Failed tactic

Newlands offered a truer test of batsmanship than The Wanderers, but the South Africans were left to rue the inability of any of the senior batsmen to reach 40, writes Peter Roebuck.

South Africa's tactic of preparing a seaming pitch for the Australians has failed miserably. Not that the pitch, hurriedly watered two days before the match, was to blame for the defeat. Indeed Newlands offered a truer test of batsmanship than The Wanderers. Nor were the umpires to blame. Indeed Aleem Dar had a fine match. The South Africans must stop thinking along these lines (traditionally, it is more of a sub-continental trait) and instead focus on their own weaknesses. Poor defensive techniques and bad shot selection undid them, not such strange and uncontrollable creatures as the feared "rub of the green" or "the curse of the white coat."

Admittedly Shaun Pollock was missed. He'd have been licking his lips about bowling on such a mercurial surface, and must have been ruing his injury, and the short term planning that made it almost inevitable. In any case his frailty had been known before the taps were turned on. The idea was not to promote Pollock but to prevent the dreaded Warne. As it turned out Warne was below his best. Such are the lessons of the game. Stuart Clark, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist had the strongest influence on the outcome.

None of the hosts was as resourceful as the Australian pair, none of the bowlers was as demanding as the lofty newcomer who, like most New South Wales cricketers, is also pursuing a degree course. If the Australians can find some cellotape to put across their leg-spinner's mouth (they'd better buy an entire roll), a means of stopping Michael Kasprowicz overstepping and Andrew Symonds from taking the wrong risks, they can look forward to more happy days on the continent.

Not the least impressive part of Clark's work was the way he adjusted his length to suit the pitch.

By nature inclined to operate on a holding length, the paceman swiftly realised that a surface offering movement and steep, slow bounce could best be exploited by a leather-flinger prepared to pitch a fullish length. Having correctly analysed the conditions, he carried out his plan superbly.

Batsmen were not allowed the luxury of playing off the back foot. Only Andre Nel was as threatening, and that only fitfully.

Since he has a higher arm than his colleagues, Clark could extract the bounce needed to prevent batsmen driving confidently. Repeatedly he brought batsmen forward, denying them time to examine his movement. He did not give much away. Nor was it just a matter of plonking the ball on a length.

Clark does not send the ball down with the seam in the right place and pray. He uses his fingers to give the ball a flick to entice leg-cut and pulls his relevant digits down the side of the ball in an attempt to create movement in the opposite direction. Apart from chucking, this is the oldest form of "bowling". Anyone listing predecessors might mention S. F. Barnes, Fred Spofforth, Amar Singh, Alec Bedser, Maurice Tate and Richard Hadlee.

On his worst days Clark will be respectable and in the right conditions he will be a handful. No sense lies in putting him alongside that fellow from Narromine. Bowlers of Glenn McGrath's calibre come along as often as unhappy bookmakers. Doubtless, too, the newcomer appreciated Brett Lee's disciplined support and the impatience of his opponents. Apparently Clark returned the third best figures produced by an Australian on debut.

Hayden's 94 in the first innings of the match was crucial. At times he was lucky, as on the decisive second morning when the bat was regularly beaten. At other times he looked about as likely to leave the scene as the flat-topped mountain overlooking the ground.

It was a humble, composed innings from a batsman nowadays prepared to work harder for his runs. Hayden is more imposing when he does not try to impose himself. His partnership of 154 with Ponting was much the highest of the contest. Ponting was never comfortable but still managed to put together a vital innings. That is the sign of a good cricketer.

Gilchrist also had a fine match. Although he did not prosper with the bat, the gloveman took several athletic catches, some of them clutched with a single paw. Fears that the all-rounder might be running out of mental energy after years on the road were contradicted by this performance and by his lively contributions in the one-day affairs. He remains a magnificent cricketer.

Amongst the other Australians, Damien Martyn managed to field well, Brett Lee bowled tirelessly. Andrew Symonds batted strongly till he threw his wicket away whilst Kasprowicz did not impress. Shane Warne bowled, caught and batted without distinction, and looked like a soul in torment.

Ponting had a fine match, choosing the right team for the conditions and batting with due circumspection. His willingness to praise his hosts after the defeat in Johannesburg had been admired.

Afterwards local newspapers and radio stations were inundated with messages complementing the Australian and condemning their own "Captain Grump".

