Sultans of squelch hear Last Post as second test drains to a draw

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, St George’s Park

STIAAN van Zyl bowling in flip flops gave it away. So did Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel engrossing themselves in a left-foot-only kickabout. Temba Bavuma batted left-handed against Rabada, who kneeled as he bowled. Faf du Plessis bowled a reasonable facsimile of off-spin to Hashim Amla, who returned the favour with offerings that would have fallen way foul of the chucking police.

“You always want to show the bowlers what they should be doing,” Amla joked.

Whatever SA and West Indies were keen on doing at St George’s Park on Tuesday, preparing to play proper cricket did not seem to be a priority. And it did not have to be, what with the last day of the second test abandoned in its entirety because of the rain that had soaked the outfield overnight.

Play was due to start at 10am. Instead, the umpires held a pitch inspection at that time – as they did at 11am, 12pm and 1pm. Each time Billy Bowden, Paul Reiffel and Shaun George appeared as the sultans of squelch, they first visited a veritable swamp along the western boundary near the Grandstand.

Evidence that the day’s play was destined to be declared dead in the water was had as early as the 11am inspection. Before the umpires arrived at the wet spot that time, it had swarmed with groundstaff armed with squeegees and sawdust. Carter himself wielded a leaf-blower in anger.

However, immediately after the officials had done their thing, all tools were downed and Carter’s crew went and sat on their backsides near the table and stayed put. If the umpires had given them hope, they would have kept working.

The band, silent all day, left their instruments on the stand to gleam brassily in the gloom cast by the leaden sky. But, as the sultans approached the swamp at 1pm, a trumpet was picked up and the soft, sorry squawk of a sad solo issued forth.

It proved to be a riff on the Last Post: moments later Hashim Amla crossed dressingroom’s great divide to shake hands with Denesh Ramdin. Match drawn. The series, then, will be alive when it resumes at Newlands on Friday.

Not that Amla was ready to agree that the Windies’ had a better time at St George’s Park than at Centurion, where SA blew them away by an innings and 220 runs in just seven sessions of play.

“They had one partnership (in Port Elizabeth) and that reflected the feeling that they had a good game,” Amla said. “But for us to take seven wickets in 35 overs means we had a pretty good game as well.”

That stand cracked off the bats of Kraigg Brathwaite and Marlon Samuels, who scored 106 and 101 and shared 176 – a West Indies record for the third wicket in tests against SA. Those seven wickets fell on Monday, five of them for 15 runs in 29 balls.

Besides, Amla said, SA had also come to the party in the shape of “Dean scoring a hundred, Faf getting some runs, and Morne bowling the way he did”.

Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis made 121 and 103, and Morkel bowled with striking aggression to take 4/69 on Monday.

Unsurprisingly, West Indies coach Stuart Williams did not share Amla’s narrative of the match.

“We had two centuries against the No. 1 attack in the world; in the first game we didn’t even have a half-century,” Williams said. “Our bowling was also more consistent.”

All of which is true. But, with at least 265 overs lost to rain – almost three days’ play – there can be no deciding which team had the better game.

That said, SA would have tried to salvage the contest had West Indies been able to resume on 275/9, still 142 runs behind the home side’s declaration of 417/8.

“We were hoping to bowl them out early, then look to set a target with 55 or 60 overs to go,” Amla said.

So, the series will come down to, weather permitting, five days in the shadow of Table Mountain. Were the West Indians ready to step up to the plate?

“Our youngest player is Kraigg Brathwaite (22), and you had a look at what he can do,” Williams said.

Harmer adds test cap to shopping list

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth

WARRIORS off-spinner Simon Harmer was in a Jeffreys Bay supermarket on Tuesday when his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Simon. It’s Andrew Hudson here …”

With that, Harmer learnt he was part of SA’s squad for the third test against West Indies, which starts at Newlands on Friday.

“I couldn’t quite contain myself,” Harmer said. “But I found a quiet corner to do my thing.”

Did he remember the shopping?

“Yes, a lovely young lady had written a list for me.”

Getting a game in Cape Town will be at the top of Harmer’s wishlist, but he is not able to cross that off just yet.

“All I know is that I have been added to the squad,” he said.

Last season, Harmer and Cobras off-spinner Dane Piedt starred in an enthralling sub-plot to the summer – which of them would replace the out-of-form Imran Tahir in SA’s test squad?

Piedt took 45 first-class wickets for his franchise while Harmer claimed 40. Piedt then made his test debut against Zimbabwe in Harare in August. He struck with his first delivery and finished with 8/152 – the best match figures by a SA spinner in his first test.

