Friday, 21 February 2014

St. George’s Park pitch can’t stop enthralling cricket

Morne Morkel: bent his back with little reward
There are flat pitches, and there are slow pitches. Then there is the pitch which the groundsman has served up in Port Elizabeth. In South Africa’s first innings, there wasn’t a single edge which has carried to the men waiting in the slip cordon, and the seamers didn’t manage a single wicket past the sixth over. That’s low, slow and flat. 

There’s a small window for dismissals there. The bounce is low, so if you can swing one into the pads, it will most likely hit the stumps. The ball stops swinging early on though, and the wind doesn’t help consistent swing by blowing the seam off its axis. After that ten overs with the new ball it’s a patience game.

So that makes it easy for the batsmen right? Surely they’d enjoy a pitch where even Mitchell Johnson is mostly neutralised? Wrong. It’s too slow for batsmen to time the ball consistently , and once it goes soft, even AB de Villiers, in the form of his life, couldn’t bat fluently. 

Nothing for bowlers bar restricting the batsman, no opportunity to drive with confidence for the batsman. It’s like a sub-continental pitch, bar for the fact there’s precious little spin. Lyon turned a few, mostly out of the footmarks, but the pitch is holding together, there’s no turn or seam of the straight, and batsmen have to work very hard for their runs.

The only thing to get the batsmen out is themselves most of the time, but despite that the only batsman to had any kind of measure of the pitch was David Warner, a man more used to ill-judged dismissals than most. He drove imperiously early, even then with risk, Vernon Philander getting fingertips to a caught and bowled chance in his follow through, and one flick narrowly evading the catching mid-wicket.

Australia had just lost Chris Rogers, to an early LBW while the ball was still swinging. Then Wayne Parnell happened. Into the attack, and in his first three balls he managed what no seam bowler had in the previous 589 balls in the Test match. He got a nick to carry, through to the keeper, then another one. 

Whatever the pitch is doing, cricket can throw up weird stuff. Marsh pushed at one of the few swinging balls shortly after Doolan had done the same thing to one that had moved marginally away from him. Still, that was only the tenth over. Clarke and Warner were now in, and if they could survive five overs and get themselves in as the ball went soft, staying in would become easy, although scoring runs less so.

With such a lifeless pitch most of the time, the odd times when something does fly through surprise everyone. When Morkel got one to jump at the splice, Warner fenced, nicked and de Villiers couldn’t get his hands up quickly enough to hang on to it. 

Australia had been driving well, but this wasn’t the pitch to be doing that once the ball had softened. It may have been only the 18th over, but the ball had stopped moving, and as Philander got one to stop on Clarke, he would have realised halfway through the drive that it was a bad idea. Dean Elgar snaffled the catch, and it was night-watchman time. 81-4.

Thanks to those two fantastic balls from Parnell, and Morkel cranking it up like never before, Australia’s charge was interrupted, and the match held some interest. No thanks to the pitch though. No thanks to South Africa’s fielding either, two catches grassed, plus one review declined when Lyon nicked through to de Villiers. Warner and Lyon were both there at the close, but both could have been removed.  

South Africa’s first innings go slow starting to be proved right. Sure, Australia crashed a few boundaries, but playing strokes was always fraught with risk. At stumps on 65 off 67 balls, with ten fours, Warner had played well, but also with a great deal of luck.

Australia’s constant desire for attacking cricket has got them unstuck before, their top order departing carelessly more times than not in Ashes first innings. But now, on a pitch slower than any in that series, can Warner, Smith and Haddin mount another counter-attacking rescue job? If they do, they'll need more luck and poor catching. 

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