A toss, and a lot of skill — then a win

2014-03-01 00:00

THREE sumptuous centuries and a bowling performance of startling skill and intensity were the drivers behind South Africa’s extraordinary surge away from the Australians after a drab first day’s play in Port Elizabeth but there was also considerable help from the journeymen in the team.

In the end that dull first day also contributed to the eventual downfall of the Aussies who arrived in the Windy City full of confidence after their demolition job in Centurion. It did two things most effectively to undermine the Aussies. Firstly, it extracted valuable energy out of the legs of the Australians and, secondly, it lulled their batsmen (and many observers including me) into believing that survival on a dead pitch would not prove to be a problem.

It also illustrated one of the immutable lores of Test cricket, which is that winning the toss and putting a decent score on the board is still the most effective way to set about winning a Test match. The Proteas looked anything but Test champions after that first day but the foundation for all that followed had been laid.

The long partnership between the soon-to-be-unemployed Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis cannot be overestimated in allowing their team to recover from an appalling start in which Smith and Amla were dismissed with only 10 runs on the board. For the first time in seven Test matches Johnson was blunted as a bowling force and it was done by relative novices to the Test scene.

They did it by getting behind the ball at all times, hitting it with the middle of the bat and taking the odd blow in the interests of preserving their wickets. It deprived Johnson of the thrill of seeing the ball flying through to the wicketkeeper and inferred in him and others the belief that this was not a pitch fit for fast bowlers.

They also laid the platform for the South African feast that followed on the next three days of a match that reached its denouement in an afternoon of surprise and drama. Before that, however, we were treated to the best, some dreadful catching apart, that the Proteas have to offer and were left wondering where they had been during that lost first Test.

It all started with a partnership by AB de Villliers and JP Duminy in which the talents of both players were on regal display. AB continues to make fun of those who believe that keeping wicket has had a deleterious effect on his batting. He is in the glorious form that makes batting look easy whatever the surface and whomsoever the opposition.

AB was also able to shepherd JP through the early stages of what was a crucial innings for the left hander whose career desperately needed a big score. JP turns 30 in a few weeks. He is no longer a young man bursting with promise. He has been carried long enough because he has such obvious talent but his team now need consistent delivery from him. Let us hope that this superb century made with what appeared to be consummate ease does not turn out to be another false flowering.

In the second innings, we were privileged to witness another gorgeous innings from Hashim Amla. When he is on song no one is more attractive to watch. Runs and boundaries flow from his bat in an unstoppable stream of wristy elegance. Not since the days of Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards have South Africa had two batsmen so worth watching as this fellow and AB, yet the crowds still stay away. Sometimes I wonder if South Africans deserve these Proteas.

When Wayne Parnell injured his groin after such a promising start to his Test career, it seemed that it would be too much to expect a depleted attack to take 20 wickets without a recognised spinner on a pitch “unfit for fast bowlers”. Once again, those of us who thought so were wrong.

It all started with a spell from Morné Morkel that reminded the Aussies that the intimidation of batsmen is a two-way backstreet in which those that dish it out have to be prepared to take it. Morkel made them anxious and uncomfortable with several spells of short-pitched bowling delivered at 150 clicks per hour. He may not have taken more than four wickets in the match but he disturbed the equilibrium of the Aussies and laid the base for what was to come.

Reverse swing is one of cricket’s dark arts that is lethal in the hands of those that have perfected it. Both Morkel and Vernon Philander can do it to an extent when the ball has been suitably prepared but Dale Steyn can turn himself into a mid-innings match-winner in a matter of moments when conditions are ripe. What do we on the outside of the game know or care about the assid­uous preparation of a cricket ball that renders it ideal for reverse swing in the heart of an innings? All that concerns us is that our gunslingers can do it when required and that one of them, the vein-popping Dale Steyn, can do it better than anyone else.

Let us not kid ourselves that reverse swinging a cricket ball at high speed is easy work if only the fielders co-operate in its preparation. To do so demands fitness, rhythm and considerable skill all of which occasionally come together for Styen in bursts of ferocity and devastation. When it does, it provides as thrilling a spectacle as any in sport. Administrators would be daft to try and legislate it out of the game.

The upshot of it all is that the teams move to a final match in Cape Town that has excited the country more than any Test match since readmission. The momentum is with South Africa but it is only seven days ago that we thought that the Aussies looked unbeatable.

This may be an important toss.

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