Newlands, we have a problem

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

THINGS fall apart. But not often as rapidly as they have for SA, who lurched to their third consecutive loss in the first test against England that ended at Kingsmead on Thursday.

“There’s some disappointed players in the changeroom and some disappointed coaches around,” Russell Domingo said. “And a lot of work to do.”

And, he didn’t have to add, not a lot of time in which to do it: the second test starts at Newlands on Saturday.

But it could get worse. In fact, it has what with Hashim Amla not making sense: “One change definitely will happen with Dale maybe not being fit.

“So there may be a necessary change there. After that, I can only give my opinion. The rest of it is left to the selectors.”

What was Amla’s view on the changes his team needed to be more competitive?

“My opinion is that if Dale is not fit, somebody else will come in.”

Thanks for that, Hash. It would seem to mean that Dale Steyn, he of the shoulder strain following hard on the heels of a groin strain, is a doubtful starter for Saturday.

Fuss and bother, especially as England are likely to have James Anderson back from the calf problem that kept him out of the first test. How Anderson, No. 3 in the test bowling rankings rankings, can be drafted into an attack who have freshly dismissed the world’s No. 1 team for 214 and 174 is a headache SA would love to have.

But bowling is not SA’s problem. Batting is. They have averaged 18.20 per batsmen since their series against West Indies in January, and this in a side in which Faf du Plessis, Amla and AB de Villiers average above 40 and the latter two above 50.

Newlands, we have a problem.

The selectors’ response has been to recall Quinton de Kock and Chris Morris. What that means for a batting line-up in which only De Villiers and Dean Elgar deserve to keep their places is unclear.

The plan would seem to be to ease De Villiers’ now notoriously arduous workload by installing De Kock behind the stumps. That would probably mean dropping Bavuma.

That Bavuma should get the chop before Stiaan van Zyl, Du Plessis or Duminy is unfair, especially as in India he proved his ability to bat up the order. De Kock’s return would do nothing to fill that vacancy.

“Quinton has got a lot of his runs in four-day cricket batting at No. 6, not as an opener,” Domingo said. “Heino Kuhn opens for the Titans. That is another thing that needs to be debated.

“Do we now go and put what we perceive to be not a specialist opener in? We can only play 11 players. Two or three other opening batsmen got runs this weekend. So did Dean Elgar. You can only pick one other.”

This weekend, Stephen Cook scored 168 not out, Rudi Second made 122, and Andrew Puttick and Reeza Hendricks chalked up 92 and 57 – all as opening batsmen.

Cook had six centuries and a half-century and averaged 67.00 in 19 first-class innings last season. When he was selected in the SA A side to play England in Pietermaritzburg last week, he would have been forgiven for thinking his efforts had been noticed.

When he stood firm for an unbeaten 53 as SA A crumbled to 136 all out, he must have thought a SA call-up was only a Kingsmead collapse away. That collapse happened – twice – but Cook is still not in the test kitchen.

Then again, Imran Tahir, dropped from the test squad after an underwhelming performance in India, took match figures of 12/133 for the Dolphins against the Knights in Kimberley at the weekend – highlighting the quality chasm that gapes between franchise and international cricket.

After Kingsmead, it also stretches wide between SA and England.

Green-and-gold black and blue all over

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TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

THE consequence of SA hurtling from the world’s finest test team to a bunch of losers since the World Cup was neatly captured in a moment beyond the boundary at Kingsmead on Thursday.

JP Duminy and Morne Morkel were SA’s last pair. Victory for anyone but England was an outrageous notion. Drawing was about as likely as the rand being stronger than the pound in our lifetimes.

Steven Finn, as English as chicken tikka and lager, was stationed on the fine leg fence. Behind him a gaggle of boys and girls who five days previously wouldn’t have had a clue who he was held out miniature bats, notepads and pens with the precious expectancy only eight-year-olds can conjure. Between deliveries, Finn obliged them with careful respect.

