DICEY PITCH, DEMONIC PACE

NEMESIS NTINI AND SEARING STEYN (below) cooked the Kiwi goose.-AP NEMESIS NTINI AND SEARING STEYN (below) cooked the Kiwi goose.

Two of Ntini's five wickets in the first innings were off contrasting deliveries, which summed up the nature of the pitch. The bait that hooked Hamish Marshall bounced at ping-pong height, while the ball that sent out Scott Styris was spat out nastily by the pitch, at good height.

Three cricketers in their nervous nineties, Shane Bond cooling his knees, two teams with no love lost between them. All this even before the umpires called `Play' in the first Test between New Zealand and South Africa at Centurion. The battle was primarily between some leash-free and bruising fast bowling and adamant and brave batting. Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Stephen Fleming, all playing their 100th Test didn't produce anything extraordinary to live up to all the newsprint devoted to their 99 previous appearances. The Test clearly belonged to Man-of-the-Match Makhaya Ntini, who took South Africa to their 100th Test match win, and became the first South African bowler to take 10 wickets in two consecutive Tests. The 28-year-old made the ball produce every bit of geometry, rapidly bending it, and exploiting the seaming wicket with schizophrenic bounce to the hilt.

"He's bowled with pace and precision," captain Graeme Smith said. "There's a crack on that wicket that Makhaya worked over the whole day (fourth day), he hardly missed it. He's a thinking bowler now, and as a captain it's wonderful to be able to throw the ball to him — something always happens."

It sure did. Two of his five wickets in the first innings were off contrasting deliveries, which summed up the nature of the pitch. The bait that hooked Hamish Marshall bounced at ping-pong height, while the ball that sent out Scott Styris was spat out nastily by the pitch, at good height.

"My play comes from the heart and I always want to do the best for my country. That's what it's all about when I bowl. It is my responsibility to take wickets and nothing else is important," said Ntini.

He was greatly aided by Dale Steyn, who picked up five wickets in the second innings. With his deliveries consistently touching 145 kph and above, the 22-year-old is quick but raw, getting the ball to regularly jag away from the right-handers in a flash. He finds himself perched in sentences alongside Allan Donald and is being called the legendary fast bowler's heir. The similarities are there, sprint, snarl and all. But the pressure is too premature for him to live up to. "His role is to run in and be quick," said Smith

The Test pendulum went through its regular bouts of swing, with the first two days sticking to a wickets-tumbling-followed-by-dogged-batting pattern. Jacob Oram gave New Zealand a sniff by smashing a magnificent hundred after an 18-month cricket-barren frustrating period because of a back problem. The Kiwis were in trouble at 38 for four, in response to South Africa's first innings score of 276, when Oram barged in. It soon became 45 for five, but a sudden surge of South African benevolence and lady luck made sure that shots on both sides of the wicket weren't too hard to conjure, especially with some prudent footwork, and the edges grazed green rather than reach South African palms.

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"I honestly thought it felt like the worst of the three (centuries) so far, I didn't feel comfortable at all. I didn't feel as good as I would've liked technically. But in terms of the situation we were in, it was probably my best effort," he said. But Oram was not there for technical purity. His job was to restore parity, which he more than accomplished. His job was to give his team a lead, which he did. And when Oram reached his century, he acknowledged his teammates' cheers and embraced Daniel Vettori (81), who was involved in a 183-run partnership with him. Vettori perched himself alongside Richard Hadlee and Chris Cairns in the 2000 runs and 200 wicket-club, with that knock.

"I think it was a combination of a couple of things," Oram said about his reaction. "Firstly, being out of Test cricket for however long it's been since Australia (2004) and also the nervousness and anxiety I had pre-Test. It built up due to the fact I hadn't played for so long. You're always doubting yourself — am I up to speed after such a long break? But it was an unbelievable feeling especially considering the position we had found ourselves in."

With the kind of pitch that made batting seem a self-inflicted method of torture, both teams' fast bowlers prospered. New Zealand's Kyle Mills, who came in for the injured Shane Bond and James Franklin troubled the South African openers Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith. Gibbs' suspect footwork and generous gap between bat and pad again got him into trouble, while Smith continued with his playing across and getting out habit.

