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Cricket: On with the twin trends of caution and attrition

Cricket: On with the twin trends of caution and attrition

South Africa just holds the aces against Zimbabwe with a 113-run lead, as the hosts get stuck into their second innings. It's all been about patient and steady cricket, something South Africa has done quite a lot of lately. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Those who have read The Art of War might be familiar with the theory that excellence comes through subduing the enemy without fighting. South Africa, for all intents and purposes, has not been fighting against Zimbabwe. But that also depends on your definition of the word.

On Monday, many would have been forgiven for thinking that they simply rolled over as the batsmen crawled along to 397 all out, rarely getting the run rate above 2.5 runs an over. It was only the second time ever Zim had managed to restrict South Africa to under 400 runs by bowling them out.

South Africa’s approach, stodgy and stoic, would have had a few observers dozing off. The wickets that fell were mostly loose and careless shots, borne out of frustration that things weren’t happening as quickly as some might have expected. While other teams have galloped along in Tests recently, South Africa are slowing down to a crawl. In the 87 completed Test innings in 2014, only 10 have had an innings run-rate of below 2.5 per over.

All three of the lowest run rates in an innings so far this year belong to South Africa – twice against Sri Lanka in Colombo and once against Australia in Cape Town earlier this year. They appear 10th on the list once more and it is clear that there is pattern of caution and attrition emerging from this team.

The safety-first approach might sedate some observers, but it has served its purpose on a slow track which has offered just enough turn to keep Zimbabwe interested. Even for some of best players of spin in the world – Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers – it has been tough going, with both batsmen failing to get into double figures in the first innings.

For some, it would come as a surprise that it is happening against Zimbabwe, but that surprise would patronise the hosts’ efforts. John Nyumbu’s five wickets came through persistence and support from his teammates, as the Zimbabweans conspired to construct temptation and frustration to lure South Africa out of their comfort zone. It worked for some, but others, like Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock showed that defence is the best form of attack, before they, too, succumbed to their frustrations.

While Test cricket is at its best when it blends a modicum of modesty with brute force, there is still room for approaching it with attrition. Every run that South Africa scored was hard to come by. Even the usually aggressive De Kock had to grit his teeth and work for his runs. The value of the batsmen’s wickets became exemplified as exasperation gnawed away at any sort of progress.

Some will call it negative cricket, while others, leaning more toward conspiracy theory, might suggest that it’s preparing negative pitches against a side that is very tough to beat. Everyone wants to see entertainment, especially against a minnow team, but sometimes circumstances dictate that this is simply not possible. Then, Test cricket embodies its adjective. Everything becomes enhanced and every ounce of concentration and skill is tested over and over again.

The cautious approach does bring its rewards from time to time, as South Africa recently showed when they drew the final Test against Sri Lanka and won the series. There will be an expectation that the reward this time needs to be far greater. They are expected to win from here, not only to show that there was method to their madness, but also why they are ranked as the top Test team in the world. It is expected that the end should justify the means, no matter how uncomfortable those means made observers.

South Africa are still in control. For the first two sessions on Tuesday, they also still have time on their side. As the track continues to deteriorate, debutant Dane Piedt will have a big role to play, backed up by part-timer JP Duminy. While at first this Test might have seemed like a massive waste of everyone’s time, it has suddenly become far more important than that. South Africa always insisted that they would take it seriously – and they have – but a somewhat unexpected test now awaits them. Amla’s captaincy will be crucial and input from his lieutenants will be important. Piedt, who might not have expected to be able to prove himself, has a chance to add to his reputation after his first innings exploits. And South Africa, as a team, will have a chance to prove that you don’t always have to play pretty cricket to be effective. DM

Scorecard summary:

Zimbabwe 256 and 28 for 1 trail South Africa 397 (Du Plessis 98, de Kock 81, Nyumbu 5-157) by 113 runs

Photo: South Africa’s JP Duminy signals his century against New Zealand in the third and final international cricket test match of the series in Wellington, March 25, 2012.  REUTERS/Anthony Phelps

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