Several of the kids wore replica SA one-day or T20 shirts. A year or two from now, if this nightmare keeps recurring, will they prefer any colours that are not green and gold.

Presently, Moeen Ali trapped Morne Morkel in front and, after a gratuitous referral to the electronic umpire, England’s win, by 241 runs, was complete.

The visitors had needed 101 minutes and 24 overs to take the last six wickets. In that time SA scored 38 runs.

The first two wickets went down before they had added a run to their overnight score, and the first of those scalps decided the match itself.

Moeen pitched the third delivery of the day on middle. It turned sharply and crashed into AB de Villiers’ pads as he leapt and tried to nudge the ball to leg all in one impossible motion.

Aleem Dar raised his finger, De Villiers reviewed, and the replay showed the ball would have clipped the outside third of leg stump. Not for the first time, “umpire’s call” was music to some ears and a curse to others.

Nothing else mattered, although JP Duminy stuck it out for an unbeaten 26 – only his third score of more than 20 in a dozen test innings.

Finn nailing Dale Steyn’s off stump gave him a haul of 4/42, and Moeen’s 3/47 added up to match figures of 7/116.

With that, SA’s test schedule for 2015 was done. Thursday’s result marked their third consecutive defeat. For the first time since 1963, no pair of their batsmen shared a century stand in a calendar year. They have since played 249 tests.

SA totalled more than 300 only once in 11 completed innings, against woeful West Indies at Newlands in January. They were dismissed for fewer than 200 six times and once – by India in Nagpur last month – for 79.

In 2015, SA played eight, won one, lost four and drew three.

Those are not the numbers associated with the No. 1 ranked team. In 2012, when SA earned that accolade in England, they were unbeaten in 10 tests and won half of them.

“Not scoring the runs has been our Achilles heel,” Hashim Amla said. “It’s been very disappointing for everybody. It’s a confidence thing. We don’t know how long the corner is (before it is turned). We hope it’s very close by.”

Amla himself will be keener than most to get around that corner. He averages 15.00 in his last 10 test innings. His overall average is 50.05.

“It’s about confidence,” he said. “It’s about getting the runs. The thing is, you get confident once you get the runs. You can be doing everything in the nets, putting the work in behind the scenes, but it’s got to materialise into runs on the board – especially in the big games.”

Could SA’s crash be traced to the World Cup in March, when the suits undermined the team by meddling in the selection of the XI for the semi-final against New Zealand, which SA duly lost?

“You’ve got to look at the formats separately,” Amla said. “The one-day team has been good since the World Cup. Beating India in India was a phenomenal effort for the one-day team and the T20 team.

“I wouldn’t say the World Cup was the start of anything. The test team itself has changed over the last couple of years. There are a lot of youngsters in the side. The test team is still finding something. It’s a developing team.”

An hour or so after all was done and said, Moeen, out of his whites but wearing England team gear, stepped across the boundary and headed for the middle.

He walked more slowly than usual, and for good reason. Busily toddling beside Moeen as fast as his two-year-old legs could carry him was Abu Bakr, his son.

The kid wore a white shirt and blue jeans. No green. No gold.

Earth to Steyn – even Ferraris wear out

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TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

DALE Steyn limps off, stage left. Injured. Again. South Africans have been shot in this movie before – nine times since June 2013.

It’s all very well being able to send the world’s No. 1 fast bowler onto the field with licence to kill for wickets, but that doesn’t amount to much if his guns keep jamming.

Steyn’s weaponry has done just that with alarming frequency since the 2013 Champions Trophy, when he missed three of SA’s seven games because of a groin strain.

Since then, he has tweaked a hamstring – on four different occasions – and suffered a side strain, a fractured rib, another groin strain, and now this: a shoulder problem that prevented him from bowling more than 23 deliveries in England’s second innings in the first test at Kingsmead.

It’s a sorry tale that has cost him three test caps and limited his involvement in four others. He has missed 21 one-day internationals and 17 Twenty20s during the same period, though more in an effort to ration the fuel left in the tank of this Ferrari.

