Steyn puts SA back on winning path

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TELFORD VICE, Centurion

HOW much does Dale Steyn have left in his 33-year-old tank? On the evidence of his performance against New Zealand at Centurion on Tuesday, plenty.

Steyn missed six of SA’s eight tests last season through injury, sparking fears that the career of the finest fast bowler of the age could be near its end.

But he roared back to the top of his game at Centurion, taking 5/33 to finish with match figures of 8/99 – which helped SA win the match by 204 runs and clinch the series 1-0.

With 416 wickets to his name Steyn is one away from matching Harbhajan Singh and a half-dozen shy of toppling Shaun Pollock as SA’s top bowler.

His haul took him past Wasim Akram’s total of 414 and earned him 11th place on the list of all-time leading wicket-takers.

Steyn’s contribution was massive, but SA captain Faf du Plessis focused on the bigger picture.

“We almost played the perfect test,” Du Plessis said. “If I could have written a script, that’s how I would have written it.”

SA lost six of the eight tests they played last season, and consequently dwindled from No. 1 to seventh in the rankings.

The series win took them up to fifth place, and Du Plessis was confident SA would reclaim more lost ground.

“We’ve definitely found our passion again,” he said.

New Zealand, set 400 to win when SA declared their second innings closed on 132/7 after batting for an hour on Tuesday, were dismissed for 195 late on the fourth day.

The die for the match was cast when New Zealand captain Kane Williamson won the toss and handed first use of the pitch to SA, who declared on 481/8.

“It was a very good toss to lose and unfortunately I eon it,” Williamson said.

Henry Nicholls was the last man out for a career-best 76, the product of more than four hours at the crease.

New Zealand were in trouble from the first ball of their second innings, a rising delivery from Steyn that Tom Latham tried to leave but deflected onto his stumps instead.

With the last ball of that over Steyn produced a fine away swinger that Martin Guptill could only edge to Hashim Amla at first slip.

Vernon Philander rapped Kane Williamson on his left hand with another steepling delivery, causing New Zealand’s captain to call for assistance from the team physiotherapist.

Williamson took time out to receive further treatment at every opportunity, but that didn’t stop Steyn trapping Ross Taylor in front with a delivery that kept low and jagged away off the seam.

Philander ended Williamson’s misery, though not his agony, with the help of a superb diving catch by Quinton de Kock.

Thus were New Zealand reduced to 7/4 in 18 deliveries, and with three of those four gone for ducks.

But the next 26.3 overs were wicketless as Nicholls and BJ Watling steadied the innings with a stand of 68.

The partnership was broken before tea when Dane Piedt trapped Watling in front for 32 with a turning delivery that would have hit the top of middle and leg stumps.

Steyn uprooted Mitchell Santner’s middle stump after tea before Nicholls and the aggressive Doug Bracewell added 46 for the seventh wicket, a stand ended when Philander had Bracewell leg-before for 30 with a ball that was homing in high on leg stump.

Kagiso Rabada yorked the free-swinging Tim Southee before he trapped Neil Wagner plumb in front.

Steyn ended the match when Nicholls heaved a pull to deep fine leg, where Rabada held the catch.

SA steam towards series win

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TELFORD VICE, Centurion

SOME time on Tuesday SA will dull the disappointment of last season’s campaign by winning the second test at Centurion and with it their series against New Zealand.

Or it might happen on Wednesday. But happen it will.

If that seems to be over-confidence in a team that won only one of their six tests last summer, consider that the Kiwis already need 122 more runs than any side have yet scored to win a test at Centurion.

That was the 251 England made in January 2000 after Hansie Cronje made a deal with the devil and a man with a leather jacket – not to mention a paper bag filled with dirty money – to force a positive result after three days had been lost to rain.

No such skulduggery seems likely to infect this match, in which SA were 105/6 at stumps on the third day on Monday to build their lead to 372.