But, in September, Piedt dislocated his shoulder while playing in the Champions League T20 in India. He played his first four-day match since then for the Cobras against the Knights in Paarl at the weekend, bowling 47 overs and taking 1/162. Clearly, he is a long way from ready for test cricket.

Piedt’s injury led to Robin Peterson’s return for the Windies series. But SA opted for an all-pace attack at Centurion, and left-arm spinner Peterson was ruled out for the last two matches when he cut his finger during a fielding drill before the start of the second test at St George’s Park.

That prompted Tahir’s recall, and while the leg spinner took three wickets in West Indies’ only innings in Port Elizabeth he benefitted from batting errors more than he imposed himself on the match.

SA know Tahir was not as effective as they needed him to be at St George’s Park. They also know that at Newlands, the fairest pitch in the country, spin will play an important role in deciding the series.

So, Harmer might yet get a break. In three first-class matches for the Warriors this season he has taken 17 wickets at an average of 26.17 – good enough for second place among the wicket-takers behind Titans fast bowler Rowan Richards, who has one more scalp.

By that long and winding road, Harmer has earned his opportunity. The twists and turns of the journey were not lost on him.

“There has been so much disappointment leading up to this moment, but the satisfaction of being able to tell my parents the news makes up for all the shit times,” Harmer said.

And perhaps he should add a test cap to that shopping list.

Not the best of times, not the worst of times

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TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth

South Africa in 2014: Tests: P8 W4 L2 D2 T; ODIs: P19 W12 L6 NR1 T0; T20Is: P10 W4 L6 NR0 T0

FOR South Africa, 2014 was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times. Instead, it was a time of retirements and renewal and ready, steady, go into a future less bright than it was before their board were blindsided in the big three’s takeover of the world game.

Jacques Kallis announced on Christmas Day last year that the Test against India at Kingsmead starting the next day would be his swansong. By July, he was also done as a one-day player. His dream of playing in the 2015 World Cup will thus remain just that, nothing more.

Graeme Smith called it quits late one night during the third Test against Australia at Newlands in March. With him went nothing less than South Africa’s way of cricket. For 10 years, Smith had worn the Test team’s triumphs and travails on his sleeve, in his heart, and once in defiance of a broken hand.

Kallis and Smith were the twin towers that held up South Africa’s status as the No. 1 ranked Test team. How would the side respond to their sudden removal from the skyline? Better than many would have expected, not least because Hashim Amla was ready and waiting at ground zero to catch the ranking in his spanking new captain’s cap.

Smith’s last act as South Africa’s captain was to preside over a 2-1 home series loss to Australia. Amla’s first was to engineer a 1-0 series win in Sri Lanka in July, only the second time in the five rubbers South Africa have played on the island – and the first time since the inaugural tour in 1993 – that they have been victorious.

A double century by Amla and mere centuries by AB de Villiers and debutant Stiaan van Zyl followed by Dale Steyn’s 6/34 in the second innings earned South Africa victory by an innings in just seven sessions against West Indies in Centurion earlier in December.

But rain robbed the second Test at St George’s Park of 265 overs, leaving the series undecided heading into the Newlands Test on Friday.

In November, Australia made South Africa wake up and smell the curdled milk in their World Cup coffee by inflicting a 4-1 one-day series loss on them Down Under. Disingenuously, De Villiers claimed “we were the better team”.

South Africa were second to eventual champions Sri Lanka on net runrate after the group stage of the World T20 in Bangladesh in March – only to crash to India in their semi-final.

But the most damaging defeat was inflicted in the boardroom. Before India, Australia and England put their arrogance where cricket’s money is, South Africa’s suits tended to punch above their weight as slick, willing organisers who did not blink at hosting major events on short notice – albeit not always legally, as the 2009 IPL bonus scandal revealed. Now, South Africa are just another member of the small seven. Welcome to the real world, fellas.

High

South Africa had lost and drawn their previous two Tests at Galle, but this time they won by 153 runs with the help of gritty centuries by Dean Elgar and JP Duminy, and Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel taking 16 wickets between them. Then they sweated and ground out a dreary but disciplined draw on a disgracefully dead pitch at SSC in Colombo.

Low

Significant gloss was taken off the Galle win by Vernon Philander’s admission of ball-tampering – the second time a South African had been found guilty of the offence in less than a year following Faf du Plessis’ conviction during the second Test against Pakistan in Dubai in October. Worse yet, South African team officials tried to bully the broadcasters into not showing footage that provided damning evidence against Philander. Happily, they failed.