Even though all that hurting has not had a marked effect on his wicket-taking – he claimed 5.10 scalps a test before June 2013 and has taken 4.35 since then – it’s enough to depress SA fans. Think, then, how it makes Steyn feel.

Here’s what he tweeted just more than an hour before the start of the first test on Saturday: “Boxing Day Test Match! F*k I’m excited!!!! Rain can kindly bugger off now please.”

The next day, after Steyn had felt the first pangs of his new pain, his enthusiasm had waned: “Shoulder is seer pal … Waiting for da drugs (legal) to kick in! Haha.”

Ominously for young people everywhere, the start of Steyn’s physical decline coincided with his 30th birthday on June 27 2013.

However, most young people do not make a living straining their bodies to the limit thousands of times a year in matches and in the nets, not to mention putting up with the pressure of being expected to win every time they go to the office.

Steyn is a rare athlete, even among fast bowlers. At 1.78 metres tall and wiry, he would look small next to a modern scrumhalf. Supreme fitness, a magnificent madness, and enough talent for a player twice his size has made him the star he is.

But Steyn, at 32 but with way more miles on the clock than he should have at that age, must be closer to the end of his career than South Africans would like to think.

Even Ferraris wear out.

De Villiers SA’s man on Everest

Times Media


TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

THE world ended at 3.41pm on Tuesday. At least, it did for Dean Elgar. When he swung wearily at a full, wide delivery from Steven Finn that found something nasty in Kingsmead’s sagging pitch, Elgar had been on the field for every minute of the first test between SA and England.

That’s a total of 1 406 minutes, only 34 short of a full 24 hours spread over four days. Elgar had spent a good chunk of that time carrying his bat for a century in SA’s first innings, but more than twice as much in the field trying to stop England from dominating. Like his teammates, he failed in that aim.

The thick edge curled off the wandering tangent that was Elgar’s bat and screamed through Durban’s damp, sticky soup of air. For an instant it threatened to dislocate second slip’s shoulder. Instead, it smacked into Joe Root’s hands and stayed there.

Elgar was free at last.

Not that he accepted his fate. He stood where he fell. He took a few steps forward and stood again. He removed his helmet and looked through eyes loaded with lead at something the rest of us will never see.

Perhaps he thought he had hit the ground and not the ball. Perhaps he was waiting for the umpires to check whether Finn had overstepped.

Perhaps he wondered how Stiaan van Zyl had clipped six fours in his 33, considering the wreck he has been for too many innings.

Perhaps he wondered where Hashim Amla had fetched the tailender’s slash that got him out.

Perhaps he couldn’t quite believe what a silly thing he himself had done.

Perhaps he knew it was over.

At last, he left.

Just more than an hour later, SA reached stumps on 136/4 – still 280 away from their target of 416, which is two runs shy of the most runs any team have yet scored in a successful runchase.

SA’s Everest of a target would have loomed even higher had Dane Piedt not become the first SA off-spinner to take five wickets in a test innings at Kingsmead since Hugh Tayfield in 1957.

“Test cricket is not played on the couch – if it was played on the couch it would be an easy game,” Piedt, who took 5/153, said to emphasise the enormity of Wednesday’s task.

Or was he getting at something else?

“Test cricket is not a Sunfoil Series game against the Knights in Kimberley.”

Did you hear that, Imran Tahir, you who took a career-best 8/42 for the Dolphins against the Knights in a Sunfoil Series match in Kimberley on Tuesday?

That kind of talk is encouragingly defiant, given that the closest a side batting last at Kingsmead have come to hunting down the kind of target that SA face on Wednesday was in March 2002, when they scored 340/5 to beat Australia.

Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and, yes, folks, Mark Waugh were Australia’s bowlers. But SA’s batsmen were Herschelle Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Neil McKenzie, Ashwell Prince and Mark Boucher. And the Aussies had already clinched the series.

This SA team are different from that XI in good and bad ways, but the more important truth is that they are not the force they were just a few months ago.

