Ready or not, here comes the cricket season

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

TABRAIZ Shamsi or Theunis de Bruyn?* It’s a simple question complicated by the conditions, the weather, and the opposition.

But it’s a trifle compared to the upheaval the home side are likely to face: no captain, no coach, no manager*.

Here we go, cricket lovers … the new season is upon us, ready or not.

South Africa need to have their answers to selectorial questions ready on Thursday morning when Faf du Plessis walks out to the middle in Galle, team sheet for the first Test against Sri Lanka in hand.

“We had a look at the wicket and it is quite dry,” Du Plessis told reporters in Galle on Wednesday.

“For us we need to consider whether to play seven batsmen or two spinners; that’s the decision we’ll have to make.

“We certainly still believe that our three seamers can get wickets on a dry pitch.

“The ball will reverse swing if it’s dry, and with pace reverse swing is always a factor.

“The decision will lie on whether we want to play a second spinner, or an extra batsmen.”

There would seem to be no chance, then, of the visitors picking another spinner at the expense of one of their quicks.

Why should there be? On their last visit to Galle — in July 2014 — Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel claimed 16 wickets in South Africa’s 153-run win.

Morkel has retired but another veteran of that match, Vernon Philander, is still at it with all his canny skill and even more experience.

Steyn, his injuries repaired and his fire stoked, needs three wickets to become South Africa’s champion bowler.

“Dale’s x-factor is how he picks up wickets with a reverse-swinging ball,” Du Plessis said.

“His way of getting wickets with the new ball is getting it to move around a little bit with swing and a little bit of seam, and really consistently.

“But there’s a period of the game Dale gets his tail up. He gets one wicket, and is up there with the most dangerous bowlers in the world — because he is so skillful and he can get the ball to reverse swing at pace.

“I’m hoping to see Dale bowl really quick again. He hasn’t bowled for a long time, so he’ll be excited to get the opportunity again.

“It’s a good sight to see when he gets the ball reversing, and he’s running in and getting those legs going really, really fast.”

To throw Kagiso Rabada, the No. 1 ranked bowler, into that mix seems almost unfair on the Lankans, but that is their likely fate.

“[Rabada has] the ability now to swing the ball both ways with a reverse-swinging ball, which is a skill that not a lot of bowlers have,” Du Plessis said.

“And once again, pace against any subcontinent team is something you want try and expose. We’ll have to see to what extent the wicket allows for that.”

Rabada’s place is surely safe, but the South Africans have the option of Lungi Ngidi, all 1.93 metres of him, thundering in and unleashing at 150 kilometres an hour.

Rain has lashed the southwestern port city for much of the past week and could disrupt the match, which will add a layer of complexity to selection decisions.

“We’re still contemplating who the best suited seamers will be for the wicket,” Du Plessis said. “Because of the rain we haven’t had a lot of practice for the last two days for the bowlers.”

Among the certainties is that left-armer Keshav Maharaj, who after only 20 Tests is ranked seventh among slow bowlers, will play.

“‘Kesh’ bowls the majority of his Test overs on flat wickets, wickets that don’t assist him at all,” Du Plessis said.

“The thing with ‘Kesh’ is that he gives you control; the best spinners in the world have got a huge strength in control.

“‘Kesh’s control is already there. We know that.

“Now he’s got pitches that offer him turn.”

Whether Maharaj gets left-arm wrist spinner Shamsi as a spin twin is as yet not known, and batsman De Bruyn looks like the prime candidate to make way if Shamsi cracks the nod.

But that uncertainty is nothing compared to what the home side are dealing with as they wait to hear Dinesh Chandimal’s fate.

Sri Lanka’s captain seems set to be banned for both Tests on a charge of conduct contrary to the spirit of the game, which he earned because his team held up play for two hours arguing with the umpires over a ball-tampering claim, since found to be true, in St Lucia in June. 

Coach Chandika Hathurusingha and manager Asanka Gurusinha could suffer the same fate at a hearing that was ongoing at the time of writing.

Other people’s problems …

* Shamsi was selected; Chandimal, Hathurusingha and Gurusinha stood themselves down for the series pending the International Cricket Council’s decision.