Given a pitch that is showing signs of inconsistent bounce, and an attack that dismissed the visitors for 214 in the first innings, victory for SA is significantly more probable than possible.

“Those cracks will widen as the game goes on – it’s probably going to get worse,”

Might New Zealand find themselves batting first thing this morning?

“There are two days left in the game so if we can bat until lunchtime, who knows,” Steyn said.

“There’s no point declaring overnight and leaving them a bit of a sniff.”

Steyn and Kagiso Rabada shared six wickets to keep SA on top before volunteer opener Quinton de Kock helped himself to his second half-century of the match to confirm the home side’s dominance.

De Kock, who had not opened the batting in any of his 13 previous test innings, offered to do so after Dean Elgar twisted an ankle while stepping over the boundary the day before the match.

Having scored 82 in the first innings, De Kock clipped 50 off 43 balls on Monday.

He announced his intentions early by collecting four boundaries – two of them off the outside edge off his bat – from the first four balls he faced.

But De Kock’s hustle and bustle was not matched by his teammates, and when he was felled trying to take evasive action from a Doug Bracewell bouncer – and sent a looping catch to gully instead – SA were 82/5.

Temba Bavuma’s patience for his unbeaten 25 off 69 balls helped stop the slide.

A similar approach from Kane Williamson kept New Zealand’s heads above water after they resumed on 38/3.

Williamson scored a defiant 77 but his only significant support came in stands of 60 with Henry Nicholls and 45 with Neil Wagner.

Nicholls spent 67 balls on his 36 and Wagner clipped his 31 off 30 deliveries.

Wagner, who peppered SA’s batsmen with short deliveries on the first two days, was consequently welcomed to the crease with a bouncer to the helmet from Rabada.

That was the first element of what became a barrage of threatening deliveries, but Wagner gave as good as he got – hitting four fours and smashing Steyn over long-on for six.

Wagner’s assault seemed to sting Steyn even after stumps.

“If he wanted to be more courageous and brave he would have been 30 off 90 (balls) and watched his captain get to a hundred, rather than 31 and walk off the pitch saying I’ve done my job,” Steyn said. “That’s not your job.”

But Steyn managed to backtrack enough to call Wagner “a brave cricketer, an all-heart player”.

Bracewell confirmed that the SA bowlers’ aggression levels had peaked when Wagner walked to the wicket.

“It got a bit heated and a few words were said,” Bracewell said.

Among those words might have been lessons on how Wagner, an Afrikaner who was born and raised in Pretoria and moved to New Zealand in 2008, should pronounce his surname.

“My name’s Wagner now,” he said on Saturday in a twangy accent.

As in what New Zealand’s tail did when he was at the crease.

Captain Faftastic, warts and all

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TELFORD VICE, Centurion

IT was hard to like Faf du Plessis’ grinding, obdurate, unlovely, sometimes butt ugly innings in the second test at Centurion on Sunday.

But, of the top five batsman, all of whom passed 50 for only the second time in all SA’s 733 innings in test cricket, Du Plessis stood alone.

Only he gutsed it out on a challenging pitch and against classy bowlers to score a century – a gritty undefeated 112 in more than six hours and off 234 balls; a monument to the patience of the batsman himself as well as those who watched him bat.

Du Plessis had everything to do with SA being able to declare on 481/8.

Only six times in the 88 tests in which they have been put in to bat have SA made a higher score in the first innings.

By stumps on the second day New Zealand had slip slided away to 38/3.

“Since day one we sensed that there’s a lot happening in this wicket,” Du Plessis said. “We needed one guy to anchor the innings. The plan was also to have a dip at them at the end.”

But for that plan to come together SA needed someone to hang tough.

And who better than their captain.

“I score hundreds – that’s my job,” Du Plessis said, and you could tell that he believed it even though Sunday’s effort was his first century in 17 completed test innings.

Indeed, Du Plessis should have been out for 18, but Henry Nicholls on the square leg boundary couldn’t hang on to a pull hoisted off Trent Boult.

