Proteas’ bid for top ranking starts

2012-02-11 00:00

AFTER an eight-year absence, South Africa finally undertake a tour to the land of the long white cloud. The tour could be captain Graeme Smith’s opportunity to school Ross Taylor in the nuances of Test cricket captaincy in the manner he was schooled by the then New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming in 2004.

Smith will remember the 5-1 ODI series drubbing, a result which kick-started a sequence of 10 consecutive one day losses for the Proteas. Even the drawn Test series on that tour was not cut and dried, as SA leveled the series in the last Test after being battered in the second.

As low as New Zealand might lie on the Test ranking, that is a table that should not be taken too much into regard after the carnage that has been wrought on the teams that have occupied the top spot over the past 12 to 14 months, with England whitewashed by Pakistan in the UAE and India suffering the same indignity when they toured England last winter.

As one of cricket’s perennial underdogs, New Zealand have always been able to punch above their weight. Their win against Australia in Hobart in November — their first against them in 26 years — was indicative of their fighting spirit, but they have never won a Test series against South Africa.

A team that is dependent on the sum of their parts, they recently decimated Zimbabwe in a one-off Test match and three-match ODI series, but our neighbours above are still swimming in the shallow side of the Test pool and the Proteas will be a different kettle of fish.

Irrespective of the end result and the ICC rankings, the tour could prove to be a perfect practice run for the much anticipated England tour as New Zealand’s climatic and pitch conditions are very much similar to what is found in England, with slow tracks and deviation in the air and off the pitch.

With New Zealand looking to adopt a four-man pace attack, much like England does, albeit of a lesser potency, groundsmen at the University Oval, Seddon Park and the Basin Reserve could be tempted to produce quicker pitches.

However, with a Protea pace attack consisting of Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis, New Zealand’s batsman could be subjected to a trial by pace, something they did not pass too well against Australia.

Both teams’ top orders have points to prove. Since the retirements of Nathan Astle, Fleming, Craig McMillan, Scott Styris and Jacob Oram, New Zealand’s top order has failed to exert itself against the best.

The talented Ross Taylor, along with Jesse Ryder, if fit, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill and Daniel Vettori will be in the crucible, while the latter was captain when Craig Cumming’s jaw was rearranged by a Steyn bouncer in 2007.

The Proteas top order will look to build on the gains made against Sri Lanka. They batted in two distinct gears — fifth in the first and third Tests while failing to get out of first gear in the second Test.

Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen have the perfect opportunity to cement their places for the England tour, where their recent county sojourns could be very handy while Mark Boucher can ease his selection issues by putting in a good performance in front and behind the stumps.

A 2-0 win will set up a mouthwatering marquee series against England. A lot of South African supporters would love to see a whitewash, which could take the Proteas to the top, but judging on what happened to England and India, number one is not the place to be.

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