Saturday, March 24, 2012

New Zealand v South Africa, ODI, the Cake Tin, Wellington, 25 February 2012

The optimism of New Zealand cricket fans of which I wrote in the previous post evaporated like a puddle in the desert over the following week. It may have been a mirage all the time.
Things started to go bottom-up at Hamilton in the second T20 when Richard Levi, unjustly mocked in these columns after the first T20, hit a world-record 13 sixes on his way to a century and a total that the home team could not get close to.

Three days later New Zealand contrived to lose when a win appeared as inevitable as Hamlet’s death. Needing 17 from four overs with six wickets left, they finished three short, despite being gifted a free hit off the last ball.
The first of three ODIs, played at the Cake Tin, was all about key moments and seizing the opportunities they offered. South Africa controlled the turning points and won the game by six wickets with more than four overs to spare, though it was not quite as straightforward as that might suggest.

The great attraction of the day for me was the first chance in eight years to watch Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, and the first-ever to see the game’s leading fast bowler, Dale Steyn.
Smith has handed the one-day captaincy on to AB de Villiers and spent most of the game as a boundary fielder, an art of which he is not the most athletic of practitioners.

Kallis is, at last, recognised as a great player. Despite having been in most people’s World XIs for a decade or more, his unspectacular methods have left spotlight on others. Kallis is not as silky as Tendulkar, as punishing as Ponting, or as dominating as Sangakarra, but he has a higher Test batting average (57.02 currently) than any of those three, or than anybody else since Garfield Sobers, come to that. There is also the matter of the 274 Test wickets he has taken.
Steyn left the new ball to Morne Morkel and Landabo Tsotsobe, both of whom exploited the extra bounce in the pitch early on, and kept the batsmen on the back foot. When Steyn came on he began with a cracker, a full length ball that swung away from Nicol late. There were several more like that, but there were scoring opportunities too, and twice in Steyn’s first over Nicol drove him to the boundary.  He was a bit rusty after a month off, but did more than enough to support the view that he will run through New Zealand at some time during the tour, probably more than once.

I have no idea who Brendon McCullum prays to, but the deity concerned was putting in overtime on the New Zealand captain’s behalf today. His former Otago teammate Chris Gaffney gave him out first ball, padding up to Tsotsobe. McCullum immediately called for a review, which seemed bold given that one failed review and that would be that for the innings. But he is captain, and KiwiEye (or whatever the local variant is called) vindicated him, showing the ball (just) passing over the stumps.
McCullum drove hard at the next ball, which went low to cover, where it was dropped. Three overs later he resorted to the review system for a second time and was reprieved from a caught behind decision, this time by Richard Illingworth, the former Worcestershire slow left-armer. On 11, a third review went his way, this one wasted by South Africa, a clear inside edge negating the lbw decision that they sought.

McCullum reached 56 from 67 balls, including two sixes, and put on 79 for the third wicket with Williamson, before being out to a magnificent catch on the square cover boundary by Peterson. But he never looked at his best. CricInfo’s statistics editor S Rajesh recently analysed McCullum’s record at the top of the order in ODIs, and the results are not flattering. He finds that McCullum has the worst average, and, more surprisingly, the worst strike rate of any of the regular openers of the top eight teams over the past three years.

This makes it worth asking again where McCullum should bat in ODIs. I stick to the view that he would be best as a finisher, batting at six or seven and guiding the innings home. If it was good enough for Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey (though Hussey bats higher now), then it should be good enough for McCullum. With Vettori gone from the lower middle order the need for somebody in that role has become more pressing.
Jesse Ryder got a good reception despite copping much of the blame for the T20 loss at Eden Park. He had made only six when he top-edged a catch to deep square leg.

Williamson reached his fifty from 59 balls, faster than McCullum without appearing to be so. With James Franklin he navigated New Zealand unscathed through the rapids of the batting powerplay between the 36th and 40th overs.
Since the discretionary powerplays were introduced in 2005, batting sides have rarely opted to use theirs before the last seven or eight overs of the innings. Now, in order to spice things up in the supposedly dull middle period of the innings, the ICC has ruled that the batting and bowling powerplays must be used between the 15th and 40th overs. It is as if the hosts of a party decide to ask guests to arrive at five rather than eight, in the belief that this will lead to three hours’ more fun. As we all know, what actually happens is that everybody goes home at half past seven, leaving the rest of the evening an anti-climax.

Such is the effect of the change on the shape of one-day innings. In quite a number of domestic one-day games the loss of two or three wickets in the powerplay has meant that the closing phase of innings were spent with the lower order scratching around for runs, rather than with big shots being played by the leading batsmen.
So the approach adopted by Williamson and Franklin was wise. They got runs where they could by playing orthodox shots, but made not getting out their priority. The risks to wickets that aggression during the powerplay involves means that captains might consider taking the batting powerplay immediately after the bowling powerplay, to get it out of the way.

Unfortunately, the advantage was lost when Williamson was caught behind of Tsotsobe in the over following the powerplay, and the momentum was hard to maintain against Steyn and Morne Morkel in the closing overs. Only 54 came from the last eight, leaving South Africa with 254 to win, which appeared at least 25 short of a testing target.
There was early encouragement when both Amla and Smith went early. This brought in Kallis, who immediately looked comfortable. But I had just made a note about how good he was at manufacturing legside shots to short balls despite having almost no room when he was out in exactly that fashion, caught at square leg off Bracewell.

At 35 for three the match was New Zealand’s to win, but coming out to bat was AB de Villiers, who in the recent home series against Sri Lanka averaged 110. Supported first by JP Duminy, and then by Faf du Plessis (whose absence from the Test squad measures the depth available to South Africa) de Villiers took South Africa home in the 46th over, scoring an unbeaten 106 from as many balls. He batted with the ease of somebody solving The Times crossword during a tea break without a dictionary.

The uncomfortable truth that South Africa are a much better side than New Zealand is just dawning on home supporters. This is no disgrace as South Africa are better than pretty well everybody at the moment, England included if the recent debacle in the Gulf against Pakistan is anything to go by. They return to Wellington for the third Test.

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