Comeback kid in peak form

2008-04-05 00:00

THE South Africans did well to emerge from the first Test in India without being in danger of defeat.

This is a peculiar observation with regard to a team that scored 540 in its first innings, but when an opposing opening batsman scores 319 as quickly as Virender Sehwag did, anything can happen.

So much time was left in the match when South Africa began batting again that the loss of early wickets could have led to a scramble to avoid defeat. As it was, Smith, McKenzie and Amla played so well that the thought of a defeat never arose.

The Test match itself was overshadowed by Sehwag’s extraordinary innings. It is true that he was fortunate to find himself in prime form on a particularly docile pitch but, even then, his was an innings of startling quality. He scored at a personal rate of over six runs an over, in contrast to his fellow batsmen who lost nine wickets whilst crawling along at two an over.

Sehwag did not offer a single chance during his time at the wicket, a period which spanned three days of high temperatures and enervating humidity, after he had already spent nearly two days in the field.

It should also be remembered that Sehwag was left out of the Indian team as recently as the Australian tour.

He had gone through a prolonged slump, when his fallibility against short-pitched bowling was brutally exposed. He went away to work on both his technique and fitness, to emerge in the form of his life. His attitude could not be more different to that of South Africa’s own wayward genius, Hershelle Gibbs, who has found himself in trouble yet again.

The South Africans will be delighted that the Ahmedabad Test pitch has offered their fast bowlers more help. The last thing they wanted was anything like a reprise from Sehwag, of an innings that has been described by some critics as the finest in Test innings of all time.

Sehwag has now joined an elite few who have scored more than one triple hundred in Test match cricket.

The Chennai match was something of a rejuvenator, too, for the South African opener Neil McKenzie, who must have exceeded his expectations since his recall to Test cricket.

Wrongfully and cruelly left out of the national team at the very moment that he might have expected to become a fixture in it, McKenzie quietly went about his business as a professional cricketer.

For a long time he was the one batsman in provincial cricket who suggested that he might be able to strengthen the Proteas, but he was unable to find favour with selectors who were pre-occupied with quotas. I have never been able to work out whether McKenzie was excluded in favour of Ashwell Prince or Hashim Amla, but the fact remains that he was lost to the team for five years.

It says much for McKenzie’s temperament that, when finally recalled to the team, he seized his chance with such fortitude, despite being chosen out of position.

One would like to think that the first congratulatory message he received was from Norman Arendse, who laboured to keep him out of the team. Let us hope that McKenzie is now left in place to bat with the calm assurance that has provided his team with such a good platform.

As well as McKenzie played in Chennai, he was overshadowed by the brilliant first innings knock of Amla, who is beginning to show that he is a man for all seasons. He has made runs on fast bouncy pitches and on slow turners.

He may be the best player of spin bowling to represent South Africa since re-introduction. There is a touch of Mark Waugh about him, in the manner in which he powers the ball through the fielders with effortless grace. He has developed his batting to score all round the wicket, which makes him as difficult to bowl to as the great Australian.

When Amla came into the Test team, his eccentric back-lift attracted much adverse comment, but little is heard about that now. His batting is supported by a calm temperament and an ability to concentrate for long periods.

He scores his runs at a decent clip and is becoming the complete package at number three. He may not find batting as easy as it was at Chennai in the remaining Tests, but he has the ability to handle most conditions. I have little doubt that he will become one of South Africa’s leading Test match run scorers.

The disappointment in the first Test was the limited bowling of Paul Harris. His lack of spin and variety of flight will stand in the way of his development unless he learns to do more with his right arm during his delivery action. Accuracy against good batsmen is all very well, but he will find wickets difficult to come by without the subtle variations that can only be achieved with a good action.

The team’s management should not have been worried by the lack of wickets from Morne Morkel. They have placed much faith in the youngster, at the expense of South Africa’s greatest wicket-taker, but apart from a five-wicket haul against Bangladesh, he has had little to show for his efforts.

Yet, he bowled well at Chennai and the wickets will come when the pitches offer him some bounce.

• Ray White is a former UCB president.

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