Instead he kept SA going forward, albeit painstakingly, in stands of 71 with JP Duminy and 84 with Stiaan van Zyl.

Duminy, who resumed on 67, had a chance to score what would have been his first century in 14 completed test innings.

But he was out in the 12th over of the day when he flapped at a short delivery from Tim Southee and was caught behind.

Du Plessis avoided adding to the success of his fellow Pretoria native and former schoolmate, Neil Wagner, who took 5/86.

“I read last night that he was determined to get me out, so maybe that made me determined not to get out to him,” Du Plessis said.

Then he paid Wagner the ultimate compliment, at least between blue-collar battlers: “He’s a grafter, you can see that.”

Southee also had shining words for Wagner: “He’ll make something happen from nothing and today was no different.”

Dale Steyn lifted left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner down the ground for consecutive sixes, the first of which bounced on the roof of the grandstand.

Two balls later the declaration came, and Philander found the edge of Martin Guptill’s bat with his fifth delivery only for the ball to scream through Van Zyl’s hands at third slip.

Philander repeated the dose in his next over and this time Van Zyl clung to the catch.

Six balls after that Steyn had Tom Latham caught behind on review after umpire Paul Reiffel ruled bat had not touched ball.

Replays did not seem to reveal enough evidence to overturn that decision – ball, it appeared, he flicked the pocket of Latham’s trousers and nothing else – but television official Richard Illingworth said otherwise.

New Zealand were 26/3 when Ross Taylor thought there was a single in his bunt to midwicket off Kagiso Rabada.

Clearly he hadn’t considered the fleetfooted Temba Bavuma, who scooted from short fine leg to pounce and throw down the wicket with Taylor out of his ground.

Much will depend on Monday on Kane Williamson, who was 15 not out at stumps.

One captain has stepped into the breach in this match already. Will another?

The difference between Pakistan and SA

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Centurion

WHEN Misbah-ul-Haq walked to the middle for the toss in Dubai on November 12, 2010 he took the first steps of a journey that, Inshallah, would guide him deep into the warm half of a demanding nation’s heart.

Did he know the way there, and what obstacles he would have to overcome en route? No.

What was known, by all, was that he was captaining Pakistan in a test for the first time.

And that his counterpart was a large, lusty left-hander seven years his junior but with 78 tests as captain already in his character bank; a man who led by instinct and example and who wasn’t afraid to play a game as brashly bullish as the one he talked. 

Only three players were younger than this man when they were saddled with the cares of test captaincy. Only 32 players were older than Misbah when they were thus burdened.

The coin went up, Graeme Smith called correctly, and the rest was about to become history.

That history reached a poignant point this week when Misbah took his team to the No. 1 test ranking.

He did so in England, the country in which Smith also led his men to the accolade in August 2012.

A few months short of five years from that day in Dubai, South Africa have slumped to No. 7. If they beat New Zealand at Centurion they will rise to No. 6. Whoop-tee-do.

Much more notably, Pakistan last played at home in March 2009. They have been on the road for seven years and 62 tests, 21 of them in their adopted territory of the United Arab Emirates.

In the same period South Africa have played 32 of their 59 tests in front of adoring home crowds.

“Sometimes people think it’s easy, that the UAE suits us and we win,” Misbah told reporters at the Oval, where  Pakistan’s ascent was completed.

“But just living every day away from our country, without family and friends, it’s really difficult. It’s mentally tough.

“I see my mother and sister only once a year and some friends not for three or four years.”

Contrast that with what Faf du Plessis said on Friday: “We want to try and play as many tests as possible, especially in South Africa.

“We don’t play a lot of tests here … you want to try and make use of your own conditions …

And so say every test captain, Pakistan’s excepted.

Of the players in the Pakistan and South Africa XIs who lined up in Dubai in 2010, and measured against their most recent tests, four players in each are still in the mix. That’s if we count AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel, who are out of the New Zealand series through injury.

