2008-01-03 00:00

ON the surface, the result of the first Test match against Bangladesh was a little disappointing. After all, Bangladesh is one of the weaker teams in international cricket and the margin of victory in that Test of only five wickets suggests that the match could easily have gone either way. In fact, had Kallis not come to the party with one of his best spells of bowling in Test cricket, the chances are that his team would have presented Bangladesh with its first Test win against one of the stronger teams in international cricket.

Several points need to be made to those who might be sceptical about the abilities of Graeme Smith’s team. The first is that Bangladesh have shown steady, if slow, improvement since their introduction to Test cricket some eight years ago. In one-day cricket, as South Africa knows only too well after the last World Cup, the Bangladeshis have surprised a number of teams. A first major Test win on their home soil cannot be too far away.

The second point is that better teams often get into difficulties against teams that they should easily defeat. Finding themselves in trouble is one thing, but ultimately losing is something altogether different. In his string of victories in last week’s World Match Play Championship, for example, Tiger Woods twice found himself in real trouble, but on each occasion his opponents were unable to sink the killer putts that would have sent him home. Woods, on the other hand, needed no second chance to deliver the fatal blow.

After two days of the first Test, Bangladesh were one good partnership from putting themselves in a winning position. The ball was old, South Africa had no spinner who could exploit the conditions and the pace bowlers who had performed well in the first innings looked spent after being asked so soon to do it all again. The best teams, like Tiger Woods, find a way, and in this case it was South Africa’s great all-rounder, unwearied by a brief first innings, who came to the rescue.

Once Kallis had put his team in sight of victory, the top order batsmen duly delivered under awkward conditions. That is what good teams do. Often such back-to-the-wall wins, even against weaker teams, contain a greater measure of satisfaction than do massive runaway victories. Few sportsmen believe that one can always play at or near one’s best, particularly in strange conditions, but all understand the psychological importance of coming through in adversity.

Several of the South African players will have been satisfied with their performances in the first Test. I thought that, once again, Dale Steyn bowled beautifully. His rhythm was good, he showed a wide range of skills and an appreciation of how to bowl in conditions that were not ideal for him. His rise to the top of the Test ranking has been meteoric. If his stay at the top is a lengthy one, good times lie ahead for his team.

Morne Morkel confirmed the high hopes that many commentators have for his career. It was a little disappointing that he was unable to follow his first innings haul of five wickets with any wickets in the second innings but he is short of match fitness after his long recovery from injury. Top bowlers must expect to be able to bowl 50 quality overs per Test match, which is why fast bowling requires such a high level of fitness. Those in charge of Morkel would be wise to recognise not to push him too hard until he is much stronger.

The worry for this team is the continuing slump in form of Makhaya Ntini. One cannot tell from a distance whether he is short of bowling or has finally run out of steam. At 30 years of age, Ntini should have a couple of years left in his legs unless many miles of training have taken an early toll on his stamina. With Steyn and Morkel on the rise, it would be invaluable if Ntini could maintain the pressure by running in hard in the middle of an innings.

I have always thought Ntini needed a couple of years in county cricket to embroider his skills so that when the fire went out of the legs he had more variety in his arsenal. It was a mistake by the ignorati to deny him that opportunity. Let us hope that the team’s large coaching staff can get Ntini back to his best form ahead of the important tours that await the team. With Kallis still able to produce a telling spell of bowling and Harris there to dry up the runs at one end the bowling attack will be in reasonable shape, if Ntini returns to form.

It is important for all the batsmen to get into form by the time the tour to India begins. We saw in the first Test that this team does not have the lower order capacity to recover from a poor start. This means that those batsmen that get going must convert their good starts into big scores. Good thirties and forties do not cut it in Test cricket, which places a premium on the ability to concentrate for long periods. The sort of double bounce dismissal that cost De Villiers his wicket may have been amusing but he needs to eliminate this sort of mishap from his batting if he is going deliver on his promise.

Amla is another whose career is beginning to have too many good starts wasted. He bats in an extremely important position. When big scores are made by the team’s number three batsman the side as a whole usually prospers. This could be a very big year for Amla — or one in which he remains an ordinary performer destined to disappoint more often than he succeeds.

Mark Boucher has not made a Test match hundred for five years and has only ever made one against a team other than Zimbabwe and the West Indies. That is a poor return for a batsman of his ability. His weakness is a preoccupation with hitting across the line with his bottom hand. When Boucher comes in to bat, he invariably plays straight for a while, but once settled he allows his bottom hand to take charge of his batting thereby increasing the risk of his dismissal. With Pollock gone this team will need Boucher to become much more reliable with the bat. On the credit side his keeping has been flawless and he thoroughly deserved to regain his record from Adam Gilchrist, who held it for a few seconds, but long enough for the Aussies to make a mighty fuss about his achievement.

I expect this team to deliver an improved performance in the second Test and to establish a base of form that will serve them well in India. Smith’s team continues to field brilliantly, catching almost everything that moves and rendering superb support to the bowlers. It is almost as though this summer, spent playing weak teams, has been but a dress rehearsal for the real thing that starts later this month.

Sometimes a team can have too much preparation. We shall soon find out if this applies to Smith’s side when they come up against an Indian team tempered by their bitter battles against the Australians.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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