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Cricket | India tour of South Africa 2017/18

Neil's Diary - SA home season: Week 7



Saturday, 17 February

While J-P Duminy focuses on the challenge of the three-match T20 series against India, time marches on relentlessly with the arrival of the Australian test squad ahead of their four-match series against the Proteas in March. They will play a warm-up match against an SA ‘A’ team, captained by Khaya Zondo, in Benoni from Thursday.

Just a few hours after Duminy addressed the media, a jet-lagged Australian captain, Steve Smith, answered questions in Sandton: “We’re very excited to be back here, it’s a fantastic place to play cricket and a tour everyone enjoys. Our record here is very good and it’s up to us to make sure we defend it,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Duminy was doing his best to put a positive spin on the remaining three matches of the India tour.

“The new faces will definitely help,” he said ahead of the Wanderers opener on Sunday. “We will feed off the freshness of the new faces around. It has been a dismal one-day series for us where India has outplayed us and it is something that we have to take on the chin. It is perhaps a realisation for us that we are far from the finished article going into a World Cup in over a year.

“It’s a good reality check and each player has to look at how they can improve and make it into that 15-man squad in a year. I am quite excited to be able to lead. The leadership role has brought out the best in me over the last four months with the WSB Cape Cobras.”

“For us as players, you want to win every series that you represent your country, there is no preference,” Duminy explained. “T20 cricket will be looked at as a format where you can give players opportunity but it is still an opportunity to represent your country, we want to win. There is no difference in importance between test, ODI or T20 cricket. There are a lot of guys making their debut in the squad so it is a great occasion for the squad and environment.”

Smith said playing four test matches was “a great thing for the players” rather than the three in previous series. “We get to play in more regions and more people get to see the series. There’s some impressive fast bowling on both teams and it will be hostile, it’s going to be a challenge for the batsmen…but it gets the adrenalin pumping and I’m looking forward to it.”

Perhaps the best thing for South Africa’s fans is that expectations are suitably low for the T20 series. It is India’s format now, thanks to the IPL, and they are expected to win it 3-0 – and comfortably. If the Proteas can, at least, make a close game of a couple of them the crowds may be less disgruntled than those who paid to watch the embarrassing capitulations during the ODI series.


Friday, 16 February

It takes a great deal of incompetence to disappoint a Centurion crowd and, sadly, the Proteas delivered it. It wasn’t as bad as the first game at this wonderful venue, but it wasn’t far behind.

India were seriously ‘up’ for the contest. Yet again, the pre-match huddle lasted almost five minutes and, unlike those which take place five minutes before the start of play (for public, television consumption), theirs was 45 minutes before the start, well before the match went to air. They really wanted the 5:1 victory. Really wanted it.

That’s not to say that the Proteas weren’t interested in winning, far from it. But the truth that players will never speak is that delivering a ‘life-important’ performance is impossible after such a dismal series.

Those involved in the T20 series had their focus on that. Those in the test frame were thinking about Australia. This last game was irrelevant. It provided opportunities for Farhaan Behardien and Khaya Zondo to build significant innings, and they failed to do so.

At least Zondo demonstrated his skill, gave the selectors an illustration of the scoring ability which has served the Dolphins so well. But they will look at the softness of his dismissal when the team needed him to bat until the end of the innings.

It was a dismal day for the crowd and a bleak one for the selectors, with no positive ticks in their boxes and lots more question marks. Heinrich Klaasen can deputise for Quinton de Kock, and Lungi Ngidi, in the infancy of his international career, has the ability to bowl with control at the beginning and end of the innings. Otherwise we are none the wiser.

The best thing CSA could do between now and August, when the Proteas are due to play their next ODIs, is to arrange a few more fixtures. Afghanistan and Ireland would be willing and potentially testing opposition.


Wednesday 14 February

“There’s no escape from the fact that we have been giving a hiding by India, there’s no denying that. But I’m absolutely convinced that we will be a better team because of what has happened during this series.”

Ottis Gibson did not say those words lightly. He meant every one of them, and he will almost certainly prove to be correct.

As Michael Jordan so famously said: “I became so successful because I failed so often.” Good sportsmen learn from their mistakes. Great ones learn the most.

Gibson admitted that Aiden Markram’s elevation to the captaincy may not have been in the batsman’s best interests, but also said: “I’m not going to second guess myself. It was the right decision at the time and I stick with it. He may have tried to bat differently as a result and that’s something I’ve spoken to him about.”

The Proteas’ goal at Centurion on Friday is to avoid the worst ODI defeat on home soil in their history. It is a bleak objective, hardly something to inspire a free-spirited, confident approach.