But if they find, from somewhere, the right stuff to win this match, they will have achieved what would be the greatest victory in SA’s history. Unarguably. Even a draw would be a significant feat considering the sorry mental state of SA’s batting line-up.

Either of those two outcomes seemed not quite probable but perhaps possible before an angled ripper from Finn took the shoulder of Faf du Plessis’ bat on its way to first slip, where Alastair Cook held a life-threatening catch.

“It wasn’t ideal to lose Faf so late in the day,” Piedt said. “But the batmen coming in, we’re really going to knuckle down.”

Du Plessis’ nine had taken him 103 minutes and 66 balls, and his dismissal brought Dale Steyn to the crease to face five slips, a silly mid-off and a short leg along with Finn and the last three balls of the day’s play.

Steyn got the job done, and this morning he and AB de Villiers – who survived a missed stumping by Jonny Bairstow seven overs before the close – will resume the fight.

Was De Villiers’ wicket the key on Wednesday, Finn was asked.

“He averages 50-odd in tests … So, yeah.”

Indeed. And that’s 51.62, if you please, Mr Finn.

  

  

    

De Villiers doesn’t deny, lending credence to retirement reports

Times Media


TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

AB de Villiers’ answer on Monday when he was asked if he was considering retiring amounted to 132 words. “No,” was not among them.

“There are a lot of rumours flying around, I hear,” De Villiers said in a television interview before the start of the third day’s play in the first test between SA and England at Kingsmead.

“For the last two to three years the only talk I’ve been doing is to keep myself fresh and to have a bit of rest here and there.

“It’s always been the most important thing for me to enjoy my cricket. It’s just important to look at the schedule moving forward. That’s the talk in the camp, and for me maybe not to play all kind of cricket.

“If I play all the IPL (Indian Premier League) games, the whole season, I do get a bit tired towards the end of the season.

“That’s the only thing that I’ve been talking about in the last while – to keep myself fresh and to keep enjoying the game. I love representing my country and nothing has changed.”

De Villiers has more than 106-million reasons to keep playing. That’s how much, in rand, his US$7-million sponsorship deal with a kit manufacturer is worth. 

The company will be keen to get their money’s worth of De Villiers raising their branded bats to acknowledge applause for his achievements in as many formats – and on as many television screens – as possible.

Losing De Villiers would be a shuddering blow to a test team in the throes of transition. Since he made his debut against England at St George’s Park in December 2004, no South African has played more than his 103 tests, had more than his 170 innings and scored more than his 7913 runs.

The same is true of De Villiers in a one-day sense and in two-thirds of that equation at Twenty20 level, in which JP Duminy alone has scored more runs for SA than he has. 

A story in Rapport at the weekend claimed De Villiers was mulling over his future as a test player and that he could hang up his whites as soon as the end of the England series next month.

Even considering Monday’s interview was conducted under the friendly fire of Cricket SA’s (CSA) broadcast rightsholders – and was thus less a credible media moment than an intervention by vested interests – De Villiers’ unclear answer was intriguing.

The key words were “ … for me maybe not to play all kind of cricket” – a strong suggestion that theories of his retirement in at least one format are far more credible than “rumours”.

Significantly, De Villiers chose to put playing in the IPL at the top of his list. That should tell cricket’s small seven, which includes CSA, something they won’t want to hear: pay your players more and treat them better or they will run away and join the T20 circus.

CSA should also understand that expecting De Villiers to explain clumsy board stunts like forcing the selection of injured, out of form players in a game as important as the World Cup semi-final will come back to bite them.

News of De Villiers thinking about calling it quits follows selection convenor Linda Zondi saying, less than three weeks ago, that he was “delighted that AB has agreed to take the (wicketkeeping) gloves again” for the first two tests against England.

Before the Kingsmead match he last did the job in a test seven games ago, and he has not been behind the stumps in SA’s last 22 one-day internationals. Clearly, he is a reluctant gloveman.