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Congrats, Ms and Ms Van NieKapp. But how will team dynamics be affected?

If the #MeToo movement is ever taken seriously in South Africa, a third of men would be in prison and another third rendered unemployable and shunned. The remaining third would be those clever enough to hide their sexism. 

Times Select

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

UNTIL Sunday, Marizanne Kapp’s Wikipedia page made no reference to Dané van Niekerk, whose entry on the same platform did indeed feature her partnership with Kapp.

But only to say she shared a stand of “128 runs with Marizanne Kapp [against Pakistan in a 2013 World Cup match in Cuttack], the highest South African partnership for the sixth wicket”.

A contemporary report on that performance begins: “Marizanne Kapp and Dané van Niekerk have a lot in common. They both are allrounders. They made their international debut during the 2009 Women’s World Cup. And they are ‘best friends’ in the South Africa dressing room. They are also room-mates whenever the team goes on tour.”

On Saturday, the pair removed all the nudges and winks by doing something that, in a better world, would go unreported in a proper publication except, perhaps, on the social pages.

They married each other.

Cue, on Sunday, the addition of a “personal life” section on those Wikipedia pages: “In July 2018, she married her teammate Marizanne Kapp” and “In July 2018, she married her teammate Dané van Niekerk.”

Congratulations, Ms and Ms Van NieKapp.

Last week a Cricket South Africa official spoke, politely but firmly, of an imminent “very private and very small ceremony” — code for, no, you cannot have an interview or send a photographer, or anything else.

“They are strictly anti inviting the media into their personal relationship,” the official said. “There won’t even be social media posts of the wedding. It’s not a secret but they prefer to keep their life together private.”

Damn straight, although there were social media posts: Kapp put three uncaptioned photographs of the wedding on her Instagram account. The brides wore white.

By Monday afternoon the pictures had elicited 2 911 likes and 132 comments — 128 of them giddily offered congratulations. What of the four exceptions?

“WTF,” someone said. Another wanted to know if “this is possible”. Someone else asked “where is the bridegrooms”.

A post in Hindi translated to: “I’m having to see a woman as hot as [Van] Niekerk marrying a woman. My life is over.”

Even though they are public figures, and thus, according to a particular take on these things, not entitled to private lives, exceptions must be made for Kapp and Van Niekerk.

Not because they may want it that way, but because too often sport is a rock that hides terrified creatures that, it seems, have never been held up to the light.

Most of them are straight and male and, intolerably, tolerated in societies that should not be considered civilised for that reason.

This abhorrence thrives in deeply misogynist South Africa. We live in a country we dare to call a democracy, where everyday sexism is dismissed as “our culture” and the evil of corrective rape by men of women who dare to proclaim their independence from the straight and narrow goes unpunished unforgivably often.

If the #MeToo movement is ever taken seriously in South Africa, a third of men would be in prison and another third rendered unemployable and shunned. The remaining third would be those clever enough to hide their sexism. As a South African man, I’m eminently qualified to make that assertion.

But it’s not only the straights who are upset with Kapp and Van Niekerk. A section of the queer community will rail against what they consider two of their own seeking the establishment’s endorsement of their relationship.

They can’t win, can they?

Even objective cricket fans will have questions. Kapp and Van Niekerk aren’t the first members of the same cricket team to be married —  in March last year New Zealand’s Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu tied the knot — but it would seem to be the first time one of the brides has been that team’s captain.

Does that mean Kapp will get preferential treatment from the skipper, Van Niekerk? What might their conversation over dinner be like if Kapp feels her captain didn’t bowl her in the right match situations? Will team meetings freeze over if Kapp disagrees markedly with Van Niekerk’s proposed tactics, or vice versa? Or doesn’t voice her disagreement? What’s the dressingroom going to be like if one drops a catch off the other?

Will the crockery fly at home if one runs the other out?

All of those questions — except the last one — have been answered: in their nine years as international players Kapp and Van Niekerk have been integral to South Africa’s success.

That includes reaching last year’s World Cup semi-final, where South Africa went down with the kind of fight rarely shown by the men’s team under similar pressure.