Top Performer

Not only did Amla step smartly into Smith’s boots, he has also scored more Test runs than anyone in his team this year. Amla is also South Africa’s most prolific one-day batsman in 2014. But it as a captain that he has impressed most, appearing ever more comfortable in a spotlight whose glare used to make him squirm and showing a bracingly aggressive streak. For instance, in only his fourth Test in charge he had the opportunity to enforce the follow-on. He did, and West Indies were crushed by an innings with five sessions to spare at Centurion.

Fading Star

Robin Peterson is the nicest man in South African cricket, and at 35 among the oldest. He probably has a World Cup left in him, but that should be that. Now, how much bigger would Peterson’s already wide smile stretch should he go out on the highest of highs …

Ones to watch

Quinton de Kock is a joy. He does not think much before he talks and even less before he hits the ball – hard. There is a simplicity to his game that evokes the instinctive brilliance of Graeme Pollock. For De Kock’s next trick he needs to overcome torn ankle ligaments in time to play in the World Cup.

Temba Bavuma is probably asked to produce his driver’s licence more often than the rest of us brush our teeth. He is 24 going on 14: slight and baby-faced and blessed with the good manners of a boy scout. But do not be fooled. Under all that class is a fierce competitor who bats like an angry angel and fields like the devil himself.

Lined up in 2015:

Jan 2-6: 3rd Test v WI, Newlands

Jan 9: 1st T20 v WI, Newlands

Jan 11: 2nd T20 v WI, Wanderers

Jan 14: 3rd T20 v WI, Kingsmead

Jan 16: 1st ODI v WI, Kingsmead

Jan 18: 2nd ODI v WI, Wanderers

Jan 21: 3rd ODI v WI, East London

Jan 25: 4th ODI v WI, St George’s Park 

Jan 28: 5th ODI v WI, Centurion

Feb 9: World Cup warm-up v SL, Christchurch

Feb 11: World Cup warm-up v NZ, Christchurch

Feb 15: World Cup v Zim, Seddon Park

Feb 22: World Cup v India, MCG

Feb 27: World Cup v WI, SCG

Mar 3: World Cup v Ireland, Canberra

Mar 7: World Cup v Pakistan, Eden Park

Mar 12: World Cup v UAE, Wellington 

Jul-Aug: tour Bangladesh to play 2 Tests, 3 ODIs, 1 T20I (schedule yet to be announced)

Oct-Nov: tour India to play 3 Tests, 7 ODIs, 2 T20Is (schedule yet to be announced)

Dec 26-30: 1st Test v England, Kingsmead

Drama in the drizzle

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, St George’s Park

CRICKET ran away and joined the circus on the fourth day of the second test between SA and West Indies at St George’s Park on Monday.

Drum roll, please: rain washes 104 overs out of the first three days’ play. More dreary drizzle on the fourth day, Monday, prevents the start of play for three hours. Then the dishwater sky clears enough to allow 11.3 overs. Back comes the rain, but only for 26 minutes.

Soon after play resumes Kraigg Brathwaite and Marlon Samuels double the number of test centuries West Indies have scored in the 14 tests they have played in SA in their 16 years of touring here – only to be dismissed four balls apart.

Brathwaite was taken at second slip for 106 off Morne Morkel, who spent much of his time on Monday bowling nasty – round the wicket with a short leg, a leg gully and a fine leg in an ambush formation. He found the bounce he needed to keep his prey in his sights and to take 4/69 in a fine display of aggressive fast bowling.

SA’s plan, Morkel said, was “ … to arrive with a lot of hunger and a lot of energy, and to show why we’re the best attack in the world”.

And his own plan? “It’s quite hard to duck on this wicket. It would have been boring to stay over the wicket and bowl on off-stump.”

After all that, Imran Tahir, who would not have played in this match had Robin Peterson not been injured the day before it started, who struggled to grip the wet ball, who was tasked with bowling tightly rather than aggressively, who instead sent down over after over of boundary fodder, dismissed the most obdurate batsman in the game on his way to figures of 3/108.

Samuels, who was trapped in front for 101 by Vernon Philander, took a special liking to Tahir’s offerings, smashing the leg spinner for 61 off as many of his deliveries.

“I don’t think any spinner should bowl to me and dictate terms,” growled Samuels, whose stand of 176 with Brathwaite is a West Indies record in tests against SA.

Enough already? Not even close. West Indies had lost five wickets for 15 runs in the space of 29 balls when another shower ended the day’s play with the visitors on 275/9.

That means SA go into the last day still 142 runs ahead. So, smart bowling to wrap up the Windies’ innings, smarter batting to set a target, and who knows what might yet happen … Not so fast: some of Tuesday’s forecasts are for rampant rain, others for steady sunshine.

