Life in the Flat Lane

Four years ago, in this very Newlands cricket ground, an epic battle within the battle of a Test match unfolded when two supremely skilled practitioners went against each other. On the third morning of the New Year’s Test, with the contest evenly poised with both sides jostling for elbow space, the atmospherics overhead and the pitch underfoot combined to provide a delicious passage of play that should still be vivid in the minds of everyone that witnessed it live and on Television.

Sachin Tendulkar faced an on-fire Dale Steyn for an entire spell and in all, 48 off 66 deliveries across two spells. He was repeatedly beaten by the swing and seam movement, hung in there using all his experience, judiciously playing inside the line, continued unperturbed, even as his ego might have been taking a beating, to a century, his last as a Test cricketer.

Later that year, on a day where parts of all 4 innings of the Test took place including two completed, Australia and South Africa were bowled out cheaply (for 47 and 96 respectively). Bowlers reveled with glee with the assistance that was available for them from the Newland wicket. Shane Watson picked up 5-17 and Vernon Philander responded in kind with his 5-15, which are amongst the minimum number of balls to dismiss 5 batsmen in a spell!

But the pitch for the ongoing Test between South Africa and West Indies is a far cry from those pitches. Even as it has a decent bounce, this should be termed a flat wicket as it does not offer any lateral movement. There wasn’t much swing available after the new ball lost its lustre. Batsmen were a lot more confident playing their shots knowing fully well the ball wasn’t going to pull any late tricks on them.

Flat wickets aren’t necessarily bad for cricket as long as they deteriorate with the days passing. But they do make life miserable for a bowler, especially of the pacy kind, on days 1 and 2. With the ball softening and remonstrating against swing with every delivery, batsmen are emboldened and bowlers rendered toothless.

It takes a special kind of bowler to succeed despite the unhelpful conditions. For those that are cut from the same cloth as Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock could always rely on their accuracy and almost boredom inducing repetitions, lulling the batsmen in to false confidence. And for those blessed with the gift of sheer pace like Shoaib Akhtar and Waqar Younis, the pitch is immaterial.

But not many bowlers have the gift of speed or the monkish discipline. Then it becomes a game of “Who’s going to blink first?”

On a sedate pitch in Nagpur in 2008, MS Dhoni set an 8-1 field and played on the Australians’ need to score quickly. He ordered his bowlers to deliver two feet outside the off stump and threw down the gauntlet: Come and fetch if you can. Australia spectacularly collapsed from 229/2 to 355/10 giving India the 1st innings lead and with it, the series.

England during their reign as the top ranked Test side in the world excelled at “bowling dry”. With maiden over upon maiden over piling on, they routinely clamped down on the scoring rates and induced mistakes from the opposition batsmen.

West Indies achieved their best batting output of the series putting on 329 runs in just under 100 overs. This was the sort of pitch where you book in for breakfast, lunch and dinner but many of their top order got in, and got out. South Africa bowled only 16 maiden overs but the West Indies were willing partners in their own downfall even as the pitch and the conditions were resisting the South African bowlers. Debutant Simon Harmer must think it was still Christmas at the rate West Indies sent wickets his way gift-wrapped.

After losing Dean Elgar early, Alviro Petersen and Faf du Plessis bedded in till the former was run out and the latter had a brain fade, returning the favor to the West Indians. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, best batsmen in the world, so far have negotiated without any alarm and look set for the long haul. Even as the West Indian bowlers showed a lot more discipline sending down deliveries wide of off stump – combining for 11 maidens – these two batsmen carried on with reptilian penchant for non-blinking. Surely and soon enough, the bowlers blinked and were picked off for runs.

For West Indies to claw back in to the series and draw level, they may have to do an overnight transformation to McGrath and Pollock, or for Amla and Co. to morph in to West Indies. Considering the odds of any of those happening are next to nothing, and if the clouds above do not offer help, one would expect South Africa to pile on the runs on Day 3.

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