They have clearly performed more than well enough to prove that their relationship, which has endured for much of the last nine years, doesn’t have a negative impact on team dynamics.

As for runouts, Van Niekerk and Kapp have between them been dismissed in that fashion 32 times at international level. And not once were they batting together at the time. 

The plates, then, are safe. For now …

Despite success, Shamsi won’t talk himself up for Test place

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

OTHER bowlers on the fringes of selection who take five wickets before a big match would be marking out their run-ups in anticipation of a call-up.

So, with the first Test starting in Galle on Thursday, you would think Tabraiz Shamsi rates as better than average his chances of adding to the debut he earned in Adelaide in November 2016.

But the left-arm wrist spinner did a good job of curbing his enthusiasm in the wake of claiming 5/45 in the South Africans’ tour match in Colombo at the weekend.

“We don’t play two spinners often but it depends on the conditions,” Shamsi told reporters in Colombo.

“There’s no gaurantee that I will play but if I get an opportunity I’ll try my best.

“Whoever does play, I’ve got full confidence they will do a great job.”

Shamsi’s reticence to talk himself up could be a case of good manners.

Or it could be informed by Ottis Gibson’s assertion that whether South Africa pick a second spinner to partner left-armer Keshav Maharaj in Galle will be guided by what the conditions tell them — not by the received orthodoxy of deploying more than one slow bowler in the sub-continent.

“You always have a responsibility, whether you’re playing as the only spinner or as one of two guys,” Shamsi said of how being one of two tweakers might affect his approach.

“You always have to do a good job for the team. If anything it makes it easier for me because [Maharaj] has more experience than I do.

“There’s no pressure. We have a great attack that doesn’t rely on one person.”

In Colombo, Shamsi trapped three of his victims leg-before and bowled the other two, which indicates a bowler in command — no possible sixes that became catches in the deep for him.

“The chat was it was going to spin but this wicket was nice to bat on, which was a good challenge because it was nice to bowl in tougher conditions,” he said.

Galle, though, has a reputation for helping slow poisoners, who own 19 of the best 20 sets of figures at a ground where no fast bowler has yet claimed more than five wickets in an innings.

Surely he was looking forward to the prospect of bowling there? 

“You could take wickets on a flat pitch and then don’t perform on a spinning wicket and don’t perform as well,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter what sort of pitch you bowl on; you need to make sure your execution is on point on the day.”

But Shamsi didn’t hide his excitement at being part of an apparently growing band of  left-arm wrist spinners who are revitalising teams around the world.

“Variations help you as a bowler because they put doubt in the batsman’s mind,” he said.

“We have more variation than finger spinners and batsmen don’t practise much against us.”

Then he remembered his manners: “But that doesn’t count for much if you don’t execute.”

Gibson ‘not sold’ on two spinners

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

CONVENTIONAL wisdom says two spinners are a good idea in an XI playing in the sub-continent, but Ottis Gibson isn’t buying that ahead of the first Test in Galle on Thursday.

And if the conditions demand an additional slow poisoner a batsman and not a fast bowler will make way for him.

Gibson’s logic is rooted in the equal and opposite effect of Asian players growing up on pitches that offer more turn than seam movement — their batsmen know how to deal with the turning ball.

“Most teams, when they come to the sub-continent, play an extra spinner,” Gibson told reporters in Colombo on Sunday.

“And then you see the way that the sub-continent players play spin.”

So the good sense of studying the pitch will prevail.  

“We will try and pick the best bowler for the conditions we have,” Gibson said. “So if the wicket looks like it’s going to spin we will try and get another spinner into the attack.

“But if it looks like it’s going to be a good pitch and we feel like having the extra pace is going to make a difference to the Sri Lankans, then we’ll consider that option.

“We’re not really sold on one way or the other.”

Asked how the South Africans would fit an additional spinner into their side, Gibson said, “Our fast bowling has been the bedrock of our success for a long time. I’m pretty sure we’ll continue with three fast bowlers.”

And, Gibson didn’t have to say, make do with one less batsman.