Both teams triggered mini-collapses, which was followed by face-saving knocks. A. B. De Villiers made a solid 97 for South Africa in the second innings. The pitch came under criticism from the home-team, with captain Smith calling the matches played on these pitches a "lottery", and Kallis advocating better preparation.

Matches like these usually turn around based on a session or two. For South Africa, Ntini's and Steyn's outbursts with the ball on the penultimate day were what made the difference. The one moment of the match that will not fade away in a hurry will be the sight of Chris Martin's middle-stump playing flying saucer thanks to a Steyn scorcher. It signalled the arrival of an unmistakable talent, and South Africa's new depth in the pace-bowling department.

THE SCOREBOARD

First Test, South Africa v New Zealand, Centurion, April 15-19, 2006. South Africa won by 128 runs.

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith lbw b Franklin 45; H. Gibbs b Mills 6; H. Dippenaar c Fulton b Mills 52; J. Kallis b Franklin 38; A. Prince c Styris b Mills 9; A. De Villiers b Franklin 27; M. Boucher c Fleming b Martin 18; S. Pollock c Styris b Mills 24; N. Boje lbw b Franklin 23; D. Steyn c Mills b Martin 13; M. Ntini (not out) 1; Extras (b-6, lb-4, w-3, nb-7) 20. Total: 276.

Fall of wkts: 1-16, 2-95, 3-119, 4-130, 5-177, 6-197, 7-229, 8-233, 9-274.

New Zealand bowling: Mills 18-7-43-4; Franklin 18-3-75-4; Martin 22.4-4-66-2; Oram 14-7-27-0; Vettori 18-2-44-0; Astle 5-2-11-0.

New Zealand — 1st innings: H. Marshall b Ntini 6; P. Fulton c Boucher b Pollock 14; S. Fleming c & b Ntini 0; S. Styris c Gibbs b Ntini 17; N. Astle c Boucher b Steyn 4; J. Oram c Pollock b Steyn 133; B. McCullum c Boje b Kallis 31; D. Vettori c Prince b Ntini 81; J. Franklin c Boucher b Ntini 8; K. Mills c Boje b Pollock 12; C. Martin (not out) 1; Extras (lb-12, nb-8) 20. Total: 327.

Fall of wkts: 1-8, 2-12, 3-32, 4-38, 5-45, 6-89, 7-272, 8-280, 9-322.

South Africa bowling: Ntini 19-2-94-5; Steyn 18.4-1-95-2; Pollock 15-4-45-2; Kallis 9-1-41-1; Boje 7-0-29-0; Smith 3-1-11-0.

South Africa — 2nd innings: G. Smith lbw b Martin 7; H. Gibbs c Styris b Franklin 2; H. Dippenaar c Fleming b Oram 16; J. Kallis c Vettori b Styris 62; A. Prince c McCullum b Franklin 11; A. De Villiers c Franklin b Oram 97; M. Boucher b Mills 21; S. Pollock lbw b Vettori 10; N. Boje c McCullum b Astle 31; D. Steyn (not out) 7; M. Ntini lbw b Vettori 16; Extras (b-12, lb-2, nb-5) 19. Total: 299.

Fall of wkts: 1-8, 2-19, 3-42, 4-73, 5-140, 6-194, 7-205, 8-270, 9-276.

New Zealand bowling: Franklin 14-2-60-2; Martin 24-6-64-1; Mills 21-5-57-1; Oram 17-3-44-2; Vettori 15.1-0-42-2; Astle 5-1-15-1; Styris 2-0-3-1.

New Zealand — 2nd innings: H. Marshall c Boucher b Ntini 25; P. Fulton c Boucher b Ntini 4; K. Mills c Dippenaar b Ntini 0; S. Fleming c Kallis b Steyn 6; S. Styris c Boucher b Steyn 2; N. Astle c De Villiers b Ntini 2; J. Oram b Ntini 2; B. McCullum c Dippenaar b Steyn 33; D. Vettori c Boucher b Steyn 38; J. Franklin (not out) 0; C. Martin b Steyn 0; Extras (lb-2, nb-6) 8; Total: 120.

Fall of wkts: 1-5, 2-5, 3-17, 4-23, 5-26, 6-28, 7-73, 8-119, 9-119.

South Africa bowling: Ntini 14-3-51-5; Steyn 17-4-47-5; Pollock 5-1-20-0.

A Special Correspondent