Picture: 123RF/WAVEBREAK MEDIA LTD
Picture: 123RF/WAVEBREAK MEDIA LTD

A fish out of water would be an easy phrase to pluck out of the air in response to the defeat of the Proteas in their first Test match in Pakistan for 12 years. That would merely belie the layers of challenges the SA team faced.

Having played on the Newlands dust bowl in the 1970s, fresh from the lush-green seaming Kingsmead pitch, I have much sympathy. The Newlands contests with their wonderful array of spinners — Denys Hobson, Grahame Chevalier and Richard Morris — working their magic was a nightmare. A strong Natal side could manage two sparse victories in 12 years. Even in the 1970s, a Currie Cup win away from home was cherished owing to the different conditions — and the crowds, of course.

Kojak Corner at Newlands constantly provided us with information about how our loss was a foregone conclusion. “Barlow is the best captain”, “Hobbers is a magician, you have no chance”, and my favourite, “Give your wicket away. Garth is coming on to bowl”, were some of the constant jeers coming from Kojak and his cohorts.

Newlands was a challenge of epic proportions and we might well have been playing in Pakistan, for the ball quickly resembled an old wilting pomegranate. Winning the toss and batting first gave us only minimal advantage, so inept were we at Newlands.

The Proteas had the same problems in Karachi. Without our wrist spinner, we were seriously disadvantaged. Pakistan has produced five leg-spinners since 1950 who have taken more than 100 Test wickets (three of them over 200), while we have produced just one. That tells the story.

There are solutions from the past to consider.

1.     We can prepare a variety of wickets in SA for the domestic competitions to allow our first-class players match opportunities to learn techniques and strategies to play on all surfaces. Cricket SA could resurrect the wickets of the 1970s to ensure a dust bowl at Newlands, a green top at Kingsmead and that slow low turner at Paarl. East London has excessive wind, Port Elizabeth an excellent wicket that spun on day three, while the highveld pitches were true and bouncy. A potpourri of pitches.

Our home Test match pitches, of course, would be different.

2.     Wrist spinners, so essential on the subcontinent, have to be nurtured and fast-tracked. In 2006 the Cricket SA High Performance department sent over six spinners to be mentored by legendary spin bowler Prasanna and other coaches in Indian conditions for a week. Each of them became a Protea; the youngest was Keshav Maharaj, still in his teens. Shane Warne could be persuaded to look after our promising wrist spinners for an intense week in the subcontinent, with Denys Hobson and Gogga Adams alongside.

Winning in Pakistan demands that players create pressure and grind out disciplined action plans, as in the old Test tradition. Our bowlers lost patience. In Pakistan, one has to prize out the opposition patiently through pressure and uneven bounce. It is tough, heartbreaking work with its own exquisite quality, similar to seeing off attack after attack close to your line in rugby.

Aiden Markham and Rassie van der Dussen demonstrated the necessary discipline when they patiently ground out a wonderful partnership, over by over.

That war of attrition, however, shatters when one team blinks. Our tail-enders blinked through poor shot selection, leaving Temba Bavuma high and dry at a time when 50 more runs could have tilted the outcome.

Conversely, the Pakistan 10th wicket stand was a game changer. We have a long tail, without genuine all-rounders, which in time will be filled by Wiaan Mulder. Like learning to play in Pakistan, Mulder will grow match by match.

Covid-19 amplifies the challenge of an away series in ways we are only now beginning to understand.

Aaron Finch, the ODI Australian captain, stated: “Staying in biobubbles for lengthy periods is unsustainable.” (This is perhaps the reason for the Australian withdrawal from the SA tour).

Different squads for each format is becoming the standard during Covid-19 to afford players relaxation time with family and time to clear their minds.

The Proteas have their work cut out for them in the second Test. They showed enough resolve in the first Test and will come back stronger with a recalibrated team structure. Also, the right Test captain will emerge by the end in this tough tour.

Graeme Smith was right months ago. A wicketkeeper captain has never been the answer in the history of Test cricket. Quinton de Kock is a wonderful player, but the yoke of captaincy in Tests needs to be lifted from him.

Onward and upward.

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