With the Nagpur pitch dust slowly settling and the Proteas leaving to their next Test destination, the world watches the dawning of the new Test era. This is the day/night Test time and Adelaide is playing host.
However, I can’t help but note that as I write its day 3 and the scores so far are: New Zealand 202 the Australia 208 and the New Zealand 224. The Aussies need 187 to win the first day/night Test and I’m not seeing anyone writing or tweeting that the pitch is sub-standard and should be reported. I wonder why not. There were a whole heap of them when the Proteas were bowled out in Nagpur on a pitch that spun like crazy from the first day. Almost all of them were batsmen.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a Test die-hard fan to the core and just love watching the game go into the fifth day but also like to see wickets falling and not batsmen dominating to the point that bowlers are merely there for their entertainment. Just the other day in the second Test between Aussie and New Zealand the scores were: Australia 559, New Zealand 624, Australia 385/7 declared and then New Zealand were 104/2 when play ended on the fifth day. Batsmen made merry and bowlers toiled. Was that a good pitch for cricket? Was there anyone asking for the pitch to be reported. No!
I played in South Africa through the 90’s in Durban at Kingsmead and then for the Proteas around the different Test venues and am very qualified to speak on behalf of the spinners that played in that period. We had the short-end of the stick almost every time. The Kingsmead ground was nick-named “the Lawn” for very good reasons. Here are just some of the names I remember playing with who adored playing there. Malcolm Marshall, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener, Peter Rawson, Rowan Lyle, Dave Pryke, Tertuis Bosch, Neil Johnson, Ross Veenstra and Dale Benkenstein are names that come to mind who benefitted from the wonderful pace and bounce and of course good lateral movement off the pitch. In fact we used to practise on unprepared “green” pitches to get used to the movement! Derek Crookes and myself where the two spinners that played in those times. We were only too happy to get a bowl sometimes and the biggest contribution we could make was to get some runs down the order when others had failed if we lost the toss.
In the South African era we were totally seam and pace dominant. Let me remind you who played from 1993 to 2000. Allan Donald, Brett Schultz, Fanie de Villiers, Brian McMillan, Craig Matthews, Hansie Cronje, Adrian Kuiper, David Terbrugge, Rudi Bryson, Stephen Jack, Richard Snell, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, Lance Klusener are the majority. Perhaps me memory has let me down with one or two others. It was a merry time for all of them in South Africa. Spin was something that was seen as holding down an end and possibly picking up a wicket or two but generally not considered as a front-line option no matter how much lip-service they paid to it. In fact Hansie Cronje even bowled some spin in a Test in Durban whilst Paul Adams and myself carried drinks. What a disgrace that was.
In 1994 during the famous Sydney Test in which Fanie de Villiers took six wickets I bowled almost unchanged at the other end to keep the score down. The figures are distant memories now and not important but was significant was that the next week was the Adelaide Test in which Daryll Hair made many mistakes. Both Dave Rundle and myself, who were the spinners on the tour, were not selected. Australia played two spinners. Gary Kirsten ended up bowling spin. We were gutted and even called a meeting to voice our unhappiness with the manager. Nothing happened.
Such was the life of the South African spinner. In today gone tomorrow. Robin Pieterson saw his career go the same way. His first few Tests where alternated by being in and then dropped. Always having to prove himself. Nicky Boje won a Test series against India for the Proteas and yet he was never a settled spinner in the side. He had to bat well to maintain his place. Paul Adams burst on the scene and was up there with the fastest to a hundred wickets. What happened to him? Why didn’t he go on to be right up there with the highest wicket-takers in South Africa?
Why would I be making all the above you may ask. Well it’s really about that which has been said about the Nagpur pitch. Never ever will I begrudge a spinner the opportunity to play on a pitch that spins right from ball one.
If we are brutally honest, our batsmen failed dismally because they played spin worse than their opponents. Period. Their mind-set was totally wrong. Too many shots were played too early and the old adage of time at the crease makes it easier was forgotten. Perhaps it’s too much one-day and T20 cricket. Perhaps it is a culture that the team have right now about dominating an attack.
My belief is that AB de Villiers is a cut above everyone right now and how he plays his game cannot be taken up by others. It may even have rubbed off on those less experienced. Even he will admit that perhaps he didn’t give himself enough time at the crease.
In bygone days Test cricket was tough work. Pitches were not covered and learning to play on those must have been a nightmare. Just take a look at the records of spinners during those times. Someone like Derek Underwood was called “Deadly. Batters learnt to play the ball late, to pick length early and to rotate the strike somehow.
Today in South Africa almost every pitch is more or less the same. Teams don’t change much to accommodate players from specific areas. Once upon a time those who played in Cape Town were more adept at playing spin. Those from Port Elizabeth coped better with the low and slow bounce. Natal batsmen were good when the ball bounced. When teams were selected players were picked on their specific ability. I remember really battling to bowl into the wind in Port Elizabeth. Tim Shaw was completely comfortable with it.
I remember us playing the West Indies in a series during the 90’s and the match in Port Elizabeth was over in just under three days. It was possibly the greenest pitch I have seen for international cricket and that after doing pitch reports as a commentator for more than ten years. Every pitch in that series was green and bouncy and we won five nil. I played the first three tests and Paul Adams played the last two. Take a look at the bowling averages in that series. The fast men had an absolute ball. Who really cared about the spinners? No-one. The team had won.
No folks, let me say it again. Never will I begrudge a spinner the time to bowl on a pitch that spins on the first morning. The Test in Nagpur was a fascinating one and as exciting and eventful as any T20 could be. I’m hoping the next Test has the same kind of pitch. Somehow I think we have learnt something in that second innings and it will transcend into our system in time. That can only be a good thing for spinners still to arrive on the scene and not suffer as those of the past.