History is on Gibson’s side. In the dozen Tests South Africa have played in Sri Lanka, only in four of them have they picked two specialist spinners.

Left-armer Clive Eksteen and off-spinner Pat Symcox featured in the inaugural Test between the teams, at Moratuwa in August 1993, and took none of the 16 Lankan wickets that fell.

Left-armer Nicky Boje and left-arm wrist spinner Paul Adams played in all three matches in Sri Lanka in July and August 2000.

They claimed 14 of the 44 wickets that went down — not quite a third.

Fast Bowler Brett Schultz’ haul of 20 wickets in that 1993 series is the stand-out performance by a South Africa bowler of any sort in Sri Lanka.

Boje remains their most successful bowler there with 25 wickets in seven Tests, but they came at the high price of 43.80 apiece.

Next on the list is fast bowler Shaun Pollock, who took 22 in six matches at the significantly more respectable average of 25.13.

Left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi threw a spanner in those works in Colombo on Saturday by taking 5/45 in a tour match.

Keshav Maharaj, the left-armer who is South Africa’s first choice spinner, also played but did not bowl — officially because he was ill, but you have to wonder whether he was kept out of the mix to keep Sri Lankan eyes off what he can do.

“He’s really hit the ground running and put himself in the frame for a Test place,” Gibson said of Shamsi’s performance.

All four of the quicks in the squad — Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi — all went through their gears, but only Ngidi took a wicket.

Welcome to the hard work of trying to bowl fast on the sub-continent, Gibson said: “Vernon and Dale have played here before so it was new for Lungi and Rabada.

“It was good for them to see what it’s going to be like when the Test match starts.

“It’s not going to be a place like Joburg where they see the ball flying through to the keeper and the slips. It might bounce twice before it gets to the keeper.

“You have to suck it up and run in, hit the deck and still try to gets wickets. It might still shock them but when we’re talking in the dressingroom and sharing experiences from the guys who have been here before we’re letting them know early what to expect.

“Lungi’s pace in his three spells was around the same, and that’s a really good sign.”

As for Steyn, who needs three wickets to surpass Pollock as South Africa’s all-time leading wicket-taker …

“He looked a little bit rusty but we’re talking about one of the best fast bowlers of the modern generation. He knows what he needs to do to get himself up for a Test match. He’ll be good to go.”

Wrong time, wrong place for SA in Sri Lanka

It’s bad enough that the tour starts with the wrong format. Then it moves to the right format but is stuck in the wrong place. And then, just for fun, we have to put up with a random T20.

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Dubai

WELCOME to the test series that never should have been: South Africa’s two matches in Sri Lanka, the first in Galle on Thursday.

What are teams doing mucking about playing tests with a World Cup looming 265 days in the ever nearer future?

Nevermind. Once these irrelevancies are done with the sides will play five one-day internationals.

That’s more like it. Except it isn’t.

The dead, dry pitches of Sri Lanka and the lively, juicy surfaces in England, where the World Cup will be staged, are about as far apart as Venus and Mars.

Or are they? In ODIs played in England in the past 10 years, batsmen have averaged 33.51 and scored at 5.52 runs an over. In Sri Lanka, runs have come at 5.20 to the over and batsmen have averaged 30.69.

But there’s more daylight between South Africa’s performance in ODIs in England compared to in Sri Lanka.

In England, they’ve won 18 of their 44 games and lost 22. Only eight of South Africa’s 24 matches in Sri Lanka have ended in victory for them, and 15 in defeat. So South Africa have won 40.91% of their ODIs in England and exactly a third in Sri Lanka.

It’s bad enough that the tour starts with the wrong format. Then it moves to the right format but is stuck in the wrong place. And then, just for fun, we have to put up with a random T20.

But it is what it is, and South Africa will have 16 other ODIs at home — against Zimbabwe, Pakistan and the Lankans — and in Australia to tighten the nuts and bolts before England and all that.

Besides, the sooner they get used to having to win without the shimmering talent of AB de Villiers, the better.

“It’s never nice to lose a player of the quality of AB, and it will be a massive hole to fill,” Aiden Markram told reporters in Colombo, where the visitors have a two-day warm-up game before the test series.

