Report by Neil Robinson 10/07/03
As Zimbabwe prepared for their final match of this difficult tour, their Aussie coach Geoff Marsh, found time to reflect upon the quality of the pitches, or lack of it, his team had encountered in England. He did not mince his words. “A lot of the wickets we’ve played on this summer have given too much assistance to the faster bowlers,” he said, going on to opine that this is hindering English youngsters from developing into complete bowlers, capable of taking wickets on flat Test pitches. Many English cricket watchers will have agreed with him. Marsh himself will have had further ammunition for his argument as he watched his charges collapse against the new ball and slump to 74 for 6 against South Africa in the final group match of this NatWest Series.
Another sturdy knock from captain Heath Streak helped pull Zimbabwe back to a position of respectability at 173 for 8, but South Africa still cruised home by seven wickets with over fourteen overs to spare, ending Zimbabwe’s tour on a depressingly low note.
Anyone who watched Makhaya Ntini rip through the Zimbabwe top order with extravagant movement in to the right-handers would have found it hard to disagree entirely with Marsh’s views. Ntini himself found the zip and swing too great to control at first, sending down a string of liberal wides either side of the wicket. But when he got it right, he was impossible to deal with. Grant Flower and Tatenda Taibu were both deceived by balls which zeroed in at them from far outside the off stump, Travis Friend and Sean Ervine were drawn into playing away from the body. It seemed clear at this stage that the seamer-friendly reputation of the wicket at Hampshire’s impressive new stadium was well deserved.
But, pitches are far from being the whole story of Zimbabwe’s struggles this summer. In the Test matches at Lord’s and Chester-le-Street, the wickets they lost to the bowling of Anderson, Hoggard, Butcher and Johnson were largely the result of well controlled late swing. Movement through the air is rather more the result of the British climate than the preparation of pitches, and it’s a little rich to blame English cricket for the inability of Zimbabwe’s batsmen to move their feet or play with a straight bat. In these one-day matches too the bowler friendly conditions have not just been about the pitches themselves. In English conditions, whatever the state of the pitch, the white ball invariably does rather more for the bowlers when it is new. With only two exceptions, each innings in the twelve one-dayers played so far this summer has seen the batsmen struggle against the new ball. Those two exceptions were the two superb opening stands shared by Trescothick and Solanki for England at The Oval, against Pakistan and South Africa. This might seem to suggest that the flat, true Oval pitch made all the difference, but in those two matches as well England’s new ball bowlers made vital early inroads into the opposition batting.
As far as the particular issue of early wickets falling in this ODI series goes, the key factor would appear to be the behaviour of the new white ball rather than the pitches. After the early flurry of wickets, once the ball has lost its hardness and shine, most matches have shown that batting becomes much easier. Here again, having slumped to 74 for 6, Zimbabwe put together a strong recovery, led by Streak’s level-headed partnership with debutant Richard Sims. It was a typically cautious stand, rebuilding a half-collapsed innings, but one marked by few anxious moments once Ntini and Andre Nel had done their early damage. The only real chance to fall South Africa’s way was a stumping missed by Mark Boucher when Streak gave Adams the charge on 116. There was little movement left for the seamers now.
If the game’s authorities are worried by the prospect of low-scoring games dominating future one-day series in England, the only sensible solution would be a return to the red ball and white clothing. But it would be a brave man who put any money on that ever happening. Whatever the evidence on the field, those in charge of marketing the one-day game worldwide appear to think that it is far more exciting watching players parading around in blue or yellow shirts than seeing batsmen play with confidence and style against the new ball.
Streak and Sims’ stand finally ended at 128 when Sims edged Pollock to Boucher. Blignaut followed soon after, bowled aiming a huge slog-sweep at Adams, but Ray Price again showed spirit to stand firm with Streak in another worthy stand which took Zimbabwe through the full 50 overs. Streak brought up his personal fifty with the last ball of the innings and left the field to a generous ovation.
It had been a spirited recovery by the Zimbabweans, but rarely on this tour has their spirit been enough. First, South Africa had to endure their own struggle against the new ball, losing Gibbs and van Jaarsveld to some fine bowling from Douglas Hondo. There have been two Dougie Hondos on this tour, one the grinning club bowler who can’t quite believe his luck in getting selected to play for his country, the other a potent swing bowler with the capacity to run through a side with little warning. It is encouraging to note that the longer this tour has gone on, the more we have seen both Hondos on the field at once. Streak too was his usual dangerous self. But Smith and Rudolph settled in and waited for the storm to pass. Once it did the support bowling was too short and the Smith pull and the Rudolph cut got in plenty of practice for Lord’s on Saturday.
Smith fell eventually for 69, slicing a drive high to Ebrahim at backward point. But by now the score was 145 for 3. Mark Boucher stood firm with the ever more impressive Rudolph and South Africa were soon home with time to spare. After their mauling at the hands of England a couple of days ago, this win will have done South Africa the power of good and both teams should begin the final on Saturday brimming with confidence. It is a game which could go either way, but with the strength of his new ball attack and clear evidence that the young England side bat better when chasing, Smith should be thinking about bowling first if he wins the toss.
Zimbabwe could be forgiven for feeling relieved that this tour is over. Some of their senior players, Heath Streak in particular, will be exhausted from the burden they have had to carry. But they have conducted themselves well, been popular visitors and generally willing to learn what they can in defeat. The political protests which overshadowed the start of the tour turned out to be largely dignified and non-disruptive and they will have been encouraged by the talent displayed by some of their youngsters. Douglas Hondo has the ability to take some of the new-ball burden from Heath Streak’s shoulders, Tatenda Taibu has looked a gifted batsman and keeper with a good cricket brain, Stuart Matsikenyeri could well mature into a destructive middle -order batsman, Ray Price has looked the best spinner on view in this series, while Richard Sims had a good match as batsman and off-spinner today. There must be more to come too from Sean Ervine, Andy Blignaut and Travis Friend.
Zimbabwe may never be world beaters, but they have enough to be optimistic about as they return home and plan for the future. All this promise could come to nothing however, if the Mugabe government remains in place and more young Zimbabwean cricketers take the option of a safer, more lucrative career overseas.
Zimbabwe 173 for 8 (Streak 50*, Ntini 4 for 45)
South Africa 174 for 3 (35.2 overs) (Smith 69, Rudolph 69*)
South Africa won by 7 wickets
Man of the Match
Final Tri-Series Table
1. South Africa: Played 6 Won 4 Lost 2 NR 0 Points 23 Run Rate +0.48
2. England: Played 6 Won 3 Lost 2 NR 1 Points 22 Run Rate +0.37
3. Zimbabwe: Played 6 Won 1 Lost 4 NR 1 Points 9 Run Rate -0.98