November 17, 1999

Guy Whittall on the Bloenfontein Test

Zimbabwe's top scorer in both innings of the country's recent Test defeat against South Africa in Bloemfontein was Guy Whittall, who had endured a lean spell with the bat in recent matches. John Ward asked him about the match, when Zimbabwe scored 192 and 212 to lose by an innings to South Africa (417). Guy scored 85 and 51.

JW: What was the trip down to Bloemfontein like?

GW: We left Harare on the Tuesday, two days before the match was due to start. We flew down to Johannesburg and then caught another flight to Bloemfontein. We nearly missed the runway on the way in to Johannesburg; apparently the flaps didn't want to come down and they had to burn off a bit of fuel, circling the airport a couple of times. I was asleep when this happened and just woke up as we came to a grinding halt at the end of the runway, just on the fence line!

Then on to Bloemfontein, where the practice facilities are superb. They have some of the best nets I have ever played on, and the ground was absolutely beautiful, one of the prettiest grounds I have seen. It was their first Test, and it was an excellent set-up from start to finish. The Free State Cricket Union were very helpful and provided everything we needed, and the Holiday Inn was very good. Bloemfontein is a very pleasant, clean city.

JW: What were the playing conditions like?

GW: They left a little grass on the pitch, but it was outside off stump, a little too wide to be of any real good. Otherwise it was a very good flat track; bowlers had to work very hard as it was more a pitch where bowlers had to look to contain rather than attack. The weather was beautiful; we just had a brief shower on the second day of the Test. They take a lot of pride in their ground down there.

JW: How did the Zimbabwean first innings go?

GW: We were put in to bat and quickly lost Grant Flower, given out lbw padding up outside the off stump to Shaun Pollock. Overall we failed in the top order again, with nobody managing to put together a big partnership. A couple of times we looked like making a good stand, such as when Andy Flower and Alistair Campbell were together, and even with Trevor Gripper and Alistair together, but then someone got out. This happened in both innings.

This is one of the things about Test cricket, and even one-day cricket: you have to get partnerships going, and we just didn't. We are having a tough time at the moment, with our top batsmen unable to develop big stands together. If you look back against Australia, you notice that when we did make runs it was all an individual effort, just one batsman at a time, not a team effort. We went through the same thing in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, just before England came out, and we struggled. We couldn't make enough runs for the bowlers to bowl at.

With our bowling attack we have to stick to our disciplines, bowling a accurate line and length and forcing the batsmen into errors, with great fielding to back it up. We don't have the attack to bowl sides out for 150, and we need to score more runs.

But we haven't played any Test cricket for almost a year, and it's asking a lot to ask the guys, who have played so much one-day cricket and not much first-class in between, to settle down and play Test matches properly. We were thrashed by the Aussies, but at the same time we learned a lot from them, and it's just a matter of time to get our confidence back. Some of the guys may be suffering from the pressure, but I'm sure they are all man enough to come back and make a go of it. I back every one of the team members - I know they've got it, they've all made big scores before and they know what the tough times are like.

Alistair as captain took the brunt of everything, but all of us failed as well. I remember Mark Taylor a couple of years ago was struggling as a batsman, but his team mates around him were still making runs so it didn't look as bad. But Alistair has everyone around him failing as well, which has made it even worse. He's had a difficult time to come through, but I know he's hungry to play this next game at home against South Africa. We know the pitch here is going to do a bit, but the guys are all hungry to get in and face the quicks and show what they've got.

JW: Hopefully you are over your own lean patch now, but how did you react to being sent in at number eight at Bloemfontein?

GW: I didn't actually think I had done enough to get into the side at all. Fortunately I got another chance, and I just went out there with a different approach. I made sure of getting right across my stumps, forcing myself to get on the front foot, pointing it straight down the pitch instead of towards extra cover - just a small technical point, but I was trying to get my head coming towards the ball, getting in line. It was quite a good pitch to try and do that, because there wasn't much sideways movement.

