/ 10 March 2017

Black Caps scrap a thriller

Quality: Temba Bavuma can ratchet up runs when they are most needed.
Quality: Temba Bavuma can ratchet up runs when they are most needed.

South Africa’s Test cricket record against New Zealand suggests complete domination, with 12 series victories out of 15 and three drawn. Only one of the shared series has come close in the 10 played since 1992. It is true that there have been some one-sided contests over the years but, equally, there have been some thrilling and close contests. The current series may well be another of the latter.

South Africa are in the midst of a serious scrap at the University Oval against a team that truly believes the tide of history can, and will, be overturned. In 2004 the home side hammered the touring South Africans at Eden Park before succumbing in the third Test at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. It was the closest they had come to winning a series.

Chasing a stiff target of 234 to square the series, South Africa slipped quickly to 26-3 before Graeme Smith (125 not out) and Gary Kirsten (76), batting at number five in his final Test, added 171 for the fourth wicket to all but win the game.

It was heady, emotional stuff with commitment from both teams at its most intense.

Both countries, again, are packed with passionate competitors and a sense of destiny. Whereas Faf du Plessis and his men are convinced they can return to the top of the world and “create our own history” to match that of Smith’s team, Kane Williamson and coach Mike Hesson are hellbent on continuing their already impressive record of changing the Black Caps from plucky competitors into winners.

Two Proteas middle-order batsmen started the Test series under pressure, having endured a barren run of innings. Both Temba Bavuma and JP Duminy received the blessing and trust of the selectors for the first Test despite criticism that their form was not worthy of the support.

Bavuma’s barren run, in which he failed to pass 21 in seven innings, coincided with a winning streak for South Africa, in which all of the rest of the top order scored runs.

In other words, when runs weren’t needed, he didn’t provide them. But when they were, he scored them at critical times. His half-centuries in the first two Tests in Australia were scored with the innings precariously placed at 32-4 in Perth and 76-4 in Hobart, and can be said to have contributed as much as anything towards a famous series victory.

There was nothing quite so worrying about a score of 148-4 in Dunedin this week, but embarrassment was still very much a possibility.

Bavuma responded with a score of 64, which centurion Dean Elgar described as “his best Test innings”, as the two of them added 104 for the fifth wicket to turn a modest total into a good one.

Although Bavuma’s statistics might not look great, there are other factors for selectors to consider, such as match situations and the “quality” rather than quantity of runs.

Since Duminy’s promotion to the number four position in the absence of AB de Villiers, he has amassed 559 runs at an average of 43 – not eye-catching but certainly not poor. Once again, the quality of those runs counts more than the quantity. The 141 he scored in the second innings in Perth was breathtaking – never mind the aesthetics. Batsmen should never be selected on that basis. There was also, of course, his brilliant 155 against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers.

The impression created by Duminy’s style and flair is that he “goes missing” when the team really needs him to dig in. It is a common trait with elegant left-handers. Yet his teammates and coaches are best placed to rate his value to the team and, if Bavuma is worth persevering with, so is Duminy.

Chilling reminders of the House of Pain

Before Test cricket was moved to New Zealand’s completely charming University Oval a decade ago, it and one-day internationals were played at Carisbrook, known more infamously in rugby circles as the “House of Pain”.

The contrast could not be more stark.

Carisbrook, which has now been redeveloped into office space and some houses, was as bleak a venue for international sport as existed anywhere in the world, for both cricket and rugby.

Frequently plunging well below freezing in the winter months, the wind chill made even summer days feel colder than they were.

As a show of resistance and bravado against the elements, many hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of the 22 000 student population of Otago University, would wear slops and T-shirts to watch the action on old sofas and couches, which they carried to the ground and would position on the open terraces at either end – and then set fire to when they finally succumbed to the elements and needed the warmth.

Modern-day health and safety, of course, has ended this tradition.

The university is one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere. It was founded in 1869 and funded by the gold rush of the era that made Dunedin the most populous city in New Zealand and the economic capital of the region.

It is a happy fusion of the old and the new and the cricket oval has been developed to cater for corporates and traditional, old-school supporters – and the students, who sprawl on the grass banks, with cheap beers thrown to them by mates on the other side of the fence.

The Proteas wandered around the city after training, wrapped in puffa jackets and beanies, for three freezing days before the Test began, wondering how they would cope on the field but, blessedly, they were saved their anxieties by an unseasonal attack of warm, sunny weather.

For the Proteas who have never played here before, it is an experience they will never forget. For those returning – Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel – knowing smiles have been the order of the day.

It’s hard not to like the place. As hard as it was to like the old one.