As they don’t say in the classics, WTF?

That so much should happen in the 35 overs that were possible on Monday beggars belief. Or, as Samuels explained, “Test cricket is not kid cricket – it’s big man cricket.”

Except that Shivnarine Chanderpaul looked like a 10-year-old playing in his backyard rather than, at 40, test cricket’s oldest current player when a Tahir top spinner trickled between his legs before nudging the leg-side bail off the stumps.

Chanderpaul is the fulcrum around which West Indies’ batting has turned for much of the past 20 years. But he scored 25 runs in his two innings in the first test at Centurion, which SA won by an innings, and he was out for seven on Monday.

That, however, was cause for Samuels to issue a stern warning: “When a guy like Chanderpaul don’t get no runs for two games, look out.”

But Morkel threw down an omen of his own: “Dale Steyn is the No. 1 bowler in the world. It’s my job to prepare the ball for him to get it to reverse.”

Steyn found wicked reverse swing to take 3/10 in four overs on the last afternoon of the second test against Australia at St George’s Park in February to bowl SA to an unlikely win.

That match ended in bright sunshine. This one? Who knows. Send in the clowns …

Not before time, series produces a contest

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, St George’s Park

THE third day of the second test between SA and West Indies delivered what this series had not seen previously – a contest.

So much so that the Windies have a ladder still eight wickets long with which to climb out of a hole now just 270 runs deep: they will resume on Monday on 147/2 in reply to SA’s declaration at 417/8.

West Indies have thus became the only test team to register as many as eight opening stands of more than 50 this year. But, in the 10 completed or declared innings the Windies had before this match, they reached 400 only twice.

That tells the story of hard work being undone too often. This time, it seems, there is a good chance that will not happen.

Seven of those half-century partnerships for the first wicket have featured Kraigg Brathwaite, who will fight on from 65 not out. With him in a stand that has swelled to 92 is Marlon Samuels, who is undefeated on 60.

And there’s more. As SA bowling coach Allan Donald said, “We know that if we break this partnership and get (Shivnarine) Chanderpaul back in the pavilion quickly, that tail is very long.”

But he conceded that “this pitch is probably tailormade for Shivnarine Chanderpaul – he’s going to grind and grind”.

With Saturday’s play limited to six overs by rain and Sunday’s proceedings starting an hour later than scheduled, SA resumed on 289/3 and looked to build steadily.

But the wind had changed direction overnight to bring moisture off the sea, and with the clouds hanging low the bowlers were armed with a weapon they did not have previously.

West Indies used the suddenly livelier conditions to grab four wickets before lunch, their best session of the series until then.

Jason Holder trapped Hashim Amla in front in the fourth over to being SA’s first black African test batsman to the crease: Temba Bavuma, SA’s 319th test cap and the 84th since re-admission, took guard.

He either deftly opened the face or played with hands soft enough to stop the edge from flying too high to the first delivery he faced. Either way, the ball scooted to the third-man boundary for four.

Six balls after that Bavuma was the senior batsman at the crease when AB de Villiers had his off-stump rudely uprooted by a wickedly swinging delivery from Jerome Taylor.

Stiaan van Zyl joined Bavuma, and for the next 31 balls SA’s only run came from a leg bye – not least because players both accustomed to batting at No. 3 for their franchises figured, correctly, that the best way to right the innings was to consolidate.

Both had been caught behind three overs before the end of the morning session. They were replaced by Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, who rattled up a stand of 69 in their eight overs together.

All but 11 of those runs were scored by Steyn, who launched drives and ripped pulls while Philander kept the other end solid.

Steyn smoked 54 of his 58 runs in boundaries. He faced 28 balls in all and reached his second half-century off 26: the fastest 50 at this ground, the second-fastest by a South African after Jacques Kallis’ 24-ball effort against Zimbabwe at Newlands in March, 2005, and the joint fourth-fastest in history.

Steyn’s dismissal prompted the declaration and the anticipation of a rash of Windies wickets.

But SA needed more than an hour of patience before Morne Morkel had Smith caught at first slip. Then Leon Johnson’s loose drive to the next ball flew to third slip.

However, there was no hattrick for Morkel, just proper batting by Brathwaite and Samuels. Not before time, SA have a game on their hands.

St George’s Park waits for Godot

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, St George’s Park

AS the players emerged into the strained sunshine of St George’s Park an hour after the scheduled start on Sunday, fresh and eager to resume hostilities having spent all but half-an-hour of Saturday’s play holed up in the dressingroom, Adrian Carter retreated to the shadows.

