Sunday, April 1, 2012

New Zealand v South Africa, Basin Reserve, Wellington, 3rd Test, 3rd day (25 March 2012)

The New Zealand season is over, just three days before the first-class season in England begins. The South Africans have gone home having impressed us greatly. That they took the Test series only one-nil was down to weather interference in the first and third matches. Given England’s ineptitude when faced with the turning ball, South Africa are the best team in the world. I was at the Basin for the third day of the final Test.  
Our Lord Lucan of a summer was finally apprehended today and there were blue skies at the Basin. This was a welcome contrast to the unremitting grey of the first two days, during which only 79 overs were bowled. South Africa began on 246 for two, achieved against an insipid New Zealand attack on a flat pitch.
The two wickets that fell were both down to third umpire Billy Doctrove’s eccentric interpretations of the DRS evidence. Graeme Smith had to go despite neither hotspot nor super slow motion supporting the view that his bat had made contact with the ball on its way through to the wicketkeeper. Hashim Amla was not reprieved after being caught from a top-edged hook even though the replay showed that Mark Gillespie’s heel had cut the return crease, in contravention of the no-ball rule.

Amla will take no further part in the match having sustained (and my eyes water as I type these words) blunt trauma to his groin region, which required surgery overnight. Unfortunately, Jacques Kallis is also missing, with a neck injury, a double blow for those of us who go to Test matches to see the best players first and our team do well second.
Alviro Petersen reached his hundred in the second over of the day, and went on to 156, the biggest of his three Test centuries. He deserves a break having served last year as captain of Glamorgan, a sentence that I was unaware a South African court could impose.

Petersen and  JP Duminy (in for Kallis and playing his first Test in a couple of years) attacked from the off, which was pleasing. For a long time after their return to international cricket the South Africans tended to bat with a fifties-style grimness, as if news of the acceleration that one-day cricket had brought to Test cricket had not reached the Cape. Of all the Tests I have attended, the session I would least care to re-live (and I do not exclude those throughout which it rained) is that between lunch and tea of the second day at Eden Park in 1999, during which South Africa – 352 for three at the resumption – prodded 64 from 35 overs for the loss of a single wicket. It was good now to see them going about things with an urgency that suggested that a win was still the primary goal.

New Zealand’s bowling in this first session was unimpressive, and Ross Taylor appeared flummoxed as to how to deploy the scarce resources at his disposal. It was surprising that Chris Martin took the new ball with the wind behind him, rather than Mark Gillespie, who is the fastest member of this attack, and in prime form. The state of Taylor’s mind was betrayed by his decision to seek a review of an lbw appeal against Petersen that was at the conspiracy-theory end of the continuum, being both too high and hitting the pad outside off. The reappearance of Vettori in the attack after just 11 overs with the new ball suggested that the strategy of picking an extra batsman was not a raging success.
JP Duminy cover drove three fours in one Doug Bracewell over. The Hero of Hobart’s fine first international season is tailing off, but he has earned a trip to the Caribbean in a couple of months. Duminy slowed down as he neared three figures, but reached the mark with a push to leg off Gillespie (who was switched to the northern end just as the breeze died down). The 200 partnership came up, but Duminy fell shortly thereafter, edging Gillespie to Taylor at slip. He has given the South African selectors the best of problems: more in-form batsmen than there are places available.

The first session was South Africa’s: 115 runs for the loss of Duminy.
As Chris Martin took up the attack after lunch I noted that this would probably be his last home Test. But I wrote to that effect last season, and the one before that, only to be proved wrong. Sure enough in the first over of the spell he dismissed Petersen lbw, playing across a straight one. It was disappointing that few joined me in standing as Petersen returned to the rooms, as an attractive 156 surely deserves such a courtesy.

