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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Serenity at the building site



Each province has five home games in the Plunket Shield. This season, Wellington’s first was played in spring when the Basin Reserve was a sub-branch of the Antarctic; the second was played 550 kms away; the third was cancelled because of earthquakes; this game is the fourth; the fifth is a day-nighter during the working week. So this match represented the best chance this season of enjoying domestic first-class cricket in the sun. I was there for most of the first day, and after lunch on the second and third days.

Readers in Britain should understand that domestic first-class cricket in New Zealand has long since ceased to be regarded as an attraction for the paying spectator. There is no charge, but neither are there any spectator services (though it is possible for members to buy food in their lounge), or even a public address announcer. The Basin is a public thoroughfare unless there is a match that requires payment at the gate, so there is a constant stream of pedestrians and cyclists passing between the spectators (not always in the plural) and the field of play.

A couple of years ago this fixture was played at Karori Park in Wellington’s western suburbs, sharing the field with two kids’ games and getting a smaller audience than either.

Pleasant as it was sitting in the sun at the Basin last week, I still thought wistfully of my day at the Nevill in Tunbridge Wells last July when 3,000 plus sweltered watching a game of first-class county cricket with all the panoply that comes with it: the marquees, the scorecard sellers, the food stalls. How one yearned now for the seductive chime of the ice cream van.

Add to this that the Basin’s main stand remains a building site. Our friends in the full body suits and breathing masks were back on the third day to remind us of the risk we were taking in watching the cricket. There are currently no seats in the stand and the members’ lounge reverberated to hammering and drilling.

All this would be inconsequential were it not for the fact that New Zealand are to play South Africa in a test match here starting only two weeks after the end of this game. It would be nice if there were seats in the stand for people to sit in. The official word is that the new seats are “on the way from China”. Insert the phrase “slow boat” into that sentence at will. The Museum Stand is full of sturdy wooden benches, but is shut, being an earthquake risk (yet the museum beneath it remains open).

Canterbury have become the first New Zealand team to adopt the practice (now established in the County Championship) of putting numbers and names on white shirts. The names are too small to read, there is no publicly available list of which number belongs to which player, and on the first day nine of 11 numbers were covered by sweaters, but the thought’s the thing.

Wellington were put in by Canterbury and made 291 in 91 overs, built around two century partnerships: 117 for the third wicket by Papps and Borthwick and 108 from Marshall and Blundell for the fifth.

Michael Papps is in fine form in his nineteenth season of first-class cricket. He moved to his half-century with three fours in one over off Andrew Ellis. Scott Borthwick was less fluent. He was in many pundits’ squads for England’s test tour of India after consistent high scoring for Durham for the past three years, but not that of the selectors. Instead he finds himself playing in the local leagues for Johnsonville, where the Taj Mahal and Gateway of India are merely alternative sources of takeaway dinners. What’s more, Borthwick was unable to secure a regular place in Wellington 20 and 50-over teams, carrying the drinks on several occasions. Here he toughed it out for 47, the sort of innings that can turn a player’s form around.

Hamish Marshall started slowly but was soon cutting like Vidal Sassoon and reached his fifty from 82 balls. Aside from the two century partnerships, Wellington’s highest score was Jeetan Patel’s 14.

Before the game began, Patel was called up to the national ODI squad for the final two games of the South African series, so would play for the first two days here before being substituted by someone who can also bat and bowl. This, I don’t approve of. It’s different from having a player called up unexpectedly halfway through a game. One of the defining features of cricket is starting with a set of resources that cannot be varied.

Matt Henry, five for 62 from 26 overs, was Canterbury’s best bowler. It is hard to recall Henry bowling badly for New Zealand, and he is No 10 on the ICC ODI bowling rankings, but he is not in the national team for any form of the game currently. Here he bowled with pace and penetration, the rain breaks helping to keep him fresh.

On the second day I arrived just after lunch to find Canterbury 60 for two. Peter Fulton was in and looking good. A couple of weeks previously he had destroyed Wellington with magnificent century in the 20-over final of the 50-over competition. Here, he looked as if his form had been carried over. Unusually, it is Fulton’s onside shots that are all timing and those on the offside that rely on power. He was out for 79, poking at a ball well outside off, a tame way for one in such good touch to get out. Henry Nicholls went in similar fashion, suggesting that this was not a pitch that took kindly to being driven on. Anurag Verma’s skiddy fast-medium was responsible for both dismissals.

