TELFORD VICE, Bulawayo
IT was classic Chris Martin. The sublimely skilled New Zealand medium pacer, who batted about as well as Helen Zille avoids self harm on social media, thought there were two runs in Trent Boult’s flick to fine leg off Jacques Kallis.
Martin might have been right – had fine leg not been Dale Steyn, a truth inconvenient enough to stiffen Boult’s arm into a stop sign and fetch a roar of alarm from his throat. Both were meant to halt Martin at his end of the pitch.
Too late. Martin had turned for the second. Now, turning again, he was a praying mantis on flypaper, a mad flap of elbows and knees.
With fluid fury Steyn advanced rapidly, picked up and threw for all his worth. The ball flew flat and true to hit AB de Villiers’ gloves with a gunshot crack.
Plink went the bails off the stumps. They plunked to earth with Martin a metre out of his ground. He had not faced a ball.
Game over. New Zealand, dismissed for 45 in their first innings, had been beaten by an innings inside three days.
The South Africans, yawping in celebration, swooped for souvenir stumps. Newlands showered them with adulation.
It was January 4, 2013.
It was also Martin’s last test. By December Kallis would retire followed not quite 10 weeks later by Graeme Smith. Mark Boucher had stopped crouching behind the stumps almost 11 months before Martin’s last gasp.
Daniel Vettori, who missed that match, would appear just once more in whites. In February this year Brendon McCullum called it quits.
That’s 715 test caps gone from the game, 285 of them Kiwi and 430 South African. Also lost were 178 caps worth of captaincy – 63 by New Zealand, 115 by the Saffers.
Since the start of the fading of their bright lights, SA have won 52.9% of the 170 matches they have played across all formats and New Zealand 53.7% of their 163.
Won five, lost three is the Kiwis’ record in the 12 test series they have played since Martin went. SA have played 13, won eight and lost three.
But SA have not managed their transition anywhere near as well as New Zealand, who reeled off seven test series without defeat before losing home and away rubbers to Australia last season.
SA, after Boucher, have gone six and then three test series unbeaten. But last season they lost six of eight tests.
New Zealand were eighth in the rankings at the time of Martin’s last test. SA were No. 1. Now the Kiwis are fifth – one place above SA, who could slip to seventh if Sri Lanka beat Australia by a big enough margin in their current series.
What have New Zealand got right and SA wrong?
“We’ve had succession plans in place the last few years, so even though Brendon’s retirement came fractionally earlier than we anticipated we had still planned for it,” New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said.
“We’d spent a lot of time making sure we had people for every position in terms of replacements and making sure we used our high performance programme to get those other players up to speed. We have to direct what we’re after and the gaps we see.”
By “we” did Hesson mean the coaching staff, not the suits?
“Absolutely,” he said. “We see players at the coalface. We see how they react in certain situations.
“It’s a balance – you also want some advice from outside because you can become cocooned in what you see. But you definitely have to have a big say over that because you know what you’re looking for.”
Like Russell Domingo, his SA counterpart, Hesson never played first-class cricket. Unlike Domingo, he doesn’t have to implement quotas, worry what a failing currency could do to his player resources, put up with interfering administrators, or defend himself from a hostile public.
Then again, Hesson’s team wins. Or doesn’t lose often enough to keep the ire bubbling, like Domingo’s did last season.
Soon they will be at Kingsmead, directing operations at their coalfaces, winning and losing.