But, while Misbah has gone about collecting 46 caps at the helm on his own, South Africa have been captained by four men.

This is the focal point of the chasm between the two teams, and it has meant that Pakistan have enjoyed the kind of stability South Africa have too often looked lost without.

It helps that Misbah is the calmest man in cricket. Which is not to say Hashim Amla, De Villiers and Du Plessis, the men who have led South Africa after Smith, are hotheads.

But of them only Du Plessis has the bulletproof confidence of a surgeon holding a patient’s life in their hands, and Du Plessis will be in charge only until De Villiers’ elbow heals.

Misbah is 42 and raging, with dignity, against the dying of the light. Smith, who retired prematurely, is 35.

One is making history. The other is history.

Inshallah, history will judge them deservedly.

LEADING EDGE: Empathy for the suits

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Centurion

YOU won’t often find empathy for the suits in this space. But these are strange days indeed, and some of the strangest passed like a bizarre parade at Kingsmead last week.

It was called the first test, but only 99.4 of the 450 overs scheduled were bowled because of the damage a night of lashing rain did to the freshly relaid outfield.

Too wet for play, the umpires – Ian Gould, Richard Illingworth and Shaun George – said the next day. Too soft for play, they said for two more days.

Game over. The match was drawn and Kingsmead was hung and quartered as a venue unfit to host test cricket in that vast vacuum of sense and sensibility we call social media, where comment is sacred but facts are free (often of truth).

Did the umpires get it wrong by not allowing that comically over-protected species of sportsperson, the professional cricketer, to do their thing?

Who can say. Few people besides the umpires were allowed to assess the field themselves. At least two reporters who tried to do so were shooed off by security.

Did the match referee, Andy Pycroft, waste an opportunity to take the edge off the controversy when he refused a request from the press to explain the umpires’ thinking, or even to say why he would not discuss the issue?

Hell yes. The days of suits thinking they can kill a story by saying nothing are long gone.

So Faeez Jaffer, Brett Proctor and Wilson Ngobese – respectively the president of the KwaZulu-Natal Cricket Union (KZNCU), and Kingsmead’s stadium manager and groundsman – were left to twist in the ill wind that stank up the web in the wake of all that.

Cue empathy for the suits.

Jaffer took things on the chin at the main gate, collar and tie and all, with a cheerful, “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

Proctor either was on his phone or his walkie-talkie, sometimes both, his hair turning a whiter shade of grey with each passing field inspection.

As a senior member of the Ancient Order of Okes in Short Pants (never trust a groundsman who wears long pants) Ngobese is no suit. But he was targetted for the same abuse.

It was unfair and unwarranted, and it could have been avoided had Cricket SA (CSA) heeded Ngobese’s warning to not replace 40 tons of what used to be Kingsmead’s outfield just seven weeks before the test.

Likewise, had 65 millimetres of rain not gushed down in a few hours at a time of year that should not have yielded anything like as much, we would have had a match worthy of its status.

And if the KZNCU had the R400 000 they reckon would buy enough covers to keep the entire ground safe, it would hardly matter how much rain fell. How about CSA pay for a bumper set of covers, which travel with the SA team?

Also, could we stop treating cricketers as if they are descended from Humpty Dumpty? It’s not as if rugby players or footballers twist an ankle every time they sprint on a wet field.

So, here’s to you, Messrs. Jaffer, Proctor and Ngobese. Cricket is a better game for your efforts. But it could be so much better.

Big stand calls back SA’s past

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Centurion

THE last time South Africa scored more runs for the first wicket than they did against New Zealand on Saturday, Kenny Dalglish celebrated turning 54. He is now 65.

Graeme Smith has two reasons to remember the day – as a Liverpool supporter and because he and AB de Villiers were responsible for that log ago partnership.

They shared 217 at Newlands on March 4, 2005, the first of the two glory days South Africa needed to beat Zimbabwe by an innings.

No such drama electrified Saturday’s play, but considering South Africa’s form last season their supporters will be satisfied that they will resume on Sunday on 283/3.

