The set up was as teasing as a Victorian melodrama. Two games, two last-over wins, one to each side. The dramatic tension was maintained throughout the first act, the audience divided as to which way the plot would go. But after the interval we went straight to the final scene, the one where the stage is filled with New Zealand corpses. South Africa won by 159 runs, the most lopsided match I have seen since Southee and McCullum filleted England in the World Cup two years ago.
South Africa won the toss and batted. Their openers were Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock. I first saw Amla as a CricInfo reporter when I covered some of South Africa Under 19s’ tour of New Zealand in 2001. His talent was as abundant as his fielding was inept. Today he went cheaply, caught at mid off from a leading edge having contributed just seven of an opening partnership of 41.
New Zealand fed de Kock’s strength by bowling him lots of short stuff. This isn’t as daft as it sounds, the theory being that the batsman will take more risks within his comfort zone. It didn’t work today though. De Kock made 68 at almost a run a ball. He put on 73 with Faf du Plessis before both went to soft dismissals in the 23rd over, bowled by Colin de Grandhomme—the South Africans didn’t have a monopoly on the nobiliary particle today.
AB de Villiers was in at No 4 for his last game in Wellington (he’s not hanging around for the tests). I didn’t see the half century he made in the Basin test last time South Africa were here, and the empty 99 in the World Cup against UAE doesn’t count, so I was keen that one of the greats should leave behind a memory.
The regular loss of partners meant that de Villiers did not show us the full range of his inventiveness until the final few overs. He gets lower in the shot than anyone I can think of, which means that the bowler has to be precise to several decimal places in his pitching of the ball. An inch or too full and it might as well be a knee-high full toss; the same the other way becomes the easiest of half volleys. He made 85 from 80 balls and it was a treat.
The way the South Africans went about things from early in their innings suggested that they thought that a total of around 300 was going to be needed on a pitch that shimmered in the afternoon sun, so restricting them to 271 could be considered a good effort by the New Zealand attack.
Trent Boult was outstanding, every bit the leading one-day bowler in the world, conceding only 22 from his first seven overs. Tim Southee was more profligate. Mitch Santner was also very good with a mid-innings spell of seven overs going for just 28. Lockie Ferguson came in for Ish Sodhi, but did nothing to justify the selection. It is the nature of fast bowlers that they are hit and miss early in their careers as they learn that sheer speed is sometimes not enough. Today, the quicker he bowled, the quicker it came off the bat. He will have benefitted from studying the work of Kagiso Rabada later in the day.
But New Zealand’s best bowler, statistically at least, was the man least likely to be, Colin de Grandhomme, whose ambling medium pace accounted for du Plessis and de Kock. Having fought off a gang of muggers, they were felled by a handbag-wielding granny. He got de Kock with a long hop, but that was the worst ball he bowled. De Grandhomme made the best of a pitch that that was more balanced between bat and ball than most of us thought, bowling accurately and cannily. I am as enthusiastic about him as an ODI player as I am critical of his presence in the test team.
So how did Neesham, the all-rounder, do with the ball? Reader, we will never know, as he did not bowl. It appears that for Williamson, Neesham is a weapon of last resort, thrown in when all else has failed. He got away with it today, shuffling the five bowlers astutely (he didn’t put himself on either), but that is not a sustainable strategy for the one-day game.
Was 271 enough for South Africa? Most of us thought not, but as it turned out they could have gone to the pictures instead of facing the last 20 overs and still have won comfortably. I have often been critical of how the outcome of T20 games is too often obvious by an early stage of the second innings, but that can happen in 50-over cricket too, and so it did here.
Tom Latham would need the Hubble telescope to see his form at the moment. It should be David Attenborough rather than Ian Smith commentating when Latham bats, so closely do his innings resemble the pursuit of a limping gazelle by a pride of lionesses, the grizzly outcome inevitable. Today’s seven-ball duck left him with a series aggregate of two from 29 deliveries. There is almost always a penalty for giving the gloves to a specialist batsman. Latham’s keeping is satisfactory, though he did miss a straightforward stumping today. Let us hope that the test performance of New Zealand’s best opener since Mark Richardson is not the price to be paid.
Brownlie went caught behind off Rabada, so at 11 for two, Williamson and Taylor were together, usually as reassuring as a log fire in winter. Yet today it was as if they had something better to do and had sent a tribute band instead. They looked like Williamson and Taylor, but the music wasn’t the same. Both faced 40 balls, for 23 and 18 respectively, miserable strike rates by their standards. I often write that it was a surprise when Williamson got out, but today it wasn’t. Towards the end of their partnership both began to flail at the ball, so effective was the containment of the South African attack. Taylor was leg before soon after and seemed relieved, hurrying past Neil Broom at the other end so that there was no chance of being talked into a review. The rest was a procession, the last six wickets falling for 64.
As ever, there was talk about the pitch, on which 271 was a better score than at first appeared, and from which the South Africans got more help than New Zealand. But sometimes we look too closely at the pitch instead of the quality of the bowling. For various reasons the South Africans are missing Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Abbott, and chose not to play Morris, who has been taking wickets for fun so far on the tour. Yet the attack that took the field was superb.
The all-Kent opening team of Rabada and Parnell (two and five first-class appearances, seven years apart) was outstanding. The last time I saw Rabada he was attempting to coax some life out of the pitch at Tunbridge Wells, a task better suited to a spiritualist than a fast bowler. He is fast, accurate and—best of all—highly intelligent. Parnell was probing and accurate. In the first ten overs, between them they removed the openers and established the frustration of Williamson and Taylor.
The second wave was even better. Andile Phehlukwayo has something about him. He is not yet the finished article, but looks as if he absolutely belongs at the top level. He kept a cool head when bashing a couple of sixes to win the first game of the series. Today, he removed Williamson and Broom and conceded only 12 in his five-over spell. At the other end, Dwaine Pretorious was even meaner with two for five from five. Between them they put the match beyond New Zealand.
The home team came back strongly in the fourth game, winning by seven wickets with five overs to spare, thanks to a sublime unbeaten 180 by Martin Guptill. However at Eden Park in the series decider, another outstanding bowling performance gave South Africa a three-two series victory.