“But, having said that, we have plenty of talent back at home, and we have got guys on the tour who can do similar sorts of things.

“There might be bit of more pressure on the batters, but at the end of the day you try to do the best you can.”

He’s a good kid, Markram, but he’s not fooling anyone. The only sense in which the unarguably great De Villiers can be replaced is by scribbling someone else’s name where his used to be on the team sheet.

For the rest, it’s about South Africa relearning how to play white-ball cricket. AB might as well stand for After Brilliance.

Markram is among the candidates to step into the De Villiers breach in the one-day side. Another is Heinrich Klaasen, who has a touch of the wizard of innovation’s daring about him. But Markram’s reliable technique and temperament, and the fact that he has played 10 more games in a South Africa shirt than Klaasen, should help him crack the nod.

Expect Temba Bavuma to inherit De Villiers’ spot at No. 4 in the test order. There can be no doubt that Bavuma has the commitment to alloy to his talent and skill and make a fist of things in his likely new role.

But he will know that he needs to add what in rugby circles used to be called go-forward if he is to hold down that place. Bavuma looks like a scrumhalf but he will have to bat like the cricket equivalent of a flyhalf — similar to a No. 10, the job of a No. 4 is to make things happen — if he is to exploit his opportunity to the fullest.

That promises to be a process. For now, South Africans are eagerly awaiting the almost instant gratification of the freshly repaired Dale Steyn taking three wickets to become South Africa’s champion test bowler.

“He hasn’t mentioned it, no-one has mentioned it,” Markram said.

Don’t worry, boet. They will.

How to score big runs in Sri Lanka? Depends …

TMG Digital

TEFORD VICE in Lisbon

EIGHT batsmen have scored Test centuries for South Africa in Sri Lanka, and their names comprise as varied a list of the dogged and the dashing as can be compiled.

From Dean Elgar to Daryll Cullinan, Jonty Rhodes to Jacques Rudolph, Hashim Amla to Lance Klusener, and Hansie Cronje to JP Duminy — they’ve all been there, done that, and raised a bat to claim their applause.

Good luck plotting a pattern through that lot, a task only made more difficult by the fact that no-one besides Rhodes and Elgar has faced fewer than 200 balls in their centurion efforts: Rhodes 107 for his 101 not out in Moratuwa in August 1993, Elgar 187 for his 103 in Galle in July 2014.

Elgar? He of the chronic, and often much needed, stodgy approach?

Yes, that Elgar, who never faced more than 26 deliveries between boundaries in that innings, went from 40 to 50 in four deliveries — one hit for six, another for four — and reached his ton with a straight six.

The master-blasting Klusener? He spent 219 balls on his 118 not out in Kandy in July 2000.

Amla needed 382 deliveries to make an undefeated 139 in Colombo in 2014 — the most faced by a South African in a Test innings on the Asian island, but also his team’s highest score there.

Only Cullinan has twice reached a hundred for South Africa in Sri Lanka: 102 in Colombo in 1993 and 114 not out in Galle in 2000.

All of which means there is no surefire formula for how to score big in Sri Lanka, where pitches tend to offer fast bowlers even less than in India and the heat and humidity tends to be more sapping than anywhere else in the game.

The most successful non-subcontinental batsmen in Sri Lanka are Alastair Cook, Stephen Fleming and Brian Lara, who have scored three, two and five centuries.

The only point of connection between them is that all three bat left-handed, but they do offer hope for those unfamiliar with the conditions.

Cook has scored more runs in Sri Lanka than Virender Sehwag or Mohammad Azharuddin did, albeit from more innings, while Fleming had more than Azhar Ali, and Lara was ahead of Sourav Ganguly and Misbah-ul-Haq — and Fleming and Lara had fewer trips to the crease than their rivals.  

South Africa could do with a few additions to their Sri Lanka batting honour role in the series of two Tests which starts in Galle on July 12.

Like all teams, Faf du Plessis’ side is a combination of the dashing and the dogged. But the balance would seem to tilted towards the latter, what with Du Plessis, Amla, Elgar and Temba Bavuma likely to share a line-up with the more attacking Aiden Markram and Quinton de Kock.

