The last time I wore a suit and tie to the cricket was on 24 July 1997, to watch Middlesex v Kent at Lord’s in the County Championship. It was just a few weeks before I left for New Zealand, so, sensing that it would be a long time before I returned to St John’s Wood (I’ve not been back to date), I dressed as required sit in the pavilion and wander through the Long Room.
For the first day of the Basin test against South Africa, I wore the same Kent member’s tie but a suit of a more generous cut. Thus attired, I could pass through to the parallel universe of VIP hospitality, a world of salmon and scones, coffee and croissants, chardonnay and cheese boards.
On days when there is no cricket to watch, I pass the time by being advisor to the Opposition Chief Whip in the New Zealand Parliament and was at the Basin In An Official Capacity.
The experience began with coffee, biscuits and a pleasant chat with Don Neely, former Wellington captain, national selector and historian of the Basin and of New Zealand cricket. Next, Sir Richard Hadlee (warning: the names in this piece will not be so much dropped as carpet bombed).
Sir Richard had detected that My Life in Cricket Scorecards has failed to shake off an English accent despite twenty years of living in New Zealand.
“Where are you from?”
Broad smile. “I enjoyed bowling in Kent.”
“It always appeared that you did.”
He also spoke at his pleasure at achieving the recent release of the documentary The Forty-Niners, on the 1949 tour of England, led by his father, Walter Hadlee. Almost all of those who appear are now dead, but fascinating use was made of interviews collected by Jeremy Coney for a series he did about 15 years ago.
We were on Sir Richard’s table at lunch (of course), as was Geoff Allott, joint leading wicket-taker at the 1999 World Cup. Allott works for New Zealand Cricket and talked enthusiastically about the future of the game here.
Best of all though, was that on the next table were two Australian legends: Alan Davidson and Neil Harvey. Davidson was the Wasim Akram of his day, with 186 test wickets at 20 (and an economy rate of under two an over), and nine first-class hundreds. Harvey is the only survivor of the 1948 Invincibles, the last man alive to have played test cricket with Bradman. Harvey made 21 centuries in just 79 tests, which puts him among the greats. I saw him play for Old Australia v Old England at the Oval in 1980, well past his heyday, but still capable of finishing the game with a polished, easy 29 not out, supporting Keith Stackpole in a match-winning partnership of 73. Off spinner Ashley Mallett was present too.
Sitting there, as close to Davidson and Harvey as if standing with them in a slip cordon, was like lunching in the same room as Gladstone and Disraeli. Sir Ron Brierley, a generous patron of the Basin, pays for this visit to the Basin test every year.
Back in the 21st century, South Africa won the toss and put New Zealand in. Tom Latham’s form is such that were he a racehorse a shotgun would have been called for by now. Often in such circumstances a lucky break can turn things round, and in the fifth over Morkel failed to convince du Plessis to call for an lbw DRS that would have dismissed the opener. But Latham’s luck did not hold; he edged to third slip in Morkel’s next over. Maybe in more fertile times Latham would have got a little further forward, but the quality of the ball rather than the deficiency of the batsman, was the bigger factor.
Kane Williamson made only two before being trapped leg before by Rabada. The skipper going early is as significant as the ravens leaving the Tower in New Zealand cricket, the collapse of the fortress the inevitable consequence. It meant that Neil Broom came to the wicket for his first test innings in tricky circumstances at the age of 33. Clarrie Grimmett (who learned his cricket here at the Basin) and, less durably, David Steele started successful careers late, but few players of true test class evade the selectors’ gaze for so long. Broom failed to score, brilliantly caught by wicketkeeper de Kock off Rabada, leaving New Zealand at 21 for three.
That New Zealand finished in the foothills of respectability with 268 was thanks to Henry Nicholls, who, in his 13th test, arrived as a test player with a century made in adversity against a class attack. It is characteristic of a really good player that the nature of the innings does not give away the circumstances in which it is made (see Kane Williamson, passim). Such was Nicholls’ innings here, with intelligent run gathering early and fluent drives later in the day. Up to this point in his international career he has had class but not runs. Doubts were being muttered as to whether he was the real deal. This was graduation day.
Support was spasmodic. Raval was dogged until the over before lunch when he played for turn to a ball from left-arm spinner Maharaj that went straight on. Six New Zealand wickets fell to spin. The last time that happened on the first day at the Basin they were all taken by Bill O’Reilly on the first day of test cricket after the Second World War. JP Duminy took four of them, something he has done only once before. He had dismissed only two batsmen since the start of 2016, yet here he mesmerised the home batsmen, for no readily apparent reason.
