Durban: If the Wanderers provided a Test match for the ages and the most exciting of climaxes, Kingsmead yesterday provided an eager 13 581 Boxing Day crowd with a stiff dose of narcolepsy.
In the most disappointing of anti-climaxes, the South African pace attack spent the first day of the second Test labouring largely without reward on a flat, dry Kingsmead pitch that was made for the tourists.
Yes, the pitch was rock hard, and the carry was good with wicket-keeper AB de Villiers taking many deliveries above his head, but the mild north-easterly wind – a batsman’s delight – ensured there was no movement through the air and there was little or no sideways movement off the seam either. And the pitch was dry, lacking the moisture necessary to create a pacy, lively surface.
No surprises therefore, that India finished a foreshortened day in a strong position, courtesy of a rock solid unbroken second-wicket partnership of 140 between opener Murali Vijay and the imperturbable, seemingly immovable Cheteshwar Pujara. In the past, perhaps, the Proteas would have been confident of knocking over timorous Indian batsmen in unfamiliar conditions. No longer.
Whatever the tribulations of the South African bowlers, it must be said that both Indian batsmen showed plenty of courage and good judgment, getting well forward to drive or defend, while also playing the short ball well and leaving well. Vijay will be especially pleased with his innings, as he finished nine runs short of his fourth Test century, and first outside the subcontinent.
The Proteas attack, reinforced by left-arm spinner Robin Peterson in place of the erratic Imran Tahir, battled hard in the unpromising conditions and they can at least be satisfied that the Indians weren’t allowed to get away, with the run-rate reaching only three an over in the 61 overs of play before the inevitable (Durban) call of bad light shortly after 3.30pm.
Head and shoulders above the pack was the man least likely to play in this match, Morné Morkel, who recovered “miraculously”, in the words of captain Graeme Smith, from straining a ligament in his ankle at the Wanderers. Morkel, bowling with excellent control, pace and aggression, gave everything for the cause in his 12 overs, conceding only 26 runs and taking the only wicket to fall of Shikhar Dhawan, who drove loosely at the first ball after the morning drinks break, edging a regulation catch to Alviro Petersen at third slip.
If the edge had been thinner, second slip Jacques Kallis, currently on 199 Test catches, could have had something to get excited about in this, his final Test match. Instead, his best moment was probably his first of the day, when the 38-year-old veteran led his team on to the field after MS Dhoni had called correctly and decided, with some alacrity, to take first strike.
Kallis duly received a standing ovation from the crowd, modestly acknowledged, for 18 years of magnificent service to his nation’s Test team. But the cricketing gods were not about to reward him further as he and his fellow bowlers rarely looked like taking a wicket. Former curator, Phil Russell, who assisted groundsman Wilson Ngobese in preparing the pitch, acknowledged that the surface was on the dry side.
“Because of all the rain we’ve had in Durban, we began preparing it about nine days ago. Rain was forecast in the interim and we couldn’t take any chances, but unfortunately we had very hot weather instead. If the Test had started on Christmas Eve, it would have been perfect, but we’re about two days late.”
Russell also said that the Bayview grass on the Test strip was less able to retain moisture than the local Kingsmead grass, and this also played a role in the pitch being flat. He pointed out, however, that at a ground where you look up, rather than down, to determine the conditions for cricket, a south-westerly, rain-bearing wind could redress the balance in the bowler’s favour.
One bowler who would appreciate a change of wind direction would be Dale Steyn, who continued his wicketless run yesterday. He has now bowled 402 balls without reward, a worrying situation for the fast bowler.
His lack of confidence showed in his first four overs where he was well short of a gallop.
The situation called for some on-the-field doctoring, and bowling coach Allan Donald trotted round the boundary rope to minister to his ailing patient.
In his fifth over, by far his best, Steyn hit Vijay a blow on the gloves, threatened him with a vicious bouncer and had a leg before shout turned down.
Thereafter he improved, but nevertheless had a thankless day, as did Vernon Philander who was unable to nip the ball off the seam as he is wont to do.
Afterwards, Morkel spoke about the bowlers’ difficulties.
“After 13 overs the ball looked as if it was 60 overs old. I was surprised by the dryness and abrasiveness of the pitch and as a team we were also surprised by the pitch’s lack of pace,” the beanpole fast bowler said. “Tomorrow we need to get some reverse swing going quickly and strike early.”
w herschelle gibbs @hershybru why peeps complaining about the wicket in durbs when we all know its been slow for the last few years ... can't change it overnight #sscricket
w mark boucher @markb
@7polly7 what has happened to The Lawn??? Surely!!!
w Shaun Pollock @7polly7
@markb46 it has died!! Nice deck for Jakes to get runs in his last game - Cape Times