Positive start for a new era

2014-07-19 00:00

THE South African cricket team celebrated their status as one the countries favoured by the new order in world cricket with a well-deserved win in the short ODI series against Sri Lanka.

Such victories have been rarely achieved by visiting teams in Sri Lanka, but the retirements of a number of their greats are likely to make such successes more commonplace in the immediate future. This is not meant to detract from the merit of the Protea’s achievement, but rather to point out that Sri Lanka, like too many of cricket’s leading nations, are suffering from their inability to provide ready replacements for the likes of Murali, Vaas and Jayasuriya.

For all that, the Sri Lankans still boast several world-class players in their squad. No team including Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Mathews and Malinga are going to be easily beaten on their own pitches. What made the win in the third and deciding match more remarkable was that the game was played in conditions almost completely alien to the South Africans. With winds gusting over 90 kilometres per hour, conditions became difficult for batsmen and bowlers alike. That the South Africans came out on top says as much for their adaptability as their determination.

Their success was largely attributable to the age-old requirement of a winning team that once batsmen get set, their prime responsibility is to cash in. De Kock and De Villiers did this in splendid fashion against a Sri Lankan attack that struggled to come to terms with a wind that howled straight across the ground. Ironically, both these batsmen grew up on the h+ighveld where strong summer winds are a rarity.

The batting of De Kock and De Villiers in that final ODI match indicated once again just how experienced modern cricketers have become by playing all over the world.

The preparation of so many benign pitches, however, has also reduced the importance of home advantage. We have just seen a series in England, involving Sri Lanka, in which the pitches might have been prepared by the tourists own groundsman — so unfavourable were they to England’s fast-bowling strength.

One of the key indicators of a wretched pitch is the difficulty teams have in bowling out tailenders. In the dreadfully dull Trent Bridge Test match, we had the unique situation in which both teams had a 10th-wicket partnership in excess of 100 runs with that of England’s last pair putting a new world record of 196.

In these days of striking workers, it would not surprise me if the English fast bowlers decided on a bit of industrial action to ensure more favourable working conditions. If they did, one would have the unusual situation in which the strikers were supported by their paying customers who must be getting fed up with watching cricket played on docile pitches. It does Test cricket no good for stroke-free batsmen to be able to plod their way to laborious hundreds against dispirited bowling attacks.

This week has also seen the start of South Africa’s mini Test series against Sri Lanka. In the first Test at Galle, Amla won the toss and decided to bat on a perfect batting pitch.

Petersen duly squandered another good start after which Elgar and Du Plessis took the score to 194 before the fall of another wicket whereupon the cream of the team’s batting fell before the close of play arrived with the match finely balanced.

A few things struck me as strange. Firstly, the best number-three batsman in the world, Amla, came in at four. This may not seem a big thing, but there is a world of difference between the two positions. Amla has made a success of coming in at the fall of the first wicket because his temperament is ideally suited to settling in to bat for a very long time. He also has the strokes to make a fast getaway when the fieldsmen are placed in less defensive positions as they usually are near the start of an innings.

He came into bat with the score near 200/2 in this first Test and seemed ill at ease trying to move the score along against fields set to curtail run scoring. He was soon out playing an airy fairy shot that was caught in the covers. It is important that a team recognise where they are strong and play to those strengths. On the other hand Du Plessis, who did well enough this time, has made a success of batting lower down the order The sooner Amla goes back to number three the better it will be for both him and his team.

At the end of the first day, we had the ludicrous situation when Steyn came in as a night watchman when it was obvious that he would not have to face a ball. It stands to reason that batsmen prefer to bat with batsmen and not tailenders who struggle to turnover the strike. It was an unnecessary and negative decision to send in Steyn ahead of Duminy.

On the following morning, Steyn batted for half an hour without making any impact. In fact, all he did was to deprive Duminy of the chance to bat against the new ball when stroke-making is often better rewarded. Still, the Proteas fashioned a huge first innings score thanks to the new generation of Test batsmen led by the century-makers Elgar and Duminy, who received good support from Du Plessis and De Kock with useful contributions from the tail.

I thought Duminy played beautifully for his hundred, particularly as he batted with the tail for the most part of his innings. That he played so well does not excuse the strange logic that found him batting as low down as eight in the batting order.

It remains to be seen if the bowlers can now take advantage of the big total to win the match for the Proteas.

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