The Rapport article lumped Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander into the same boat as De Villiers, but there has been little reaction to the two fast bowlers possibly bowing out.

Times Media understands that Steyn is close to the end, but not because of his declining body.

“He’s angry,” a source said. “He’s a complex guy so it’s difficult to say why, but he is on his way out.”

Steyn’s agent, Dave Rundle, said the fast bowler was “not retiring yet”. Asked if he was considering quitting, Rundle said, “Not at the moment.”

Sources close to Philander say he is set on trying to play in at least 50 tests. Currently, he has 32 caps.

Both Steyn and Philander have proved injury prone recently, but SA have other quicks where they came from – even of their quality.

However, De Villiers is the lynchpin of SA’s batting. If he goes, plenty will go with him.

Steyn injury steals Elgar’s thunder

Times Media


TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

ALMOST 600 deliveries were bowled at Kingsmead on Monday. Three of them might have been watched more closely than all the rest put together.

An hour before the fateful balls were sent down, Dale Steyn interrupted his follow through to clutch his right shoulder after bowling his 20th delivery in England’s second innings on the third day of the first test.

He left the field and during his absence the press were told he had sustained a shoulder strain and would undergo a scan.

Five overs later Steyn was back on the field. Ten overs after that he stood at the top of his run, ready to bowl.

Which is when those fateful three balls came. Steyn seemed to get through the first two in one piece and the third, which nicked something as it veered down Nick Compton’s leg side, brought an appeal for caught behind.

SA reviewed Rod Tucker’s decision, but nothing on the replays provided enough evidence to overturn the on-field call of not out.

The crowd were still getting over that disappointment when they looked up to see Steyn, downcast, stalking off the field once more. When he reached the boundary he threw a paper cup at a cooler box in disgust. Damn. Not again.

Steyn swooped into this match on the wings of of expectation created by him returning to fitness having missed three-and-a-half of SA’s tests in India with a groin injury.

The anticipation was heightened when James Anderson was ruled out for Kingsmead with a calf injury.

That, surely, would hand SA a telling advantage. Instead, the home side go into the fourth day looking down at least one barrel of impending defeat: England will resume 261 runs ahead on 172/3.

Steyn returned but did not bowl again and his throwing from the field was reduced to under-arm efforts using his left arm.

The scan, SA team manager Mohammed Moosajee said, was “inconclusive – there were no tears to any of the muscles or the tendons or the ligaments; we’re treating it more as a shoulder spasm-cum-stiffness”.

SA will find out during the warm-up this morning whether Steyn will bowl on Tuesday.

Such grim news took from Dean Elgar the glory he had worked so hard for and so richly deserved. He batted for almost six-and-a-half hours for his undefeated 118 to became the sixth SA batsman and the first since Gary Kirsten in Faisalabad in 1997 to carry his bat.

For that, Elgar thanked the pitches on which he averaged 19.57 in seven innings recently.

“India didn’t give us a lot of confidence, but personally it did me the world of good,” he said. “Sometimes you need that kick up the backside to remind you that your comfort zone needs to get broken.

“India made me more aware of my surroundings and made me appreciate my batting position a little bit more.”

Among Elgar’s congratulators was Graeme Smith.

“We’re very similar in character when it comes to showing that little bit of  … You know … I want to say the word but I’m not going to say it …”

The word is balls, Mr Elgar, and you have earned every right to say it.

It is a cold heart indeed that is not warmed by watching Elgar scrap and squabble and stand as tall as his 1.77 metres will allow him to stand to score his runs. To see him do so for so long and so successfully is to understand cricket as a game for humans even in this age of super human players.

Elgar’s sturdiest support on Monday came from one of the latter, Steyn, who helped him add 54 at a touch less than three to the over in a stand that endured for 80 minutes. That partnership aside, no-one was able to stay with Elgar for more than 31 balls.

Moeen Ali’s precision and patience saw to that. The off-spinner bowled 150 deliveries and just 38 of them yielded runs. He took 4/69.