Reinforcing his reputation as cricket’s Ol’ Man River, Martin followed with the wicket of de Villiers, who played on as he tried to work the ball to the leg side. On the radio Iain O’Brien (who has taken John Morrison’s summariser’s seat, so some prayers are answered) made the point that Martin still gets good batsmen out, which is true, even if they have scored 150 first.
Kruger van Wyk had the least impressive day of his short Test career behind the stumps. He conceded four byes when he failed to follow a turning ball down the leg side from Williamson, then bodged a run out when Taylor quickly flicked the ball back as Jacques Rudolph was stranded a couple of metres down the pitch, only for the keeper to dislodge the bails with his foot as he collected the ball.

Van Wyk made amends by collecting a low catch from the first ball of Gillespie’s new spell to dismiss Rudolph. Eyebrows were raised at the selection of Gillespie for the second Test, but a few days before I had seen him deliver as hostile a spell of fast bowling as I have seen for some time in domestic cricket, for Wellington against Northern Districts.
John Buchanan, the former Aussie coach who is now our Director of Cricket, appointed Kim Littlejohn as selection manager. Even by Buchanan’s unconventional standards, this is not so much left field as from a paddock in the next county, as Littlejohn’s previous post was as high performance manager for Australian bowls (the point should be made that coach John Wright has the final say in selection matters). They have not got everything right – the mysterious replacement of Boult by Arnel in Hamilton springs to mind – but they have brought in players at the peak of their form, the selection of Daniel Flynn here being another example.

Gillespie bowled with intelligence and determination and worked his way through the middle and lower order to finish with his best Test figures, six for 113. South Africa did declare, but with only one wicket remaining, and were not able to kick on in the middle session as they might have wished.
Daniel Vettori was a strong influence in this respect. For the first time since he made his debut fifteen years ago, there has been debate about whether Vettori should retain his place. I have strong reservations about his ability as an attacking spinner in the second innings, but criticism of his performance here fails to understand that his role in South Africa’s first innings was entirely defensive.
In bowling 42 overs for 98 runs (including a spell of ten overs for 11 runs in the morning when Petersen and Duminy were scoring for fun from the other end) he did precisely the job that Ross Taylor asked of him. Gillespie could never have taken six wickets without that control from the other end. Though he has not batted well in this series, Vettori’s record over the past four or five years means that New Zealand should be loath to dispense with him in that capacity either.
New Zealand faced 25 overs before the close, and it was wonderfully gripping, Test cricket at its best. Guptill and Flynn (in cracking form, but not an opener), saw it out to the end of the day against the best pace attack in the world, putting on the highest opening partnership of the series along the way.

They got the approach dead right by concentrating and defence, leaving alone what they could, but taking runs when available at low risk. At one point there were 21 consecutive scoreless deliveries, but they did not waiver. Vernon Philander’s opening spell was the first such in his short but devastating Test career in which he has not taken a wicket. There was one, hard, chance when Flynn inside-edged off Morkel, but the diving Boucher could not hold on.
I retain the view that Guptill would be better allowed to develop naturally in the middle order, but New Zealand do not have the resources to allow this. Again here he showed that he has the determination and concentration of a good Test batsman.
Martin Guptill, hurried up by Morne Morkel
Flynn’s innings was his first in Tests since 2009, and all the more impressive for being against type; he has been scoring at around a run a ball in domestic cricket.
It should not be thought that the South Africans bowled poorly; on another day they could have taken four or five wickets in this period of play with the same quality of bowling. But not today. The introduction of Duminy’s affable off spin near the end of the day was a moral victory for the home side, though with two days left and the weather forecast good, nobody the draw remained a port far distant.

The Basin was perfect today, pleasantly full, but not crowded, and the sun shining from first to last. There is no better venue for Test cricket anywhere. You get an educated crowd here too. According to CricInfo, the Wellington Grammar Police, in which I serve as a special constable, were present. Apparently, there was a sign at one end saying “when bowling from this end remain seated”, causing someone to shout to Gillespie as he ran in that he should be sitting down.
England are here next year, so we have something to look forward to over the southern winter.

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