They pitched it wrong

2008-04-19 00:00

It was neither a surprise nor a disgrace that the Proteas should have come a cropper on an under-prepared pitch in Kanpur. What will be shocking is if the match referee’s report condemning a pitch that fell way short of the standard required for a Test match provokes no response from his masters at the ICC. In this day and age when all aspects of conduct are governed by some ICC code or another, it seems ludicrous that a pitch was produced on which batting became difficult by the morning of the second day. With a majority of ICC members in tow to the might of India, however, nothing more than a slap on the wrist should be expected for this blatant example of pitch-fixing.

Test matches are supposed to last into the fifth day. All sorts of commercial arrangements are concluded on such a basis. Cricket-lovers look forward to watching five days of good cricket and do not enjoy being deprived of their entertainment. Sometimes circumstances conspire to make life difficult for groundsmen, but no such excuse was available for the curator in Kanpur, who was clearly operating under instructions from a higher authority.

Preparing such pitches is a form of cheating that is in danger of becoming all too prevalent given the ICC’s pusillanimous stance against anything Indian.

Having said all this, however, it has to be acknowledged that the Indians handled the conditions much better than the South Africans. To be sure, they were armed with spinners who were able to make the most of an outrageous pitch, but they also batted with a greater tactical appreciation of what was required to make runs on a pitch that favoured the bowlers.

Sourav Ganguly, much derided by Greg Chappell during the Australian’s time as Indian coach, showed how runs could be made under such treacherous conditions. He did not shrink back into his shell waiting to be struck down by the next unplayable delivery. He adopted the sensible attitude that he would attack the bowling on the basis that that if the ball behaved normally he would make runs and if it deviated abnormally he would, with luck, miss it altogether. As it was, he made a priceless 87, worth at least as much as De Villiers’s second Test double hundred, and succumbed only when he had a slog at the death of the Indian innings.

In contrast, the South Africans sat back like dummies at a fair simply waiting to be struck down by the next aberrant missile. By doing so, they allowed the Indian spinners to sink into a rhythm and bowl.

Test cricket is all about creating pressure. When conditions favour the spinners, it is imperative that batsmen do all they can to unsettle them. Unlike fast bowlers who will tire, spinners cannot be waited out. They must be attacked when the pitch is behaving unpredictably in order to disperse the close fielders, thereby reducing the chance of being caught.

This is not a plan without risk, but if pursued by all the batsmen, the chances are that one will succeed long enough to make the sizable score required if the opposition is to be set a reasonable target.

If bowlers are put under pressure by aggressive batsmen, their lengths will waver, making runs easier to make. In Kanpur, the South Africans failed to take advantage of the fact that Harbhajan Singh was the only experienced spinner in the Indian team.

It was also naive to have gone into a match on an under-prepared pitch with the same players that had served the team so well in the first two Tests.

I have long felt that, with Boucher coming in at seven, this team has little capacity to recover from a 90 for five situation. Consideration should have been given to replacing one of the fast bowlers with JP Duminy.

This would have lengthened the batting and given Smith an off-spinner. Admittedly, Duminy is not a regular bowler — but neither is Sehwag, and he picked up three wickets in South Africa’s second innings.

With the known limitations of Paul Harris as a genuine spinner, it might have been an inspired move to have replaced him with Robin Petersen, who is a better batsman and fielder than Harris.

We could have gone in with nine batsmen as opposed to seven, and this might have made all the difference with Indians having to bat last on an appalling pitch.

All this sounds too clever in hindsight, but it is important for the team’s management to recognise that the Protea team is not the complete article.

The shallowness of its batting will be tested on pitches that help the bowlers. Harris is a good defensive slow bowler, but he is not going to win the team any matches against decent opposition. It is also necessary to understand that past successes are not always a good recipe for future success under changed conditions.

For all that, the team had a good trip to India and can now look forward to a break before the important tour to England.

Let us hope that Arendse will leave well alone when it comes the selection of that team.

o Ray White is a former UCB president.

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