Jeetan Patel bowled a long spell, offering value before heading for the airport at the end of the day. For the greater part he bowled with no fielders on the boundary, something that you usually see only when a side is on all-out attack. Mid on and mid wicket were both two-thirds of the way back, an invitation to batsmen to have a go. Yet when Todd Astle accepted the offer it took only a couple of successful tonks to send the fielder back to long on. He stared, Patel (or maybe captain Papps) blinked.

Hamish Bennett bowled (another) hostile spell. He has Astle lbw and thought that he had Fletcher caught behind, but the umpire demurred. As well as being a quality bowler, Bennett is one of New Zealand’s finest appealers, fit to be measured against Robin Jackman of Surrey, always the gold standard of appealers.

Arnel, the grumpy grandad of the Wellington attack, was the meanest of the bowlers, not helped by the frustrated air kick that he aimed at the ball at the end of one over making unintended connection, giving the batsman a bonus overkick. He took just one wicket, as did Patel (27 overs) and Woodcock (three overs).

Wicketkeeper Cam Fletcher shepherded the tail to a total of 243, displaying the gnomic qualities of his distinguished Essex namesake, but a deficit of 54 seemed significant on a pitch that was (to borrow Scyld Berry’s description of a Caribbean pitch the other day) grudging.

Arriving at lunch on the third day, I discovered that Wellington’s second innings progress had been sedate, and continued to be so throughout the afternoon, 248 runs the day’s harvest. It was far from disagreeable, sitting in the sun enjoying a rare pleasant day in Wellington’s Bermuda Triangle of a summer, untroubled by events that might have obliged me to make a note for the later benefit of readers.

Hamish Marshall provided a shot of adrenaline, but of the batsmen who reached double figures, only Borthwick broke the three-an-over sound barrier, that only by a smidgen. So we snoozed happily in the sun, the pitch appearing to join us. Such boundaries as there were came square or backward of square. Wellington’s lead was over 300 by the end of the day, and stretched to 324 on the final morning.

Everything that I had seen over the first three days suggested that 324 at three-and-a-half an over would be too much for Canterbury, and that a serious attempt at a run chase would let Wellington in.

Canterbury won by seven wickets, their 325 made at four-and-a-half an over. Fulton, who might have been expected to lead the charge, was the slowest scorer. Chad Bowes, who had impressed in the T20 at the Basin earlier in the season, made 149 when he was third (and last) out with the score at 236, leaving Henry Nicholls and Cole McConchie to take them home.

I wasn’t there, so don’t know how they managed it, but Patel’s control was obviously missed, his replacement Peter Younghusband bowling eight overs at almost six an over. It is unlikely that the character of the pitch changed much, so it must have come down to attitude and a lot of skill.

It is the huge capacity of first-class cricket to surprise that is one of its chief attractions, no matter if there are calm spells along the way. Let’s hope that next year the weather and schedule makes it possible to enjoy a bit more of it.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Capitulation at the Cake Tin: New Zealand v South Africa ODI

New Zealandv South Africa, ODI, The Cake Tin, 25 February 2017
The set up was as teasing as a Victorian melodrama. Two games, two last-over wins, one to each side. The dramatic tension was maintained throughout the first act, the audience divided as to which way the plot would go. But after the interval we went straight to the final scene, the one where the stage is filled with New Zealand corpses. South Africa won by 159 runs, the most lopsided match I have seen since Southee and McCullum filleted England in the World Cup two years ago.

South Africa won the toss and batted. Their openers were Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock. I first saw Amla as a CricInfo reporter when I covered some of South Africa Under 19s’ tour of New Zealand in 2001. His talent was as abundant as his fielding was inept. Today he went cheaply, caught at mid off from a leading edge having contributed just seven of an opening partnership of 41.

New Zealand fed de Kock’s strength by bowling him lots of short stuff. This isn’t as daft as it sounds, the theory being that the batsman will take more risks within his comfort zone. It didn’t work today though. De Kock made 68 at almost a run a ball. He put on 73 with Faf du Plessis before both went to soft dismissals in the 23rd over, bowled by Colin de Grandhomme—the South Africans didn’t have a monopoly on the nobiliary particle today.

AB de Villiers was in at No 4 for his last game in Wellington (he’s not hanging around for the tests). I didn’t see the half century he made in the Basin test last time South Africa were here, and the empty 99 in the World Cup against UAE doesn’t count, so I was keen that one of the greats should leave behind a memory.

The regular loss of partners meant that de Villiers did not show us the full range of his inventiveness until the final few overs. He gets lower in the shot than anyone I can think of, which means that the bowler has to be precise to several decimal places in his pitching of the ball. An inch or too full and it might as well be a knee-high full toss; the same the other way becomes the easiest of half volleys. He made 85 from 80 balls and it was a treat.

