After six years in Wellington, at last! An evening
sufficiently warm and windless for it to be a pleasure to watch cricket under
floodlights past 10 pm. The game was worthy of the weather, with some quality
play evading the format’s attempts to suppress it. It was the first
international contest of a tour that features three matches in each version of
In six weeks’ time we will know if the unusually upbeat
attitude of local supporters is warranted. This optimism has its origins
largely in a pulsating couple of hours at Hobart in December, when productivity
in this country slumped as people gathered round televisions to watch the New
Zealand attack knock over the Australian middle order only for Warner and Lyon
to edge within eight runs of victory before Doug Bracewell sealed New Zealand’s
first Test win over the West Islanders in two decades.
Also, the triumph of the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup
has breached the levees of pessimism that habitually protect the Kiwi sports
fan from the disappointment borne by unreasonable expectations. National
sporting self-belief is at record levels. Nevertheless, the smashing of the
Zimbabweans in all forms has been discounted; we don’t like to lose, but
neither do we enjoy winning too easily. The South Africans will tell us whether
Guptill, Williamson, Bracewell and the rest are genuine diamonds, or merely paste.
Brendon McCullum, captain in the absence of the injured Ross
Taylor, won the toss and put South Africa in. Opening the batting were Richard
Levi and Hashim Amla. I first saw Amla when I covered some of the South African
under-19 tour here for CricInfo in
2001. He was gangly, bespectacled, beardless and bursting with class as a
batsman. Amla was picked for the Test team when only 21. The South African
selectors persevered with him despite a return of only one century and one
fifty in the first couple of years. As with all non-white cricketers picked for
South Africa who do not perform to the upper limit of expectations all the
time, the accusation was made that he owed his place to racial quotas. In fact,
the selectors were making a long-term investment in talent, just as England did
with Ian Bell. The statistics show the wisdom of this. Amla’s Test average is
46 and he is No 1 in the ODI batting rankings.
Tonight, he cover drove Mills for six in the fourth over,
but was run out in an unusual way next ball. Mills stopped a straight drive,
but continued following through, leaving the ball stationary in the bowling
crease. Amla set off for a single, but had underestimated Guptill who slid in
from mid off to collect the ball, the stumps and the batsman in that order. They
won’t underestimate Guptill again, not after today.
The McCullums combined to dismiss Ingram for a duck. Nathan
turned one sharply past the advancing outside edge and the younger brother
collected the ball at the second attempt and whipped the bails off. The off
spinner bowled the first four overs from the Southern End, three in the
powerplay, and went for only 16.
Tim Southee came on at the other end and immediately tested
Levi’s patience, not to mention his IQ, by pushing mid on back to the fence.
The batsman failed on both counts, slogging the first ball after the change
straight to the relocated fielder. In the belief that if he’d fall for that, he’d
fall for anything, I attempted to find Levi after the game to offer to sell him
the Beehive for $500.
Southee is bowling, at least when the spirit moves him, at
over 140 kph, 10 kph faster than a year ago. If he can still swing it at that
speed it will take him to the next level as an international bowler. Today, he
finished with 3 for 28.
De Villiers scratched around to little effect before driving
Roneel Hira hard to cover where Guptill claimed a low catch. The South African
captain waited for the TV replay to offer clarification. Of course, it did
nothing of the sort. It never does for low catches. We will have to wait for 3D
TV to become established before technology can help in this area. De Villiers
went anyway, and it seemed the right decision.
New Zealand had something of a strangle on at this point. Kane
Williamson conceded only two from his first over and after 13 overs South
Africa were only 72 for 4 on a pitch where a par score would be 160-plus. Justin
Ontong – a controversial selection ahead of Graeme Smith – addressed the
situation in Williamson’s next over by hitting four sixes from successive balls
(all to the mid-wicket/wide long-on area), something I had not seen in 47
years of spectating. John Shepherd hit four sixes in one over off Hallam
Moseley of Somerset in a Sunday League game at Canterbury in 1973, but they
were not off successive deliveries.
Ontong fell to the next ball he faced, Southee pulling off a
caught and bowled almost as spectacular as Shane Bond’s to dismiss Cameron White
at this ground in 2007. This was representative of a brilliant fielding display. Not
a chance was dropped, not a run given away. The difference between the two
sides in the field was about 20 runs, the difference between defeat and
victory. Another example was provided by Kyle Mills, who dived in from long leg
to catch top scorer JP Duminy for 41.
South Africa finished on 147 for six, better than looked
likely half an hour before, but not enough to stretch New Zealand, particularly if
Martin Guptill could continue his recent form.
Guptill had hit five fifties in as many innings against
Zimbabwe; could he continue the run against stronger opposition? A hint came
quickly enough with a pulled six off Albie Morkel in the third over. Three
overs later the question was answered, first with a six that went into the
upper reaches of the stand at mid-wicket. Then came a quite extraordinary
repeat, which hit the roof of this sizeable stadium, a feat I would not have
believed possible had I not been there to see it. TV estimated the distance as
127 metres. Essex supporters will be pleased to note that the unfortunate
bowler was Lonwabo Tsotsobe, sacked by the county for poor effort and attitude
I have often compared Guptill with the great CJ Tavaré, on
the basis that he concentrates on defence in Tests, but unleashes hell in shorter
forms. Even I have to admit that the roof would have been beyond Tav’s range
(though I was there when he put Vic Marks in the Tone at Taunton one sunny day
If you don’t like Guptill enough already, consider this: he
has turned down the chance of an IPL contract to improve his game in county cricket.
For Derbyshire! Cricket’s Albert Schweitzer.
Guptill was 78 not out at the end, well supported by Brendon
McCullum and Kane Williamson, but it was by no means a straightforward
progress. Indeed, with 30 required from four overs, the situation was
uncomfortably redolent of the last sporting fixture I saw at this venue, the
Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Australia and South Africa. For much of
the game nothing seemed more certain than that the Springboks would romp away at
some point, but the Wallabies held on for an unlikely win.
You could tell it was getting exciting because at least half
the crowd abandoned alternative forms of entertainment, such as drinking, starting
Mexican waves, mesmerising each other with shiny objects, shouting and
drinking, and started watching the cricket. In the event, the South Africans blinked,
just as their meatier compatriots had done, and the game was secured when Jimmy
Franklin cover drove a boundary with four balls to spare.
It is foolish to draw any conclusions from a single T20
match, particularly when the South Africans have Kallis, Smith, Steyn and
Philander in reserve for the proper stuff. But New Zealand’s performance today
makes the prospect of what is to come all the more relishable.