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Cricket | India tour of South Africa 2017/18

Neil's Diary - SA home season: Week 3

Sunday, January 14

At first glance there is little difference between the way the Proteas warmed up last year before a day of test cricket and the way they go about things now. But that’s only at first glance.

They do many of the same things, including their beloved soccer games, and there are only so many ways in which you can practise catching and throwing a cricket ball. Throw-downs are throw-downs, you can’t reinvent them. And yet it just feels different.

There is 100 per cent engagement from everyone, plenty of smiles and laughter to accompany the sweat and commitment. I’m not saying they are a happier squad than they were before because I don’t think that’s true but they are certainly enjoying a change of environment.

Malibongwe Maketa appears to be a significant contributor to the new energy and Justin Ontong’s fitness, experience, familiarity and respect have seen him make an immediate impact. Ottis Gibson makes technical and practical interventions where he can and is required to do so, but his first target is to create an environment in which the players are happy – and therefore likely to perform at their best. And if that means soccer every day, then soccer it shall be.

It wasn’t only South African media and fans who were excited to see Lungisani Ngidi in the flesh for the first time. The Indian media contingent have been fascinated by his story and rapid rise to prominence and few details escape their attention.

The fairytale of a poor son of a domestic worker being given a scholarship to a private school and rising to a career of fame and fortune is quintessentially Indian although, it seems, far less likely to happen there then here. A few of them are already organising a trip to Hilton College between the second and third tests to look around and interview headmaster, coach etc.

Virat Kohli will go to sleep tonight aware that he alone can keep alive his dream of becoming the first Indian captain to win a series in South Africa. Without an innings of 150+ from him on day three, the first-innings deficit is likely to be fatal with the tourists having to bat last on a pitch of hugely variable bounce by the final two days of the test.

Saturday, January 13

There are many good reasons that SuperSport Park has become one of the ‘big four’ venues in the country but none are more important than attendance and when the ‘sold out’ signs went up on Friday you knew it was going to be a special Saturday.

The union is the most efficiently run in the country and that doesn’t just mean for the players and administrators – it means for the people who pay their wages - the supporters - and that’s why they keep coming back.

There is always somewhere to park (although the Gautrain station has made that less of an issue) the grass banks are well maintained, the facilities are plentiful and clean and there is no shortage of vendor outlets for food and drink. Family areas and low-profile but effective crowd management helps make the atmosphere friendly and welcoming for all.

I had the chance to catch up with match referee Chris Broad before the start of play and to apologise for falling victim to a puerile piece of fake news following the magnificent test match at Newlands. A reputable news outlet had taken its lead from an amateur blogger who had written a story about the ICC rating the Newlands pitch as ‘poor’.

I took the reputable outlet’s story at face value and sent out a tweet disparaging the ICC’s rating – effectively Broad’s rating.

He laughed it off although we agreed it was unfortunate that we live in a world in which fact and fiction are becoming increasingly and deliberately obscured.

“We used to have five categories for rating pitches – poor, below average, acceptable, above average and good,” he told me. “But this year the ‘above average’ category has been removed. I couldn’t give the Newlands pitch the ‘good’ mark, which is the highest, so I had to give it the ‘acceptable’ one. Although I believe it was well above average and would have marked it as such if I could have,” Broad said.

Never take anything for granted in this game. It isn’t done consciously most of the time – it wasn’t as if the Proteas batsmen started humming tunes to themselves and glove-thumping between overs with words like “we’re cruising this, 400 is ours for the taking.” It was far more subtle and completely sub-conscious.

Three wickets for five runs in 13 balls, including two run outs, that really hurts. At 246-3 they were right on top and 400 did, indeed, seem likely. Fortunately, they have the bowling attack to make 300 feel like 400 for India’s top order.

Friday, January 12

Indian captain Virat Kohli reckoned there “wasn’t much difference” between the SuperSport Park pitch and the one at Newlands which saw wickets tumble at an exhilarating pace but also provided enough stability for some batsmen to score equally thrilling runs.

Faf du Plessis was less enthusiastic: “It’s a bit browner than we were expecting,” he said with no attempt to disguise a tinge of disappointment.

“There is a lot of grass on it but it is not live grass,” admitted curator Brian Bloy, “but it’s hard to keep it alive when temperatures have been 37 degrees.”

But there is no doubt that pace and bounce will be there for the second test and Kohli is expecting his top order to face similar challenges to the ones they failed against in Cape Town.

“We must learn from our mistakes in the first test because you will always get bouncy pitches in South Africa. We know that and we are looking forward to the challenge. We enjoy that because, like in Cape Town, it gives us the chance to fight back when we have been put under pressure.”

Remarkably, Du Plessis had never seen Lungi Ngidi bowl live until the training session on Thursday – but he was impressed.

Whereas Ottis Gibson appeared to suggest his own first impressions were good enough for Ngidi to make his test debut, the captain implied it may be too soon: “We’re looking ahead, we have six more tests this summer and we need seven (fast) bowlers to be ready to go. But I liked what I saw, very much.”

Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo are also options to replace Dale Steyn but a recall for the unfortunate Temba Bavuma seems less and less likely with the coach and captain now on the same page about playing a five-man attack with four quicks and Keshav Maharaj as the spinner.

But both teams were equivalent about their selection uncertainty with Kohli particularly tetchy about the omission – and possible recall – of batting vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane.

“He is probably our best batsman in overseas conditions but we went with Rohit (Sharma) in the first test because he was the man in form. I’m not saying he can’t come back, or that he will…”

If anticipation and excitement levels were nine out of ten before Newlands, they might even be 9.1 now.

The possibility of Ngidi debuting on his home ground, of India losing the series before it’s really warmed up, of them fighting back with a large first innings total and then taking wickets in the fourth innings with their spinners on a deteriorating pitch…Bloy says it “will deteriorate in the heat with no rain forecast.”

Time to buckle up the seat-belts. It’s going to be another fun ride.

Wednesday, January 10

It’s not often that a groundsman commands quite the attention that Evan Flint has done before, during and even after the Newlands test.

Especially one as disinterested in the spotlight than Flint, but when you are responsible for the surface which produced entertainment as exhilarating as we saw in the first test, it is probably inevitable.

The travelling Indian press corps can’t get enough of him, it seems. They have discovered that he played club cricket in England, was Kevin Pietersen’s senior at Maritzburg College and that he has a devoted fan in Travis, his Staffordshire terrier. Also, that his relationship with Indian cricket goes back over a decade.

Back in 2006 an ambitious experiment to create a venue with fast, bouncy wickets was launched in Mumbai. The idea was to have a stadium at which Indians could practise and become accustomed to the sort of pitches they would encounter in South Africa and Australia.

When the DY Patil Stadium was being built in Navi Mumbai, Flint who was invited to oversee the laying of the square. For a good reason.

“He imported 200 tonnes of Centurion soil,” Flint told Mid Day newspaper correspondent Anand Vasu. “The idea was to use it like a training base for India before they went to Australia or South Africa. Maybe they could go there first.”

Shipping 200 tonnes of Centurion soil to India was relatively easy, but then things started to go pear-shaped. “All the Indian curators were saying we’re not touching this, we’re not going anywhere near it,” Flint said, “Then I came along, did my bit and I said I don’t want it either. Because the temperature was so high, you could prepare a proper pitch and it would just crack too early on. It became a bit of a nightmare. Shame, it didn’t quite work.”

After sticking with the project for a few months, the authorities at the DY Patil Stadium had no choice but to dig everything up and use local soil. But Flint had his moment in the Indian sun, all 40 degrees of it. “It was a good idea, though.”

Week 1
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