Our pitches have crossed the line
“Are you not entertained?” General Maximus famously bellowed in the hit film Gladiator.
If we are being honest as a South African cricketing public, the answer has to be not quite. Winning is fun and all, but how cool is it to observe a thrilling –and even – contest between bat and ball, where the skills of the home team still shine through.
And if we are being as brutally honest as Mickey Arthur, the second Test pitch really wasn’t up to the standard that the most beautiful ground in the world has become accustomed to.
When South Africa’s own Maximus Decimated Midriffitus, Dean Elgar, surveys the technically dream-coated body of his, he might wince and admit that he wouldn’t mind a surface where he can confidently leap onto the front foot from time to time. Even in obdurate defence. When Temba tickles a tender rib by mistake, he might consider that he batted wholeheartedly better to make 75 in 2019, than he did to make a ton in 2016 – on the same real estate.
Both those players – and many others in this series – leap upon half-volleys like stray cats on unguarded kippers, because that has been the bread and butter of a million balls in the nets. At the moment – out there in the middle – that is no easy thing, because the invariable bounce has made sure there are two seeds simultaneously sprouting in their minds.
It is convenient to say that South Africa still made 431 on that surface, but they faced a bowling speed average at least ten miles an hour slower than the weapons of mass destruction they possess. And, even then, they still encountered plenty of problems.
It is a cricketing cancer when batsmen can never feel truly ‘in’ on a wicket, even as early as day one or two. The submarine that sunk Aiden Markram’s voyage towards an excellent century was grim viewing. On a true track, a dobbler like Shan Mahsood has no business troubling a gun batsman on 78.
And yet, there we were, cursing the death rattle that ended day one in silence.
Newlands is not the first to get it wrong, mind you. As we speak, The Wanderers is still under parole, and could lose Test status if it produces another shoddy surface. Centurion produced a dust bowl against India, one which was so alien to the Proteas that the new ball was chucked to Elgar himself.
And that point should have been made and then stayed there. Tailoring pitches to further assist the needs of already wonderful bowlers who already thrive on pure pace and bounce is wholly unnecessary.
The Proteas vintage of 2006-2014 made their name as the best touring side in the world on the back of skills that travelled anywhere, and thrived. So when Arthur makes a point about these surfaces, he ought to know. After all, he coached South Africa during their global plunder.
They have now been overtaken by India, and they will continue to struggle against spin if tracks in 2019 are still so lively as to keep a banker like Keshav Maharaj out of a contest.
Sadly, that stance also hurts the man or woman in the stands. Do not be surprised if all three Tests against Pakistan are three-day affairs. Yes, that may be a reflection of the tourists’ inability to adapt to conditions, but it is also an indictment on the surfaces provided.
Last summer’s duel against Australia will live long in the memory, primarily because it was a relentless feast of batsmanship, bowling skill and sheer will. There was no doctoring needed, and South Africa still prevailed.
Just, for a moment, imagine that series played on a collection of crevices like Newlands has been? Precisely.
There would certainly have been no need for sandpaper. Kingsmead, St George’s Park, Newlands and the Bullring all produced pitches that provided hundreds and wickets. It was a simultaneous thrill of all the senses.
Were we entertained? You bet your bottom Madiba, we were.
The Proteas, with such an overflowing cup of pace, are good enough to blow teams away, without the accompanying asterisk of “helpful surfaces” being chucked in their face. It is actually a worrying international trend; cricket’s answer to golf’s greenkeeper’s revenge.
Consider this. In 2018, there were more five-wicket hauls than centuries in collective Test cricket, for the first time in over 30 years. More to the point, there were more column inches dedicated to 22 yards than ever in 2018.
That is just not cricket. It simply can’t be.