Fast, furious, festive

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth

ST George’s Park makes fast bowlers sit bolt upright in bed in the heart of the uneasy darkness of night, cold sweat sticking the sheets to a body that will be much the worse for wear – and for scant reward – the next day.

Slow. Low. All day. For five days. The horror, the horror …

It is on this apparently cursed patch of earth that South Africa and Sri Lanka will contest the first test, starting on Monday. Already the quicks are twitching anxiously.

Should they be? No, according to St George’s Park groundsman Adrian Carter.

“I’m not sure that St George’s hasn’t maybe been given a bad rap over the years,” Carter said. “People including the players decide that it’s going to be low and slow even before they’ve had a look.

“It’s isn’t ever going to be the Wanderers or Centurion or the WACA. But it isn’t as low and slow as everyone thinks.

“We’ve tried extremely hard over a number of years to try and get more pace and bounce out of the surface – we’ve gone so far as to import bully (loam) from around the country – and it hasn’t made a hell of a big difference.

“After 18 years of being at St George’s I have resigned myself to the fact that we are a bit on the slow side, and I can accept it.”

Pertinently, Carter says bowlers should do the same.

“The quicks aren’t going to get wickets by hitting guys on the head and on the gloves. Once you learn how to bowl at St George’s there is definitely something for the seam bowlers.

“I’ve seen in franchise cricket where we’ve left a lot of grass on and the bowlers see this and get all excited, and they bang it in halfway down the pitch. All that happens is they get despatched.”

Bowling properly at St George’s Park means bowling a fuller length.

As exhibit A for how to do that Carter held up Dale Steyn’s performance against Australia in Port Elizabeth in February 2014: “He picked up five for absolutely nothing.”

Actually Steyn took 4/55 – three of them for 10 runs in four overs as the Aussies bled four wickets for a solitary single – to bowl South Africa to a rousing win.

But you could see how Carter got there, given that Steyn bowled better that day than he has done in claiming some of his 26 five-wicket hauls.

Fuelled by a personal internal furnace, he pitched the ball up and allowed reverse swing to do the rest. ’Twas at once a thing of beauty and brutality.

And not at all rare at this ground, where fast bowlers have taken 21 five-wicket hauls. Spinners? Five.

The top six bowling performances in the first innings of tests at St George’s Park have all been delivered by seamers.

That falls to five in the second innings, and four and two in the third and fourth innings.

So, the spinners come into the reckoning as the pitch deteriorates – which is what is supposed to happen wherever cricket is played.

Steyn will not be back at St George’s Park on Monday, thanks to his broken shoulder. Neither will Morne Morkel, because of a back injury.

Which leaves Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott: not the worst supporting cast.

No-one in the Lankan camp can compete with that lot. In fact a better question is whether their batsmen have what it takes to survive – let’s not talk about prospering just yet – against South Africa’s superior pace attack.

But they do have Rangana Herath, he of the boep and the bristling moustache who spurred Sri Lanka to victory at Kingsmead in December 2011 with his left-arm straight breaks.

Hashim Amla is the only survivor from that South African team. And he won’t be waking up in a sweat.

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