Fine players, all. Which matters more than anything — in Sri Lanka as much as anywhere else.

Why the World Test Championship won’t help the old fart format stay relevant

“[Test cricket] is fighting against a very powerful monster in T20 cricket …” – Faf du Plessis

Times Select

TELFORD VICE in Lisbon

“SURELY the dam’s full now”: Faf du Plessis sounded like everyone else anxious about Cape Town’s water situation.

Outside the streets marinated in rain. Six weeks of the stuff. Du Plessis no doubt hoped for some sunshine in Sri Lanka, where he was off to on Sunday.

His most immediate assignment is to captain South Africa in two Tests. The first of them starts on July 12 in Galle, where the famous fort will brood over the scene like a cat keeping a cold eye on a stricken insect.

The image could be used to describe where the oldest format, a veteran of 141 years and 2 309 matches — almost a third of them drawn — finds itself in an all too brave new world that doesn’t care much for anything that requires patience and discipline to appreciate.

Why sit around watching a contest that takes five days to unspool, and even then may not produce a winner, when you can get in, get out and don’t mess about in the three hours it takes to play a T20?

It’s a question that raises others.

If people spend up to five hours a day on their smartphones — which studies suggest they do — how can they tell us they don’t have the time to watch Test cricket?

Some of the most exciting Tests have drawn, so who needs a winner?

Who can care about the Las Vegas Lizards being crowned champions of the Sponsor’s Name Here T20 tournament when they have existed for only a few years, and do so for just six weeks a year?

Every Test cricket aficionado has asked themselves questions like those, and every Test aficionado knows they — and the game they love — are on a hiding to nothing.

Count me and Du Plessis among the old farts. “I hope Test cricket can still be the main focus point for international cricket,” he said. “It’s fighting against a very powerful monster in T20 cricket that is taking a lot of players towards it.”

Thing is, Du Plessis helps feed the monster by playing in the Indian Premier League. And he has a bulletproof case for doing so as long as T20 impresarios are able to pay players exponentially more than national boards.

But that doesn’t mean Du Plessis isn’t as filled with hope about the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) World Test Championship (WTC) as he is about the level of the Western Cape’s dams.

“It will give Test cricket good purpose to play for something,” he said. “That will be a real motivation for guys to stick around and play Test cricket.

“Because Test cricket should always be our No. 1 form of the game.”

It isn’t. The results of an ICC survey revealed last week found that 70% of the 19 000 respondents interviewed in 14 countries where the game was either soundly established or has a significant chance to grow were interested in Test cricket.

That sounds like good news. Except that T20 cricket enjoys an “interest rate” of 92%.

Worse, three-quarters of all cricketers players don’t play anything except T20s.

Worst, although the survey took its data from more than 19 000 interviews, none of the respondents were younger than 16.

How much more skewed in favour of T20 will the figures be once the ICC talks to the kids, as it plans to do? 

No-one can be sure whether the WTC will tear their attention away from fake teams playing a fake format in fake competitions that may exist largely to service the gambling industry, but that seems unlikely.

Only nine of the 12 Test-playing teams will contest the WTC. They will play each other in the same number of series but in differing numbers of matches. The fixtures have not been drawn up objectively but have been mutually agreed by the boards of the teams involved. And the whole damn thing will take a month short of two years to complete.

Good luck getting anyone — 16 or younger, or older — to stop staring at the T20 results on their smartphones for long enough to make sense of that, much less to take it seriously.

The suits have hatched the WTC to, they say, give Test cricket “context”. We should be grateful for their attempt, but they should know that Test cricket already has more context than it knows what to do with.

What it needs is relevance: it needs to be able to make its music heard amid and despite the cacophony all around.

The WTC may make old farts like me and Du Plessis believe that, finally, Test cricket’s glass is at least half-full.

But that’s dangerous, akin to lumping Day Zero into the category of things that were supposed to happen but never did. Like Y2K Day.

The dams aren’t full, Faf. They’re not even half-full. On Monday, after six weeks of rain, they were at 48.3%.