A spot of shade was the least he deserved. “I’ve been awake since 1.30am listening to it rain,” groundsman Carter said.

Carter had been at work since 6am, marshalling the efforts of his crew of 13 – and manfully mucking in himself – to squeeze as much water as possible out of St George’s Park and as much as play as possible onto it.

Five hours of effort on Sunday morning produced an outfield scarred with sawdust and squelchy, but playable. As for the pitch …

“All you need is for one of the players to have walked on the covers and put a spike through the thing to have a hole and a leak, but thankfully when we took them off it was dry,” Carter said.

So, could he finally calm down and watch the game?

“The only time you relax is after the test match,” Carter said.

On Saturday, Carter and company had scurried hither and thither wielding covers and squeegees and other equipment in valiant attempts that proved in vain – no play was possible after 12.30pm.

Prospects for cricket were as bleak as the sky above, but still they toiled. Then, late in the afternoon, after pegs had been hammered into the brass eyes near the edges of the covers to secure them for the night, the umpires reminded Carter the hours of play had been extended to 7pm.

So out came the pegs and off came the covers, and all present waited for Godot.

Of course, Godot never arrived. But, despite a dark and drizzly night on Saturday and a sad swirl of cloud for much of Sunday, the cricket did. Thanks Adrian.

World Cup looms over rain ruined test

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, St George’s Park

SIXTEEN giant faces glowered at the falling rain from the side of SA’s team bus on Saturday. Their grim, bristled mugs, sweaty and swarthy as if rudely hauled up from a coal mine, comprised a larger than life photograph of the one-day squad.

Even in the midst of a series in the premier format at the ground where SA played the first of their 389 tests almost 126 years ago, there was no escaping the looming World Cup.

That said, while the West Indians are charming, stylish, and rarely without a smile, they have not been competitive. So far, this has been less a test series than a testing series for those who hoped to see a contest.

Besides, a day’s play shrunk to just 36 deliveries – in which SA reached 289/3 – by showers that shrouded the scene half-an-hour after the delayed start of noon was never going to hold the imagination.

And especially not after SA had added Friday’s domination to the less than nine sessions they needed to thrash the visitors by an innings at Centurion.

West Indies could not have bowled much more poorly than they did in the first test, so their improvement in that department has been marked at St George’s Park. But only their consistency of line and length has been better – their penetration was as lacking as it was at Centurion, and was not helped by the two dropped catches, missed stumping and two botched runouts they inflicted on themselves.

So, there was not much tension to be felt when Jerome Taylor delivered the first ball of the day, a legside gift that Faf du Plessis whipped to the square boundary for four.

With that, Du Plessis raised his bat to celebrate a fourth test century, an innings 229 balls in the making. It ended with the 230th, a length delivery that swerved away from the right-hander through the air and kept going after pitching to sucker him into playing down the wrong line and so to steer an edge into Denesh Ramdin’s gloves. Also fooled was umpire Paul Reiffel, who needed the snickometer’s help to get the decision right at the second attempt.

“I struggled for most of my innings,” Du Plessis said. “Every second ball I hit, I didn’t feel like I was hitting it in the middle. You know you have to grind when you come here. You know it’s not going to be pretty.”

Indeed. It had taken the Windies 571 balls to claim three of SA’s wickets. At Centurion, SA needed 625 deliveries to bowl them out – twice.

Who would be the last man any attack would want to see walking to the wicket after they had put up with the resolute Du Plessis for five-and-a-half hours? The hyperactive AB de Villiers, of course. He duly took a snappy single to point off the first ball he faced.

Three overs later, De Villiers drove Jason Holder handsomely for four through mid-off and, in Holder’s next over, down the ground for another boundary. They were strokes that told the Windies there was plenty more where that came from – more batting, more runs, more time in the field, more being dominated.

But only one more ball was bowled before the rain came, chasing the crowd to the covered regions of the stands of the most endearingly cobbled together ground in all of cricket, then to the pancake and coffee stalls and the pubs, and then – some hours later – home.

Long afterwards, the sky brightened enough to allow a committed few, some decked out in whites, one on crutches, to play their own game on a grass bank yonder. They did not see the umpires skulk to the middle for another inspection.

A game of dressingroom cricket involved Russell Domingo. “His batting needs help,” Du Plessis said, along with, “On days like this you eat too much, so our trainer won’t be happy.”

But, for young men deprived of their wireless devices, Saturday was mostly about being bored: “I wish there was something better to do than just sit around.”

If you were playing for the Windies, you might have disagreed.