Perhaps it will, but caution and timidity are more likely to result while India can throw off the shackles, take a few risks and go hell for leather towards a record victory having already achieved their objective of a maiden series win in this country.

Attention has already turned towards the T20 series and, not far over the horizon, the arrival of Australia for the four-test series next month.

It will require all of Markram and Gibson’s leadership skills to facilitate the creation of an atmosphere in which the players can “express themselves” without the fear of another hiding inhibiting them.

The series began at the same venue with the heaviest ODI defeat on home soil. The memories are still fresh. At least this time the game will start at lunch time rather than finish there.


Tuesday, 13 February

For a Tuesday night St George’s and all who administer her should be very proud. The general entrance tickets were sold out and there were only around a thousand of the more expensive seats left by the time the match started.

The atmosphere grew and grew as did the crowd as the evening drew on, despite the Proteas slipping to an increasingly likely defeat.

For those who did arrive early there may have been some insight into the secrets behind Virat Kohli’s absurdly consistent success. Or perhaps it was merely evidence of his unusual attention to detail and somewhat abstract approach to preparation.

Having something of an OCD personality, the Indian captain naturally compartmentalises things – which contributes to him being the best run-chaser in the history of the ODI game. He breaks big things, like targets, into smaller, more manageable pieces. As he does with his batting.

There are hands, eyes and feet to consider. For most batsmen the aim would be to get them all working together. But one of Kohli’s warm-up routines consists of him hitting balls into a net without pads and without moving his feet at all.

Just eyes and hands, hit, hit, hit. He works on his foot movement later. It may seem counter intuitive, given the importance of good foot movement in hitting the ball, but it very clearly works for him.

The disappointment of the result was marginally off-set by the pleasure of catching up with one of the genuinely good men of the South African game, Warriors fast bowler Andrew Birch.

His career was almost ended before it began in 2005 when a hit-and-run driver ran a red robot and knocked him unconscious on the PE seafront main road. His left leg was snapped in two places. He didn’t regain consciousness until the next morning and couldn’t play again for two years.

He spent the time wisely, however, studying for a degree and learning as much as possible about the real world outside the bubble of professional cricket. It’s one of the reasons he reckons he’s lasted so long now.

The final word on another disappointing day must go to Junior Dala, the latest Protea to roll off the Titans international production line under head coach Mark Boucher.

Called up for the T20 series against India, the seam bowler said: “I didn’t know what to do with myself when I heard.”

Congratulations to him, the hard-hitting Christiaan Jonker and Heinrich Klaasen, the three new T20 caps.


Monday, 12 February

The atmosphere of positivity and belief that prevails within the Proteas squad at the moment seemed a thousand miles away after the Newlands thrashing but it is a reality. At least, the belief is a reality. Actually, winning three games in a row to square the series and complete an astonishing comeback is still a long shot. The India team has lost none of the skill which produced three rasping wins to start with.

Perhaps a good place for the Proteas to start ahead of the St.George’s Park match is the pitch. Like a tired, broken record the refrain continues: the pitch is ‘low, slow and spin-friendly.’ Well, not so much. The average first innings score over the last five ODIs is around 320.

Adi Carter is one of the best groundsmen in the country and he has worked tirelessly, both physically and scientifically, to improve the pace and bounce of the surface and to give seamers something to work with.

Just as a putting green’s pace is measured by a stimpmetre, the bounce of a cricket pitch is also measured, and the evidence points irrefutably to the fact that it bounces far higher these days than it used to when it earned its reputation for low bounce. The bounce is now “normal” – officially.

“You can’t completely change the nature of the soil – it’s never going to have the bounce of SuperSport Park or the Wanderers, but we have got it to the point where the old reputation is definitely not deserved,” says Carter. Unfortunately, reputations take a long time to change in his business, and he knows it. “What can you do? We just keep trying to improve and hope that people will look at the evidence.”

Pink Day man-of-the-match, Heinrich Klaasen, would not have had the chance to shine as a ‘finisher’ if the pre-match plan had gone ahead. He was scheduled to open the batting with Aiden Markram with Hashim Amla deployed in the middle overs to counter the threat of India’s wrist spinners.

But coach Ottis Gibson had either a last-minute dose of cold feet or a moment of inspired reflection. The plan was scrapped at the 11th hour. It seems reasonably safe to assume that it will be business as usual on Tuesday but it’s not beyond possibility that the plan may still be tried.

Once again there is a strong possibility of afternoon showers so both captains, surely, would prefer to bat second and remain in control of a potentially changing targe.




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