TELFORD VICE, Durban
NEW Zealand is among the few places on earth that can claim to be greener than KwaZulu-Natal.
Perhaps that’s why the look of Kingmead’s outfield alarmed some of the Kiwis who saw it on Wednesday – two days before the start of their team’s test series against SA.
Green the outfield certainly is. But it is also sandy in patches, crunchy underfoot, and nothing like the lush living carpet it is during the summer months.
Which is to be expected. The latest in the year that a Kingsmead test has ended is March 29, while the earliest one has started is November 13.
Friday’s date, August 19, is bang in the middle of that window of uncertainty, which is almost eight months big.
But nevermind the outfield. How the pitch will play is the major mystery.
“There’s a lot more grass than what there was in Bulawayo (where New Zealand played two tests in the past three weeks),” fast bowler Tim Southee said after training on Wednesday.
“It’s a different time of year to what they’re used to playing here, but there is a nice, even coverage of grass and the nets have plenty of bounce in them.”
Which doesn’t square with what Dale Steyn said about Kingsmead earlier this week: “If the pitch plays like the nets it’s going to be flat.”
Not that Dane Piedt would confused by the contradiction.
“The pace that I bowl will be key – higher pace rather than slow,” the off-spinner said. “That’s going to be the key in order to control the game and have that ability to strike.”
Piedt based his theory on the first test against England at Kingsmead in December, when he took 5/153 in the second innings.
“The latter end of my spell was quite good because I bowled quite quickly through the air and that created more opportunity for me to get wickets.
“That’s the way I will approach this test because of the nature of the surface and the time of the year.”
Another part of Piedt’s plan was “just to stop the game and frustrate the Kiwi batsmen”.
“Hopefully that will bring out some loose shots and that will be how I get wickets,” he said.
“But I have a feeling it will spin a little bit, especially early on. I think day three will be quite good to bat on and as the match goes on it will spin more.”
AB de Villiers won’t waste time analysing the conditions considering he is out of the series with an elbow injury.
How did Southee feel about that?
“It’s nice,” he said with a smile. “He’s obviously a quality player and has been a great player for a long time. But by no means does that make them an easier side.”
Having sidestepped confirming the obvious – that SA are indeed a lesser team without cricket’s most innovative batsman – Southee also managed to look past the fact that the home side are not the force they were when New Zealand last played tests here.
That was in January 2013, when top-ranked SA dismissed No. 8 New Zealand for 45 at Newlands and racked up 525/8 declared at St George’s Park. SA have since dwindled to No. 7 and the Kiwis are in fifth place.
But Southee stayed firmly on message: “I don’t think SA are on the way down. They’re a quality side and in their own conditions they’ve shown that they are a good side.”
Besides, New Zealand have won only three of the 23 tests they have played in this country.
“Our history in SA isn’t great and we’re looking to perform and grow as a side,” Southee said.
“That (2013) series was a starting point for us as a side and we’ve slowly improved, but we’re still looking to improve away from home.
“This is a big series for that.”
And how. It’s the best chance New Zealand have yet had to win a rubber in SA.