The Proteas have spent the week practising in the Kingsmead nets and at the Chatsworth Oval, where the ball has seldom gone above waist-high, but nobody knows what to expect from the pitch when the first Test against New Zealand starts in Durban on Friday.
Although the wicket has a healthy covering of grass typical of Kingsmead, whether there will be bounce and pace remains to be seen, with many expecting a surface tending towards the turgid for the earliest “summer” starting date of any of the 41 Tests played there.
The next earliest that a Test in Durban was played was South Africa’s first home Test after isolation, against India from November 13-17, 1992, when just 707 runs were scored in 319.4 overs (run-rate 2.21).
“I’m very unsure of how the pitch will play. There’s always a bit of grass here and we need to weigh up what will be the tougher challenge – batting first and getting through the first couple of hours or batting last on the fifth day,” Proteas captain Faf du Plessis said.
“We’ll have another look at the pitch before finalising our side because we want to see if it will dry out a bit. It looks a bit tacky, but there are five days to play so there are a number of things to consider. We’ll have to see how the pitch shapes up and we’re going in a little bit blind, although it looks a pretty good surface.
“We’re constantly playing in different countries and conditions and being able to adapt is a big part of international cricket. You have to adapt to what is in front of you,” said New Zealand captain Kane Williamson.
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Rankings out the window
Although the Black Caps are ranked fifth in the world and South Africa have plummeted to seventh, Williamson was talking up the size of the challenge his team faces as they go in search of their first series win over the hosts.
“These are entirely different conditions and opposition to Zimbabwe. South Africa has always been regarded as one of the strongest teams and it’s certainly a stiff challenge playing them in their back yard. For any team, losing someone like AB de Villiers would not be a great thing, but they have a lot of depth and talent and South Africa always has a good seam attack. Plus they have good spinners and batsmen too.
“We know we can compete if we play our best cricket, but I wouldn’t say we are favourites. South Africa are always strong regardless of the rankings, which we don’t look at very closely. We know it’s going to be very tough cricket and our focus is on playing the way we always do and adapting to conditions quickly,” Williamson said.
For his part, Du Plessis was happy to accept the favourites’ tag.
“New Zealand have a similar balance to their side as we do and they have been playing Test cricket and playing very well, but here in our home conditions you can put the favourites tag on us.
“New Zealand have been very consistent and it’s about where you are as a team, how on top of your game you are. We’ve had an honest assessment of where we want to be and we want to challenge each other a lot more to be better. Our culture has been so nice, we’ve been playing well, so we’ve tended to just leave things be.
“But we cannot accept mediocrity and we’ve possibly fallen into that trap. Playing so much cricket, there are times you tend to just rock up and play,” Du Plessis said at Kingsmead on Thursday.
South Africa’s pace bowling spearheads, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, will make their returns to Test cricket in Durban, with Kagiso Rabada as explosive backup, but New Zealand have three in-form quicks of their own in Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, all of whom are in the top 20 of the world rankings for bowlers.
Mental scars and no AB
Du Plessis admitted that South Africa’s batsmen suffered some scarring in India and against England last season, and he said their battle against the visiting pacemen would be crucial in the outcome of the series.
“India was tough for us as a batting unit. As a batsman, that sort of series affects you, it leaves a few scars. The only way to solve that is by putting runs on the board.
“Obviously not having AB leaves a hole but it’s a new season and we hope for new fortunes. We’ve all been very successful before, and we need to fight to get out of the hole we were in. Hopefully we can start well with the bat this season and set ourselves up for the rest of the year,” Du Plessis said.
“They have great bowlers, they’re experienced and have taken a lot of wickets lately, and I guess it is on their shoulders if New Zealand are to have a successful series, and if we are to be successful then it depends on how we play them.”
Being in the bottom half of the rankings has clearly fired up the Proteas and Du Plessis said there was a lot of energy in the side and they were eager to get in front early on in the Test.
“Seventh is definitely not where we want to be and there needs to be a culture shift. I was part of the Graeme Smith era and we can copy some of those things, but we have different players and personalities now and we have to adapt. We’ve had honest feedback on where we want to go and I can feel a really good energy in the side.
“Resilience has been a big part of our culture, but sometimes we’ve waited until the chips are really down and then we’ve played very well. We’re probably the only team that has been able to fight for draws like we have. We’ve been brilliant in that aspect, but we possibly now need to be more aggressive and positive.
“We want to throw the first punch more; we never want to do something stupid, we still have to stick to the basics, but it’s just our mind-set, maybe, needs to be more attacking,” said South Africa’s 35th Test captain.