TELFORD VICE in Hamilton
KESHAV Maharaj turned the ball square on a pitch that looked and felt like a vast sheet of sandpaper at Seddon Park on Friday.
“It’s like India,” he said as another delivery jagged jauntily from leg to off before smacking into the catcher’s mitt worn by Claude Henderson, South Africa’s spin bowling consultant.
The pitch was near the edge of the half the table that has been laid with clay from Patumahoe, which produces faster surfaces that favour seamers.
Several strips away lurked the pitch for Saturday’s third test between New Zealand and South Africa.
It has been cut from the Waikari section of the block – code for a slower, turning pitch.
If Maharaj found sharp turn on an allegedly unhelpful pitch, what might he do on a surface made with bowlers of his ilk in mind?
But the telling fact was that the training surface was a recovering pitch devoid of grass.
Not so the match pitch, which sported a veritable duvet of the stuff – not as green as it was two days ago but eye-catching enough to make you wonder what the Kiwis are playing at.
Maharaj took 6/40 on a similar surface in the second innings at the Basin Reserve on Saturday, which was as much a testament to his discipline and precision as it was to the quality of fast bowling South Africa delivered to keep the pressure on the home side’s batsmen.
What with Maharaj sure to play on Saturday, Dane Piedt freshly arrived from South Africa as a second specialist spinning option, and JP Duminy – who claimed four wickets in Wellington – in the mix the visitors have those bases covered.
Besides, who would leave grass on the pitch for an opposition pace battery comprising Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel?
And especially not when your own seam attack has suffered the body blows of Tim Southee and Trent Boult being ruled out with a torn hamstring and an upper leg problem.
Who could blame Faf du Plessis for hedging his bets when he was asked whether he had settled on an XI.
“They’ve just unveiled the pitch, so we’ll make a decision depending on whether they still cut the grass off,” Faf du Plessis said at lunchtime on Friday.
“We’ll make that call possibly after practice today. We might even push it towards tomorrow.”
That said, Du Plessis was waiting on the outcome of Quinton de Kock’s fitness test.
De Kock, who injured a tendon in an index finger at the Basin, was subsequently passed good to go – albeit gingerly.
He will wear a specially made protective pad on the damaged finger, which by the look of it could make for a tight squeeze into his right wicketkeeping glove.
“There’s one more game for him to go and it’s a big game for us as a team,” Du Plessis said before De Kock’s availability was confirmed. “He wants to be a part of it.”
South Africa, too, want De Kock around, and not only behind the stumps.
With half their top six performing below their own standards they need the stability De Kock offers at No. 7.
Between them, Dean Elgar, Du Plessis and Bavuma have scored 544 runs in 10 innings in the series.
The other half of the top six, Stephen Cook, Hashim Amla and Duminy, have mustered 169 in 12.
Wellington was a case in point. The visitors had crashed to 94/6 in their first innings when Bavuma and De Kock shared 160 to put them on the path to their total of 359.
Even so, there aren’t too many worries in a South African dressingroom that knows that all they need to do in Hamilton, where rain is dominating the forecast, to seal the series is not lose.
They are facing a Kiwi side not only without Boult and Southee but also Ross Taylor, who tore a calf during the first test in Dunedin.
Taylor is the longest-serving test player among them, and since his debut against South Africa at the Wanderers in November 2007 New Zealand have played only two tests without all three.
The surprise, perhaps, is that they won both. Less surprising is that their opponents were Bangladesh.
South Africa are in a different class, whatever the nature of the pitch.