Apart from Shane Warne's predictable rantings, to which the ICC, though not his own management, have taken exception, about the only blemish on Australia's performance was Hayden's reluctance to take the word of a respected opponent that a catch had carried. Since the match was in the bag, a more gracious competitor might have departed. Touring Australian supporters have spoken warmly about the friendliness of their hosts. An impression has been created that South African cricket spectators are a rough lot. According to visiting groups, nothing has been further from the truth. Meanwhile the South Africans were left to rue the inability of any of the senior batsmen to reach 40. None of the batsmen built a convincing innings.

Shonky batting techniques were exposed. Herschelle Gibbs has been bowled eight times in his last 10 outings, A. B. de Villiers keeps driving with his head up and Graeme Smith's pads are taking a pasting. Time to go back to the basics.

Nor was Jacques Kallis able to bat with his usual mastery. Since he suffered a similar setback, the African may need to contact Sachin Tendulkar to compare notes about the difficulties faced by batsmen attempting to come back from elbow injuries. However it is always worth remembering that truly good men are never down for long.

THE SCORES

First Test, Australia vs South Africa, Cape Town, March 16-18, 2006. Australia won by seven wickets.

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith c Gilchrist b Clark 19; A. de Villiers b Kasprowicz 8; H. Gibbs b Clark 18; J. Kallis c Hayden b Clark 6; A. Prince c Hayden b Lee 17; J. Rudolph c Gilchrist b Kasprowicz 10; M. Boucher c Gilchrist b Clark 16; A. Hall c Hayden b Lee 24; N. Boje lbw b Clark 31; A. Nel lbw b Lee 18; M. Ntini (not out) 17; Extras (lb-6, nb-15) 21. Total 205.

Fall of wkts: 1-24, 2-42, 3-48, 4-61, 5-76, 6-104, 7-124, 8-148, 9-173.

Australia bowling: Lee 14.5-2-37-3; Kasprowicz 13-0-44-2; Symonds 10-2-22-0; Clark 17-3-55-5; Warne 9-0-41-0.

Australia — 1st innings: J. Langer lbw b Nel 16; M. Hayden c Rudolph b Ntini 94; R. Ponting c Hall b Kallis 74; D. Martyn c Boucher b Kallis 22; M. Hussey c Boucher b Hall 6; A. Symonds c Nel b Boje 55; A. Gilchrist c Smith b Kallis 12; S. Warne c de Villiers b Boje 7; B. Lee c Gibbs b Ntini 0; M. Kasprowicz (not out) 6; S. Clark c Gibbs b Nel 8; Extras (lb-7, w-1) 8; Total 308.

Fall of wkts: 1-21, 2-175, 3-192, 4-214, 5-236, 6-272, 7-294, 8-294, 9-296.

South Africa bowling: Ntini 21-2-76-2; Nel 22.2-6-45-2; Hall 16-2-66-1; Boje 16-4-63-2; Kallis 12-0-51-3.

South Africa — 2nd innings: A. de Villiers c Gilchrist b Lee 7; G. Smith lbw b Warne 16; H. Gibbs b Lee 0; J. Kallis c Gilchrist b Clark 36; A. Prince c Gilchrist b Clark 27; J. Rudolph b Warne 41; M. Boucher c Langer b Kasprowicz 2; A. Hall (not out) 34; N. Boje c & b Clark 14; A. Nel b Clark 4; M. Ntini c Kasprowicz b Warne 6; Extras (w-3, nb-7) 10; Total 197.

Fall of wkts: 1-20, 2-20, 3-37, 4-75, 5-92, 6-108, 7-158, 8-179, 9-183.

Australia bowling: Lee 17-5-47-2; Kasprowicz 12-0-39-1; Clark 16-7-34-4; Warne 18.5-1-77-3.

Australia — 2nd innings: J. Langer b Ntini 34; M. Hayden c Gibbs b Ntini 32; R. Ponting lbw b Ntini 1; D. Martyn (not out) 9; M. Hussey (not out) 14; Extras (lb-5) 5; Total (for three wkts.) 95.

Fall of wkts: 1-71, 2-71, 3-76.

South Africa bowling: Nel 7-1-25-0; Ntini 10-3-28-3; Hall 5-1-16-0; Boje 5.1-1-21-0.