An adhesive 34 from BJ Watling apart, the most impressive performance from the lower half of the order came from Tim Southee, rarely a sign that things have gone well. Jimmy Neesham hit three fours off one over from Morkel but was then lured forward by Duminy and stumped by de Kock, whose keeping was top class.
It had been a struggle, so it was surprising that New Zealand ended the day close to level terms with Neesham catching both openers at second slip, Cook off Southee and Elgar off de Grandhomme (Boult was injured and did not play). Elgar’s wicket was of particular value as he had taken the New Zealand attack for more than 200 in Dunedin in the first test.
South Africa finished the day 244 behind with eight wickets standing. I found space for a last cream and jam scone before reluctantly making the reverse journey through the looking glass back to the real world.
Stripped of my VIP epaulettes, it was back to the cheap seats for Friday’s play. But it was a lovely day and South Africa were 91 for six just before lunch, so slumming it with the members didn’t seem so bad.
Nobody expected the morning to go that well for New Zealand, particularly with Hashim Amla at the crease. Amla’s form on this tour has been indifferent, but class will have its day and when he hit a gorgeous straight drive off Wagner mid-morning, it seemed that a masterclass of batsmanship had commenced. But a few overs later he chipped a leg-stump half-volley to Nicholls at mid-wicket, the second catch that the fielder had taken there this morning.
The bowler was de Grandhomme, who should bowl in a hooped jersey carrying a bag marked “swag”. I have been critical of de Grandhomme as a test player often enough, and thought that Wagner should have been first on at the Vance Stand end this morning, a view reinforced when de Grandhomme went for three boundaries in his fourth over of the morning. But by lunchtime he had shuffled in to take three of those South African wickets, and over the innings as a whole bowled one more over than Wagner (who also took three wickets) but at less than half the cost.
Spectators are allowed on the Basin outfield at lunchtime, so a self-selected jury gathered around the pitch, duly solemn. I feel sorry for the pitch at times, because it is so often found guilty purely on circumstantial evidence. Pitches are like the predictions of Nostradamus: they can be properly interpreted only when you know what has happened, at which stage people with no clue can present themselves as sages. This one was certainly much slower than the coconut shy against Bangladesh that demanded a new chapter on the header in the MCC Coaching Book. That may explain why a number of batsmen who should know better got out to soft shots, but it was not the raging turner that the New Zealand scorecard would suggest.
Prone to pessimism as we New Zealanders are when it comes to cricket (and much else), none of us at lunch on the second day contemplated a South African victory the following afternoon. By the end of the day the thought was at least germinating, thanks to a magnificent seventh-wicket stand of 160 in 40 overs between Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma.
So far on the tour, de Kock had been clickbait for Jeetan Patel, but not today. He provided classic batting skills at a rapid rate, his 91 coming in just 118 balls. For a long time after South Africa’s return to test cricket they exercised old-fashioned caution in their batting, as if set on taking things up from exactly where they had left off in 1970. Regular readers have heard before about the excruciating day at Eden Park in 1999 when Cullinan (who began the session on 142) and others ground out 64 in 35 overs between lunch and tea. Memory has it that the scoreboard started displaying the Samaritans’ phone number, but that may be through the mists of time. Happily, those days have gone. A ramped four and six from successive balls by de Kock off Southee early on set the tone, and he was eager to take Wagner on, dispatching a short ball over the long leg boundary. A third six went over long on off Patel.
He received excellent support from Bavuma, one of the few cricketers who
would not need to stand in a hole to look Harry Pilling in the eye. His 89 contained not a single run in the V between long off and long on, but as would be expected of one of his height, he cut the ball to ribbons at the merest rumour of it being short.
Both de Kock and Bavuma were out when centuries seemed inevitable, de Kock softly chasing a wide one, and Bavuma bounced out by Wagner. When Bavuma went at eight down South Africa’s lead was only 22, leaving New Zealand level in the game bearing in mind that South Africa were batting last on a pitch that promised more turn than usual at the Basin. But a last-wicket partnership of 57 between Philander and Morkel (a record for South Africa against New Zealand) moved the lead into the significant category as well as being greatly irritating, which is the point of last-wicket stands. Oddly, No 9 Philander (whose test batting average is 24) supported No 11 Morkel, who did most of the hitting, and very well too, much more convincing than Tim Southee usually is doing the same job at No 9.
