Pitch imperfect — this was Test cricket, but not as we know it

Pitch imperfect — this was Test cricket, but not as we know it
Pat Cummins of Australia celebrates with team mates after taking the wicket of Dean Elgar of South Africa during day two of the First Test match between Australia and South Africa at The Gabba on December 18, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo: Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images)

For only the 24th time in the history of cricket, a Test match ended inside two days, with Australia’s win over South Africa on Sunday. It says more about the pitch than the teams.

Proteas captain Dean Elgar was understandably unhappy — unhappy with his batting unit’s performance, unhappy with a defeat in the first Test against Australia and mostly unhappy with the sub-standard pitch presented at the Gabba in Brisbane. 

In one of the most highly anticipated series of the past few years, given that Australia and South Africa always provide superb battles, and considering it was the first series in this format since “Sandpapergate,” the fact that it was over inside two days was deflating. 

There have been 2,483 Tests played in the history of the game and only 24 have ended inside two days — or 0.96%. 

The pitch was a green top and from the outside the bounce was uneven, there was turn and it was borderline unplayable, especially as it quickened up on day two. 

In all, 34 wickets fell in six sessions over 145 overs as Australia recorded a six-wicket win. Aussie skipper Pat Cummins won the toss and chose to bowl. Any other decision when faced with the sight of a pitch as green as the Proteas’ 50-over kit would have been worthy of investigation by cricket’s integrity committee. 

With two sides that boast close to, if not, the best seam attacks in world cricket, there was only going to be one winner. Ball trumped bat and in a match of low totals all it needed was one player to present something resembling a score to define the outcome.   

By day two there were divots where the ball pitched and the bounce was uneven. It was far from ideal, but Elgar and Cummins had different views about how bad it was. 

Elgar was unamused: “I did ask the umpires when KG [Kagiso Rabada] got [Travis] Head out down leg, I said: ‘How long does it go on for until it potentially is unsafe?’ ” Elgar said in the media conference afterwards. 

“And then [Anrich] Nortje was bowling those short ones that were flying over our heads [in the slip cordon]… I knew the game was dead and buried and it was never about trying to put a halt to the game. That’s where the umpire’s discretion comes into play, not us as players. I am definitely not going to say it was safe or unsafe.” 

Cummins viewed it differently: “No way, it was fine,” he said. “There was sideways movement and there was a little bit of up-and-down bounce, but it was fine. There were no balls jumping off a length or anything like that. 

“It was certainly tricky. Two days probably isn’t ideal… personally, I don’t mind it if the groundsmen err on the greener side occasionally. I’ve played a lot of Tests where they’ve erred on the flatter side. It was the same for both teams.” 

Travis Head of Australia ducks under a bouncer during day two of the first Test match between Australia and South Africa at the Gabba on 18 December 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo: Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images)

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Head honcho 

Aussie scrapper Head provided the defining knock with 92 in the first innings out of a total of 218 that allowed Australia to take a 66-run first-innings lead. In the context of this Test and that pitch, it was match-winning. 

The Proteas were dismantled for 152 on the first day, which was actually a decent total considering they were 27 for four at one stage. Kyle Verreynne scored a fine 64 and Temba Bavuma, as he so often does, scored an attractive 38 before losing his wicket. 

While some more application and better decisions might have meant a higher total, the reality was that on a pitch like this, the batters were never really “in”. 

The Proteas’ top five could have read Smith, Gibbs, Amla, Kallis and De Villiers and they might not have scored much more. 

That fact that Australia’s top five, who all average between 52 and 73 at home, could only score 166 runs between them in a combined 10 innings (with Head scoring 92 of those in the first innings) tells a story of a pitch not fit for purpose. 

Take away Head’s first innings score and they managed 74 runs out of nine innings at 8.2 runs per knock. The Proteas’ bowling attack is good, but not that good. 

Yes, Rabada bowled magnificently, as did Cummings, Mitchell Starc, Scott Boland, Nathan Lyon, Marco Jansen and Anrich Nortje. But they really didn’t have to work all that hard. They landed the ball in the right areas, and the uneven and variable nature of the pitch did the rest. 

The batters were in cricketing purgatory; the only fortunate aspect was that it did not last long. 

There will be an inquest into the state of the Gabba wicket, but the Proteas now have to find a way to come back from 1-0 down in Australia with two Tests to go. 

Batting woes 

While Elgar was understandably aggrieved at the state of the pitch, the reality is that, unlike Head, not one of the Proteas’ top five was able to really trouble Australia’s attack. 

And it’s nothing new. This was South Africa’s 11th Test in the past year, starting with India at home last summer, and in 21 innings only two batters have recorded centuries. 

Opener Sarel Erwee scored 108 against New Zealand earlier this year and Verreynne also managed a century (136*) in the same series against the Black Caps. That’s it. 

Collectively, the batting unit has made only 16 half-centuries in those 21 innings, and seven of those were against Bangladesh at home. The condition of the Gabba pitch is one thing, the state of South Africa’s batting is another altogether. 

The fact that the Proteas have largely been competitive despite their batting issues is down to a pack of exceptional bowlers who almost always ensure they make a game of it. 

Even in this Test, despite being bowled out for 152 and 99, the Proteas bowlers, led by the consistently brilliant Rabada, can actually leave Brisbane with some positives. 

The vaunted Aussie batting collective struggled against the high quality they met and that is something for the tourists to cling to, going to Melbourne. 

Rabada has now dismissed David Warner the last five times South Africa have met the Aussies, and Jansen and Nortje, in particular, really troubled the others in the Aussie top five.  

But the bowlers are not miracle workers and if the batters don’t find a way to give them something to work with, results will continue to be inconsistent. 

Elgar, perhaps desperate for something to cling to heading to Melbourne, especially after he scored three and two in Brisbane, looked to Rabada to be a totem for the team. 

“Hopefully, KG [Rabada] can inspire our batting unit to get their heads right and knuckle down and to get some performances under their belts for us,” Elgar said.  

“He’s a massive figure for us, not just within our bowling group, but [also] within our 16-man squad. I think what you will find is that it really got Nortje fired up as well and he really started to crank it up even more.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jacques Roux says:

    The problem is the Proteas have been bowled out for under 20o runs in their last 5 innings. And there were no problems with the pitches then. It is a batting problem of note. Some enquiries were going to be done after the dismal Engeland tour. Nothing done -still the same useless management, same poor selections. This OZ tour is going to be as pathetic and embarrassing as the English tour. I have stopped watching the games and only read up in the mornings, it is just too tough to handle.

    • Philip Armstrong says:

      Absolutely spot on and coaching team seriously lacking in a number of aspects with limited international experience. You only have to look at the really experienced coaches and former SA test players being called on for the SA20 to see the gap.

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