But they will also be disquieted that Stephen Cook, Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla players failed to convert 50s into centuries.

Another half-centurion, JP Duminy, will bat on having emerged from more than two years in a wilderness of 10 completed innings in which he did not reach 50.

Cook and De Kock put on 133 for the first wicket, the latter opening the batting in a test for the first time and not since February 2014 at first-class level.

De Kock was promoted in the wake of an ankle injury Dean Elgar somehow sustained while crossing the boundary after training on Friday.

Or maybe De Kock promoted himself out of altruism.

“I said to ‘Rus’ (Domingo), ‘If you want me to I’ll do it’,” De Kock said.

Having drilled 15 fours in his 82, would he be up for the job again?

“No. It was cool and I learnt a bit about myself, but I’ll stay at No. 7, thanks.”

Pity, because for only the third time in all 217 of South Africa’s home tests their opening pair put on 100 before lunch on the first day, a milestone they reached having each survived chances put down by wicketkeeper BJ Watling.

But they were dismissed seven overs apart. De Kock, not content with having ramped Wagner over the slips and through third man for four, pulled raggedly at the left-armer’s next delivery and was caught on the fine leg fence. Cook fell to a catch in the gully, smartly snaffled low down by Kane Williamson.

Hashim Amla and Duminy kept taking the fight to the visitors in a stand of 95 ended when Amla couldn’t help edge a delivery from Wagner that swung towards leg and veered towards off after pitching. This time Watling held on.

Beyond the numbers it was the first time in forever that South Africa looked like a team not in decline.

A fine pitch, spiked with significant but not too much bounce, was one part of that equation. Another was Williamson’s decision to field first, perhaps prompted by the feeling that a pitch 20 days in the making should not deteriorate unduly.

The umpiring also favoured South Africa.

Paul Reiffel turned down Trent Boult’s early lbw appeal for Cook’s wicket. New Zealand reviewed and replays showed Cook had edged an inswinger.

Amla was given out lbw to Boult by Ian Gould only for the review to reveal the ball would have missed leg stump.

Gould also rejected lbw appeals for the wickets of Cook and Duminy, both of which would have been given out on replay evidence. The New Zealanders, no doubt mindful that they had only one review left, declined to risk using it both times.

Duminy showed no such reticence when Gould gave him out lbw. And a good thing, too: the ball had pitched outside leg.

Now Duminy, 33 runs short of a century, has the chance to make it count.

From Pretoria to the land of the long flat vowel

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Centurion

THE name’s Wagner, Neil Wagner. It’s not Vaagner, as someone from Pretoria, where Wagner was born and raised before moving to New Zealand in 2008, would say.

“Everyone one in New Zealand calls me Wagner,” he said. “My nickname’s ‘Wags’. I’m not really too fussed about anything like that but Wagner’s my surname now.”

New Zealand had “played a big role in who I am today and what I’ve become as a cricketer”.

Listening to Wagner there was no mistaking his allegiance to the land of the long, flat vowel. At least not to South African ears.

“I still can speak (Afrikaans) but I’m a fully converted Kiwi now. I don’t know about the accent. If I come here I’ve got an accent. If I go to New Zealand I’ve got an accent. When I got to England I get called an Australian. I never win.”

Wherever he goes Wagner is a useful left-arm fast bowler, good enough to take 2/51 on the first day of the second test against South Africa at Centurion on Saturday.

“I had a lot of goosebumps when I walked out,” he said. “It’s the first time in my life that I had my whole family and a lot of my friends that I grew up with sit next to a field and watch a test match.

“I remember sitting on that grass bank and watching Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock bowl and really feeling love for this game.”

Like AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, Wagner attended Affies.

“You run into Faf and you want to have a laugh because there’s a lot of memories from school in your head,” Wagner said.

“You try and put that out of your head and focus on the battle: you want to get him out. That’s the main thing.”

The battle resumes on Sunday.