Thursday, 10 January 2013

Questions for New Zealand in Port Elizabeth

A view of Port Elizabeth from Summerstrand beach
Heading into the second test the Black Caps need to take a leaf out of Graeme Smith’s book.

In the press conference after the first match, he was asked about the mental toughness of the South African team. He commented that they had come though the hard times, and built up resilience. It was through the hard times that learned how to take advantage of opportunities when they arose.

Their win in Perth was, in some ways, made possible because of the hard times in Brisbane and Adelaide. But it was also possible because the players had built up a large reserve of experience of finding a way to hold on through the hard times.

In the first test New Zealand were put through some tough times but were found wanting. They were asked questions that they had no answers to.

The first question was asked by Vernon Philander, who bowled a sensational spell. Some of the deliveries that the batsmen got from him were almost unplayable. However they were unplayable largely because the batsmen were neither forward nor back and as a result allowed him to bowl to them. This might have been understandable if they had learned to play their cricket in somewhere like India, where playing on a green wicket is foreign, but these players have almost all grown up in New Zealand, where playing on a pre-Christmas wicket is something that most batsmen have to do every year.

The second question was caused by the bounce. When James Franklin managed to hit Alviro Petersen on the hand with one that got up it was clear that this was a particularly bouncy pitch. It was even more evident when Steyn and Morkel were putting the ball up at rib height for the New Zealand tail-enders. Most of the New Zealand batsmen didn’t get the opportunity to answer that question in the first innings, but in the second innings it was asked again, and they were generally found wanting again. While they managed to not get out to too many short balls they struggled to score and generally survived more by good fortune than good management.

The third question was how they would reply to being put under so much pressure from the scoreboard. When Doug Bracewell picked up Graeme Smith in the second over, it looked like they were going to respond well, but after lunch they looked like a defeated team. While that was understandable in one respect, the South Africans still needed to bat on the pitch, and gifting them easy runs through poor fielding and loose bowling was not the correct response. There was sufficient life in the pitch that good bowling and fielding would have caused problems for the South African batsmen.

The fourth question was would they learn from the first innings. The answer to that was somewhat equivocal. The batsmen used the crease well against Philander. Guptill tried to turn the strike over by hitting the ball squarer, playing the right shot to the right ball, but just executing incorrectly. However most of the batsmen struggled to score off the back foot. Wattling, Flynn and Franklin all showed admirable patience, but failed to take advantage of a number of scoring opportunities, and so allowed the bowlers to implement plans.

The second test is at St Georges Park a ground that has traditionally been a lot slower and does a lot less off the seam than Newlands but it also traditionally swings more. So now some new questions await the New Zealand team. How do they recover from the psychological disaster of Newlands? How will the bowlers respond to a slower pitch with very little likely to be on offer? Will the batsman do as badly against swing as they did against seam movement?

There are also more specific questions:

  • Can Guptill find a way to rotate the strike?
  • Will McCullum bat as responsibly on a pitch that’s slower?
  • Will Williamson, Flynn and/or Franklin find a way to score as well as occupying the crease?
  • Will Brownlie adapt to a slower pitch, where he can’t use the pace of the ball as easily?
  • Will Wattling recover his form that he has previously shown on slow tracks?
  • Will Bracewell find a way to get out the better batsmen without getting much assistance from the pitch?
  • If he plays, will Patel find a way to take wickets as well as containing the batsmen?
  • If Bruce Martin plays instead, will he be able to cut out the one bad ball an over that he tends to bowl?
  • Will Trent Boult be able to bowl in his first spell as well as he bowled in his third spell at Newlands, and will he be able to dislodge the tail-enders as well as the quality batsmen?
  • If Chris Martin plays, will he be able to find the length again that has given him so much success against left-handers in the past?
  • If Neil Wagner plays, does he have the weapons to dislodge quality batsmen who are not frightened by his pace?
  • If Mitchell McClenaghan plays can he bowl with pace and accuracy for more than 3 or 4 overs?

The New Zealand team certainly went through tough times in Newlands. They now need to show that they have learned from that, and can answer the new questions that this match will ask. Until the Black Caps get on the pitch it’s hard to know what answers they have, and if those answers are going to be sufficient.

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