The partnership was still intact at the end of the day, which at least saved Latham and Ravel an awkward spell against the new ball. It had been a fine day of test cricket.
Saturday was a two-sweater day, the southerly coming in like a bailiff serving an eviction order on summer. First, the formalities of the South African innings were concluded: a couple of straight fours by Morkel off Patel took the lead to 91 before he was bowled by the off spinner.
New Zealand are masters of the second-innings comeback at the Basin. Three of the last four tests here have produced a famous draw, after conceding a lead of 246 against India, and two victories, against Sri Lanka (deficit: 135) and, just two months ago, Bangladesh (56). So were we downhearted? Not as much as we should have been. Only three batsmen reached double figures as New Zealand ran up the white flag first against the pace of Morkel, then the spin (or sometimes not) of Maharaj.
Latham was first to go, pushing without conviction at a ball angled across him to be caught in the gully. In better form he would have left it; in best form cracked it to the cover fence.
Kane Williamson has never made fewer runs in a test match than the three he scored here, only a single before getting a fast, short ball from Morkel good enough to draw one of the world’s best into an involuntary shot. The appeal was turned down, but hotspot showed a small but irrefutable mark and off he went.
Neil Broom avoided the debut pair, but spent the early part of his innings floundering for the ball like a drunk looking for keys in the dark as Philander controlled the ball as if by Playstation. Broom survived until lunch and began to play some good shots, but went soon after, to a brilliant catch by de Kock, who is my current selection for World XI wicketkeeper.
Now Maharaj took over, dismissing six of the remaining seven batsmen. He bowled with accuracy and good variation, and exploited the footmarks outside the left-handers’ off stump well, but Hedley Verity he is not. He beat the left-handers past the outside edge more than the inside edge, as they played the ball in their heads rather than the one on the pitch.
Turn was a factor only in de Grandhomme’s dismissal, a peach of a ball that pitch on middle and hit off, far too good for the batsman’s creasebound defence, bat at a jaunty angle.
Raval and Nicholl both went to wide deliveries. There was praise for Maharaj for tempting them, but even if the line was deliberate, certain individuals in Lagos would be keen to have the email addresses of people so easily duped.
Perhaps inspired by the proximity of the National War Memorial Neesham and Southee went about playing Maharaj as if charging at machine guns, the outcome entirely predictable.
Raval had top-scored with 80 when he fell. He was uncomfortable against spin, and was dropped in the fifties, but has the temperament of a test opener. With Latham short of form but not class (he was to score a fifty in the third test), the New Zealand test openers selection is less of a worry than for some time.
Apart from Raval, the only meaningful resistance came from Watling, with 29 from 83 balls, which was admirable but pointless given the propensity of the New Zealand lower order to faint like an Edwardian debutante. Watling is an exception to the almost universal pattern that wicketkeepers who bat at No 7 or thereabouts bat aggressively (Gilchrist, Prior, de Kock etc), and sometimes eccentrically (Knott, Russell etc). He is basically a defensive batsmen. It would be better, therefore, if he were to bat at No 6, which would strengthen the middle order and take the pressure off whichever of the not-quite all-rounders—Neesham, Santner, Anderson, de Grandhomme—are selected. On this topic, the New Zealand selectors have to clear about the balance of the team. There is no point in picking players to fill two roles when they would not be selected for either on its own. Better to have a longer tail but an extra bowler, or to get by with a four-man attack.
South Africa knocked off the 81 required for an eight-wicket win.
South Africa’s win at the Basin gave them a one-nil series win. Rain took out the last day of the third test in Hamilton with South Africa 95 behind with five second-innings wickets remaining and New Zealand to bat again. The last day of the first test in Dunedin was also lost, but with the game more even: South Africa were 191 ahead with four wickets left. Over the series, New Zealand might be thought unlucky to lose, but this was an inept batting performance at the Basin, so sympathy should be rationed.
So ends the 2016/17 New Zealand season. It has not been a vintage one, thanks mostly to the weather, which wiped out or truncated a fair portion of my schedule of domestic cricket. The highlight was the test against Bangladesh, which is not to damn the season with faint praise, but to remind myself of what an unexpected pleasure that game was, Bangladesh putting up the highest first innings score ever to lose a test match. The blogging baton is handed on for the next few months into the care of Backwatersman, Cricket Novice and the others who do such a fine job of writing about being at the cricket in England.