PORT ELIZABETH – If Wednesday night under the new St George’s Park floodlights was a taste of the future of Test cricket, then the future literally is bright.
The pink ball - as it has previously done in Adelaide, Brisbane, Birmingham and Abu Dhabi - once again lived up to its mercurial nature. Once the light switch was flicked at 7pm the pink ball transformed into a devastating beast.
South Africa had been in complete control of proceedings until that stage with young opener Aiden Markram celebrating his maiden Boxing Day Test with a sublime second century in three matches. Equally, AB de Villiers returned after a two-year absence with the swagger of old by stroking a fluent half-century.
“It was a nice challenge to get up front. To win the toss and bat first. The last thing we wanted to do was to be 10/2. I think we sort of weathered the storm and it definitely wasn’t easy. A good challenge for Dean and myself,” the century-maker said.
However, that was all on a glorious sunlit Port Elizabeth day. For those unfamiliar with the pink ball and its special behaviour at dusk it was a sight to behold. South Africa were cruising along at 255/4 at the dinner break before the pink fiend raised its ugly head. The Proteas lost five wickets - one to run out - for 52 runs to both seam and spin in just 12.5 overs.
“All credit has to go to Zimbabwe. They bowled extremely well. I thought their captain also bowled incredibly well by picking up those two wickets at the end. I think they fought back nicely, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise in the way it worked out,” Markram said.
“It is pretty difficult batting under lights on that wicket. From that twilight phase everyone speaks about it does move around a bit. I do feel it goes around a bit more in the evening. A lot more than it did in the morning.”
It was riveting action, which was intensified with South Africa’s wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock pulling up with a hamstring injury while batting. This may have dire consequences with World No 1 India side looming as De Kock will go for a scan tomorrow and is unlikely to keep wicket for the remainder of the Test match.
South Africa already had injury worries prior to the start of the Test. Dale Steyn was expected to return to Test cricket along with De Villiers yesterday, but was omitted after picking up a viral infection.
Worryingly for the Proteas it was the same viral infection that forced captain Faf du Plessis to miss the Test. De Villiers is leading the side.
Coach Ottis Gibson will surely be sleeping a little less comfortably knowing that a few of his senior players are not fit for the first showdown with India.
Gibson would be pleased with the way his returning new-ball pair of Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander went last night, though. The veteran seamers certainly took full advantage of the conditions, with Morkel striking with the very first ball of the Zimbabwe innings by removing the dangerous Hamilton Masakadza before picking up another two scalps before the close.
Philander chipped in with an lbw too, which left the tourists reeling on 14/4 at one stage and in real trouble of facing an embarrassing total. Fortunately for Zimbabwe, Ryan Burl and nightwatchman Kyle Jarvis weathered any further trouble by surviving to stumps.