Proteas return to Middle Earth

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The Proteas during a training session at the Wanderers.

The last time South Africa toured New Zealand, it was all about Middle-Earth, Hobbits, Orcs and the One Ring. The world was in love with the Lord of the Rings and by extension New Zealand, where the films based on JRR Tolkien’s books were filmed.

You couldn’t go anywhere without someone pointing out where this scene was shot or even being offered a trip to Hobbiton – the village of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. South Africa go back to “Middle-Earth” for the first time in eight years and again talk of Hobbits will be in the air for the production of a two-part series called The Hobbit will just have wrapped-up.

The South African cricket team, touring the Land of the Long White Cloud for the first time since 2004, may feel like they’re stepping into a time machine. That’s not entirely the case.

The country has undergone massive infrastructure development ostensibly to prepare for last year’s Rugby World Cup, and the Black Caps side the Proteas will face this year lacks the intellectual approach and ruggedness of the 2004 team.

South Africa came up a little short on that 2004 tour. They lost the one-day series to Stephen Fleming’s team – a historic achievement given that New Zealand had never beaten South Africa in a series in any form of the game – while in the subsequent Test series the Kiwis achieved another first, beating South Africa on home soil in a Test match.

South Africa drew the series 1-1 following an emotionally charged victory in Gary Kirsten’s final Test, where Graeme Smith first served up one of those fourth innings epics for which he would become known, making 125 not out having shared a partnership of 171 with Kirsten for the fourth wicket after South Africa were in early trouble on 36/3.

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The Proteas hope to regain the No 1 Test ranking on their tour of New Zealand.

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South Africa are expected to win the series there this time.

There’s lots of excitement about, mostly for the Test series and the opportunity to claim the No1 ranking and $175000 (about R1,3-million) prize money that goes with it. To do that they need to win the series 3-0, but that is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Touring New Zealand is by no means easy, and the Kiwis, while a friendly and hospitable bunch, won’t be handing the series to the visitors on a plate. “(South Africa) have never dominated there and that’s because of the conditions,” says Highveld Lions coach Dave Nosworthy.

He has an intimate knowledge of New Zealand, having coached provincial team Canterbury for three years from 2005 to 2008. “Personally it took me a year to adapt. I was fortunate to be around a (Chris) Cairns, (Nathan) Astle, (Craig) MacMillan and (Shane) Bond just advising me. I’d be thinking about South Africa ‘it’s overcast, gloomy, let’s bowl’ but I’d be told, ‘the sun’s going to come out before you toss and it will be flat’. Those decisions at the time are critical. The touring sides aren’t clear about what decision to make at the right time.”

Adapting to conditions will be a critical factor for the touring team. The University Oval where the first Test will be played will probably get very cold at some stage, Hamilton should offer reasonable temperatures and the wind will blow – a lot – at the Basin Reserve in Wellington for the final Test.

“You may be playing quite comfortably, but batters need to be aware that if the wind comes up they can’t play in a carefree manner like they may have been playing because the bowlers might start to get a bit of shape.”

Then there’s the New Zealand team, which because of the small player base in that country, have had to be careful and clever about how they use their resources. “We have 50-million people, they have five million and the biggest city is Auckland with one million. They will take a player and he will be organised – his laptop will have every bit of information he needs about his own play and that of the opposition.

“From a technology perspective, they are way ahead of us,” Nosworthy remarked.

Given the personnel on both sides, it is a Test series the South Africans should win comfortably. The two limited overs series are a little harder to call because both sides will probably do a lot of experimenting – in the T20 matches both camps will have the T20 championships in Sri Lanka later this September in mind; the one-dayers will be about building experienced squads.

In the Test format the Kiwis will be very keen to gauge just how far they have come since making Ross Taylor captain last year. They only narrowly defeated Zimbabwe in Harare last November and were thumped in the first Test against the Australians in Brisbane before claiming an epic win in Hobart.

“It’s given them confidence,” Nosworthy said about that seven-run win over Australia, their first Test triumph in their neighbouring country in 26-years. They’ve subsequently whipped Zimbabwe.

Nosworthy explained that New Zealand coach, John Wright, is keen that the side adopt a more aggressive approach, and go away from the cerebral method which was a feature of their play under Fleming. “If you look at the captain that’s been appointed, Ross is quite out there and motivational compared to Fleming who was more your tactical ‘headboy’ type. John’s tried to bring more passion and determination into the side. Brendon McCullum will love that, he is a competitor who is always up for it.”

The South Africans will be aware New Zealand’s penchant for using everything at their disposal to unsettle the opposition – they did so perfectly in that infamous World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka last year. The likes of Taylor, McCullum, Daniel Vettori and Chris Martin have class and experience and will form the backbone of the Black Caps. “They’ll be smart, they’ll be street-wise,” said Nosworthy. “Why are they sending SA to the University Oval (Dunedin) for the first Test? They send teams there first because it is freezing 90-percent of the time, it’s uncomfortable, so okes don’t want to catch.”

Nosworthy expects South Africa to win the series, but hopes Gary Kirsten and company are aware of the perils that lurks in ‘Middle-Earth’.

ODI SCHEDULE

First T20 (February 17): Westpac Stadium Wellington (8am)

Second T20 (Feb 19): Seddon Park, Hamilton (8am)

Third T20 (Feb 22): Eden Park, Auckland (8am)

First ODI (Feb 25): WestPac Stadium, Wellington (3am)

Second ODI (Feb 29): McLean Park, Napier (3am)

Third ODI (March 9): Eden Park, Auckland (3am)

DAVE NOSWORTHY ASSESSES THE THREE GROUNDS WHERE THE TESTS WILL BE PLAYED

UNIVERSITY OVAL (Dunedin March 7-11): There’s an Old clubhouse, which is the only stand and contains the dressing rooms and media area.

It’s got the feel of an old village ground in England; at the other end (opposite the main stand), there is a large brick-face wall which is the sight screen and behind that there are these large open fields which is where the Highlanders train.

They use natural pitches – no drop-ins and from a wicket perspective, it does a bit. It can be grassy and if the sun’s out you’re going to bat reasonably comfortably, but if it’s overcast you’re going to struggle.

Weather-wise Patterns change throughout the day. You get the odd summer’s day.

SNEDDON PARK (March 15-19): It’s a real cricket field – whereas in Auckland you play on a rugby field and there are those strange angles. In New Zealand, they glue wickets, it’s got a lot to do with weather conditions to try and make pitches flatter.

They went away from that in recent years, but they’ve continued to glue the landing and crease areas. They left the middle of the strip alone. Hamilton’s pitch improved a helluva lot and it’s probably one of the best venues in the country.

Weather-wise They might leave grass to try and get extra carry and bounce, but don’t forget to look-up because that grass is just to help with the carry; if it’s overcast it will swing and seam a bit more.

But if it’s a glorious day, it’s playable, not easy, but playable.

BASIN RESERVE (23-27): The Basin is the one ground where there would be four seasons in a day. That’s where our players have struggled to adapt from the changing conditions from wind to rain, cold to sun, because it changes the way you play the game.

If the wind comes up you can get the ball to swing from nowhere, if the sun shines, you need to be patient and hit your areas. If it’s overcast and cools down, it can seam from nowhere. Like they talk about the tide coming in at Kingsmead, there they talk about the weather coming in.

Weather-wise Results there indicate how quickly games change. If we are on top of our game, we will understand the local conditions, that is a massive factor at the Basin especially – The Star


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