Pitch adds to Proteas’ puzzle

AB de Villiers (Gallo)
AB de Villiers (Gallo)

Cape Town – How accurately they read the Eden Park pitch in advance could be a key factor in South Africa’s plans to extend their unbeaten World Cup run to three matches at the expense of Pakistan in Auckland on Saturday (03:00 SA time).

The debate still rages about how best the Proteas can shape their XI, and perhaps captain AB de Villiers was being more honest and sensible than evasive when he reportedly said after the thrashing of Ireland that they would decide on the desired balance of the combination on a match-by-match basis.

So expect an even keener, closer examination of the match-day strip than usual by the skipper and the rest of the team’s strategists for the encounter with the notoriously unpredictable Pakistanis.

Adding to the intrigue, though – smoke signals suggest JP Duminy will be ready for inclusion, requiring at least one alteration -- is that this one doesn’t look like being the easiest to assess.

Eden Park has hosted just one, crackerjack encounter at the World Cup thus far, which New Zealand nicked by one wicket from cross-Tasman rivals Australia last weekend.

The match significantly bucked the general high-scoring pattern at the tournament: the Aussies were bundled out for a rare 151 in only 32.2 overs, with the Black Caps replying with 152 for nine in a heart-stopping finish.

The participants in the fast and furious scrap and pundits alike were baffled as to why scores had been so low; pre-game predictions were that it could be a belter for batsmen and someone like in-form Brendon McCullum almost seemed to confirm that as he nonchalantly dashed to a 24-ball fifty at the front of the order in the chase.

A more revealing characteristic, however, was the pace and swing generated by several quickies on view: there were career-best performances respectively for left-armers Trent Boult (New Zealand, 5/27) and the Aussies’ Mitchell Starc (6/28).

Then again, if De Villiers, coach Russell Domingo and others are tempted to believe a seamers’ paradise is in the offing on Saturday, they might also wish to chew on the confusing fact that Australian thunderbolt Mitchell Johnson received some major “tap” in conceding 68 runs from six eventful overs.

Losing captain Michael Clarke made the educative point afterwards that it had, in reality, been a “very good pitch” and he branded his team’s batting display as “horrendous”.

From a spinning point of view in that contest, the Black Caps’ veteran Daniel Vettori didn’t fare at all badly: he bowled a full quota of 10 overs for a tidy return of 2/41, suggesting that Imran Tahir and Duminy could also prosper with their slow stuff against Pakistan – is this going to be the game where the Proteas bravely take the plunge and decide to entrust the latter with status as the designated, standalone fifth bowler so as not to compromise their batting depth?

In the last completed one-day international at Eden Park before the World Cup, back in January last year, some would say that a more normal game materialised: New Zealand and India both posted beefy totals of 314 in a thrilling tie.

The Proteas do boast the comforting knowledge of victory in their own last ODI appearance at the venue more renowned for its rugby heritage: they beat the Black Caps (admittedly a well less formidable force then than now) convincingly by five wickets in March 2012, paceman Marchant de Lange grabbing 4/46 on debut.

Eden Park hosts one of the World Cup 2015 semi-finals, on March 24.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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