Cricket runs out SA’s rugby plan

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE at the Basin Reserve

JOHN Plumtree would have understood. The former Sharks coach, now in charge of the Hurricanes’ forwards, had organised tickets for South Africa’s cricketers to watch Saturday’s Super Rugby match against the Highlanders.

Play on the third day of the second test at the Basin Reserve was scheduled to end by, at the latest, 6.30pm.

The kick-off at the Cake Tin, less than four kilometres away along the Cook Strait, was set for 7.30pm.

An hour to get there in a city built on a human scale and on roads quietened for the weekend? No worries.

First one in buys the hot dogs. Halaal for ‘Hash’ and ‘Parney’, vegetarian for Keshav, vegan for Morne. Unless he wants one of those green smoothies. Sorted.

Except that South Africa fell victim to their own success.

At 6.30pm they were 33 runs away from winning. That meant play had to continue until 7pm.

At 6.56pm, JP Duminy smeared a flaccid offering from Jimmy Neesham through midwicket for four. Game over.

South Africa had won by eight wickets with two days to spare, a startling result that, in the light of a morning the colour of curdling milk, had seemed about as likely as the Springboks holding the All Blacks scoreless at the Cake Tin, or anywhere else.

Wonderful. But, after all the yammering that had to be done to the press and the television types in the wake of the surge to victory, there was no time left to make it to the rugby. Sorry, ‘Plum’. But thanks.

When Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel resumed South Africa’s first innings, a long day’s journey into days four and five seemed in the offing, especially as the pitch showed nary a sign of wear.

Three overs later, having taken the lead to 91, Philander and Morkel were hurrying back to the dressingroom to change into their bowling boots.

Few would have thought New Zealand would lose five wickets, three of them to a particularly malevolent Morne Morkel, before they were in credit on the scoreboard.

Even fewer would have predicted that South Africa’s star bowler would not be Morkel, Philander or Kagiso Rabada, but their utter antithesis: a skinny, diffident, left-arm boy scout.

“Being a spinner of minimal variation I have to rely on consistency,” Keshav Maharaj said with not a hint of false modesty.

That he did, and then some, to take 6/40, the best figures in a test innings by a South African slow bowler since 2003 and the first time a spinner has claimed a half-dozen for South Africa since 2009. 

New Zealand’s lone noteworthy performance came from Jeet Raval, the opener who survived two dropped catches and a missed stumping to score 80, his team’s only effort above 30.

They were dismissed for 171 in 63.2 overs. As their captain, Kane Williamson, explained: “A bad day – very, very bad.”

Damn straight. But what had Maharaj brought to South Africa’s party?

“Control,” Faf du Plessis said. “He doesn’t bowl a lot of bad balls and if you look at the best spinners – (Rangana) Herath, (Ravindra) Jadeja, (Nathan) Lyon, (Ravichandran) Ashwin, they don’t bowl a lot of bad balls.”

How had South Africa engineered this triumph over not only their opponents but also conditions that were cruel and inhuman?

“For most of the morning session it was going to be the seamers, and with the wind blowing it was always going to be quite tough,” Du Plessis said.

“I tried Morne for one over from the bottom end to see if there was something, but there wasn’t enough there.

“So I pretty much went straight to the spinner and with the strong wind there was quite a bit of drift.

“So it was never easy for the batsmen.”

And everyone else. But the way the South Africans rose to the challenge would have earned the respect of all. ‘Plum’ included.


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