The way the South Africans went about things from early in their innings suggested that they thought that a total of around 300 was going to be needed on a pitch that shimmered in the afternoon sun, so restricting them to 271 could be considered a good effort by the New Zealand attack.

Trent Boult was outstanding, every bit the leading one-day bowler in the world, conceding only 22 from his first seven overs. Tim Southee was more profligate. Mitch Santner was also very good with a mid-innings spell of seven overs going for just 28. Lockie Ferguson came in for Ish Sodhi, but did nothing to justify the selection. It is the nature of fast bowlers that they are hit and miss early in their careers as they learn that sheer speed is sometimes not enough. Today, the quicker he bowled, the quicker it came off the bat. He will have benefitted from studying the work of Kagiso Rabada later in the day.

But New Zealand’s best bowler, statistically at least, was the man least likely to be, Colin de Grandhomme, whose ambling medium pace accounted for du Plessis and de Kock. Having fought off a gang of muggers, they were felled by a handbag-wielding granny. He got de Kock with a long hop, but that was the worst ball he bowled. De Grandhomme made the best of a pitch that that was more balanced between bat and ball than most of us thought, bowling accurately and cannily. I am as enthusiastic about him as an ODI player as I am critical of his presence in the test team.

So how did Neesham, the all-rounder, do with the ball? Reader, we will never know, as he did not bowl. It appears that for Williamson, Neesham is a weapon of last resort, thrown in when all else has failed. He got away with it today, shuffling the five bowlers astutely (he didn’t put himself on either), but that is not a sustainable strategy for the one-day game.

Was 271 enough for South Africa? Most of us thought not, but as it turned out they could have gone to the pictures instead of facing the last 20 overs and still have won comfortably. I have often been critical of how the outcome of T20 games is too often obvious by an early stage of the second innings, but that can happen in 50-over cricket too, and so it did here.

Tom Latham would need the Hubble telescope to see his form at the moment. It should be David Attenborough rather than Ian Smith commentating when Latham bats, so closely do his innings resemble the pursuit of a limping gazelle by a pride of lionesses, the grizzly outcome inevitable. Today’s seven-ball duck left him with a series aggregate of two from 29 deliveries. There is almost always a penalty for giving the gloves to a specialist batsman. Latham’s keeping is satisfactory, though he did miss a straightforward stumping today. Let us hope that the test performance of New Zealand’s best opener since Mark Richardson is not the price to be paid.

Brownlie went caught behind off Rabada, so at 11 for two, Williamson and Taylor were together, usually as reassuring as a log fire in winter. Yet today it was as if they had something better to do and had sent a tribute band instead. They looked like Williamson and Taylor, but the music wasn’t the same. Both faced 40 balls, for 23 and 18 respectively, miserable strike rates by their standards. I often write that it was a surprise when Williamson got out, but today it wasn’t. Towards the end of their partnership both began to flail at the ball, so effective was the containment of the South African attack. Taylor was leg before soon after and seemed relieved, hurrying past Neil Broom at the other end so that there was no chance of being talked into a review. The rest was a procession, the last six wickets falling for 64.

As ever, there was talk about the pitch, on which 271 was a better score than at first appeared, and from which the South Africans got more help than New Zealand. But sometimes we look too closely at the pitch instead of the quality of the bowling. For various reasons the South Africans are missing Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Abbott, and chose not to play Morris, who has been taking wickets for fun so far on the tour. Yet the attack that took the field was superb.

The all-Kent opening team of Rabada and Parnell (two and five first-class appearances, seven years apart) was outstanding. The last time I saw Rabada he was attempting to coax some life out of the pitch at Tunbridge Wells, a task better suited to a spiritualist than a fast bowler. He is fast, accurate and—best of all—highly intelligent. Parnell was probing and accurate. In the first ten overs, between them they removed the openers and established the frustration of Williamson and Taylor.

The second wave was even better. Andile Phehlukwayo has something about him. He is not yet the finished article, but looks as if he absolutely belongs at the top level. He kept a cool head when bashing a couple of sixes to win the first game of the series. Today, he removed Williamson and Broom and conceded only 12 in his five-over spell. At the other end, Dwaine Pretorious was even meaner with two for five from five. Between them they put the match beyond New Zealand.

The home team came back strongly in the fourth game, winning by seven wickets with five overs to spare, thanks to a sublime unbeaten 180 by Martin Guptill. However at Eden Park in the series decider, another outstanding bowling performance gave South Africa a three-two series victory.