Dismissed for 214 – SA last passed 300 in January, or 10 completed innings ago – the home side were already 89 runs in the red when England began their second innings.

The Steyn saga didn’t help, but as he has done before in the world No. 1’s absence, Morne Morkel promoted himself from lieutenant to captain of the attack with confidence and capability. Dane Piedt, too, probed and parried well.

But with three catches going down – two dropped by De Villiers – SA were always going to struggle to stay in the running.

England’s batting first turned around Compton, who shared a stand of 71 with Joe Root. Root has since taken on the senior role in an unbroken partnership of 53 with James Taylor.

The three lions are indeed rampant.

  

  

Ghosts of past and present haunt SA

Times Media


TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead

SA played before and after cricket on the second day of the first test against England at Kingsmead on Sunday.

For the first two hours, they were again the team that had bestrode the test scene before their series in India – feisty and fiery. For much of the next six hours, they were the sorry lot who limped home from the sub-continent – uncertain of what to do and how to do it.

That the bowlers took charge of those first two hours to take England’s remaining six wickets for 124 runs and the batsmen were responsible for the rest – in which SA crashed to 113/4 – tells its own story of where Hashim Amla’s men are going wrong.

And it is the bowlers who will have to help the remaining batsmen dig them out of the ditch when SA resume on Monday on 137/4, or still 166 runs behind.

Precarious though the home side’s position is, it would have been much more so without the contributions of Morne Morkel and Dean Elgar.

Morkel’s haul of 4/76 showed that his surge into the spotlight in India in the absence of the then injured Dale Steyn was no fluke.

He bowled with pace and purpose to dismiss Nick Compton, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes – all except the latter the joint owners of five test centuries – with bounce and persistence.

“A lot of the time I will put pressure on myself, especially coming back from the subcontinent,” Morkel said. “You almost create the expectance of bouncy, quicker wickets, and you can put yourself under pressure.

“(On Saturday) I toiled hard and went wicketless, and I got some abuse on the way back to the hotel. But if you’re willing to put in the hard yards and put the ball in the right area consistently, you can get wickets. It’s nice to do it for the team, working into the wind to create some sort of pressure.”

Elgar, SA’s junkyard dog of an opening batsman, scrapped his way to an unbeaten 67; an innings that holds great import on Monday.

The left-hander watched Stiaan van Zyl, Amla and Faf du Plessis dismissed for single-figure scores and then hung tough with AB de Villiers in a stand of 86.

De Villiers is, as Morkel described him, “the rock of our batting line-up at the moment” – particularly with Amla having now gone 10 innings without scoring a half-century.

“There is a lot of pressure on (De Villiers),” Morkel said. “But he’s seen that movie before – he knows how to play it and he’s capable of handling that kind of thing. Every dressingroom would love to have him.”

Indeed, they would. Which only added to the alarm of a newspaper report on Sunday that claimed De Villiers was considering retirement from test cricket.

“He’s still very keen to play for SA and to break records,” Morkel said. “I think that’s just to sell some papers.”

SA enjoyed some luck on Sunday with Elgar surviving a yell for lbw when he was 56. Had England sent Aleem Dar’s not out decision Ben Stokes would have a wicket and SA would have been 117/5.

“We thought Elgar had hit the ball, that’s why we didn’t call for the review,” Stuart Broad said. 

With Elgar is Temba Bavuma, who showed admirable patience in using 15 balls to get off the mark. He will take guard again on Monday on 10.

JP Duminy is padded up and waiting to improve on the form he showed in India, and then SA will ask their bowlers to go out and bat for their team’s lives.

Team management’s decision to co-opt Lance Klusener to galvanise the lower order seemed odd when it was announced last week. Now it seems prescient.

It’s a long way to back to the top in this match for SA from here. As Broad said, “This morning is a big first hour.”

But Morkel had, in his own words, seen this movie before: “I can sit here and say all the right things, but it’s a matter of fronting up.”