will not provide him with the same searching examination set by other teams but it will not do his confidence any good if he stumbles in this series.

Test match cricket received a timely boost from the marvellous game played at Adelaide ­between the Aussies and ­Indians. Despite the grim ­spectre of the Phil Hughes tragedy hovering over the proceedings, both teams played bright, positive cricket to produce a result that was in doubt until the last hour of the match. No quarter was given by either team and some of the personal exchanges were deliciously fruity.

This Test match was ­reminiscent of the Wanderers Test between South Africa and India this time last year. That too was played on a pitch conducive to good cricket unlike the Centurion match played in February against Australia which deteriorated rapidly under a scorching sun.

The SuperSport Park pitch has not lived up to its billing as a pitch fit for Test cricket for some time. It is often too slow and no longer does it give ­spinners the assistance which they had come to expect. One cannot emphasise how important it is for a pitch to play its part in producing a good test match. SuperSport Park has recently been much favoured by CSA but it is time it earned its stripes on merit and not just as an alternative to the Wanderers which invariably produces a better game of Test cricket.

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