Fortunately I got away with a few nicks early on, terrible shots when I had a go at balls wide of the off stump. But I managed to get them between second slip and gully; they went for four, and I just turned my back and said, "Four more for that, closer to another fifty." I really pumped myself up and spoke to myself every single ball. I didn't let my concentration lapse, and suddenly my feet were moving and I was playing balls I had struggled against in the nets. I was just getting into line and finding I was seeing the ball a lot earlier than I had been.

JW: Was there really any point in either innings when you started thinking, "Well, I'm back in good nick now"?

GW: I never really looked at it that way, I just looked at the next ball that was coming. Every ball was a new challenge. When Henry Olonga came to the wicket I said, "Listen, H-man, all you have to do is get through one ball." Then I'd come down the wicket and say, "Right, the next ball. Just play it as if it's your last ball." He just started seeing it through and ball after ball he came through. He didn't score many runs - he just made one - but by the time he was out I had reached fifty at the other end.

When you're the last recognised batsman at number eight and the tail come in, you've got to go to them and help them through. Sometimes they come in and think, "We're 150 for nine now and what do I do?" But I was striking the ball quite well and they had a lot of confidence in me to score the runs and all they had to do was to help me by staying there. That's the kind of approach we used, and in that situation you have to be quite aggressive and take control when you're the last recognised batsman left.

But someone like Bryan Strang can turn a game. Bryan is quite a weird guy - he can just come in one day and block the hell out of everything, and the next day something else will spark through that brain of his and he will play a lot of shots. When he comes in a big smile comes on my face and a light in my eyes because I know it will be entertaining.

Bryan's got a big heart and he really tries hard in everything he does. There aren't many Test cricketers in the world who have taken as many wickets at first-class and Test level at his pace. Down south his fastest ball was only about 116 kilometres an hour. In his short Test career he's done very well.

JW: And the South African innings now?

GW: We knew it was going to be a hard task on that deck. We all stuck together, all of us fielders. It was very well held together and led by Grant Flower and Murray Goodwin, who kept the boys going in the field. They didn't get any runs in the first innings but they really geed the rest of us up and kept us going. We bowlers were toiling for over after over and they really kept us going. There were some brilliant stops in the covers and so many singles saved. The team unity was coming back again, and I felt our Test mode was coming back again.

JW: Any particularly satisfying dismissals?

GW: Well, I'm not trying to blow my own trumpet, but I thought that if I could manage to get the ball to come back off the seam I might get Jacques Kallis out. I said to Pommie Mbangwa the over before, "I can do it, I'll get him out," because he is a class act. I think the ball hit something on the wicket and I was just lucky because it was an absolute beaut - it came back and hit him right in front of the stumps. At my pace the ball can skid through quite quickly and keep low, and it did.

That was a good Test wicket for me, because I know I bowled a good line outside off stump and kept it tight, and my one ball that did come back was the right one. I nearly did him earlier on, but he got a bit of bat on it. That was one wicket I really enjoyed.

JW: And our second innings?

GW: Andy Flower was looking like God there; he was really playing well. His feet were moving well and he never looked like getting out. Then he unfortunately got out to Jacques coming round the wicket. Jacques bowled extremely well in both innings, and Pollock - that guy can bowl. He comes in nice and close to the stumps with a good action; he bowls a good length and a persistent length, and it doesn't miss the spot.

Again we got our partnerships going. Andy and Alistair, after we had lost three quick wickets, were just bringing us back. Alistair came in playing a few shots and it was working until he hit it right down Hansie Cronje's throat.

JW: Off a no-ball! [Guy of course cannot criticise the umpires, but television replays showed that Pollock's foot for this particular delivery was several inches over the crease, and also that several other umpiring decisions against Zimbabwe's top four batsmen were either incorrect or dubious.]

GW: Then I came in when we lost Neil Johnson next morning, and I went in there with exactly the same attitude as in the first innings. Early on my feet weren't moving. I struggle early on, so I try to get my blood moving, to get myself going, to pump myself up, because I'm a terrible starter. Again I edged a couple, but they dropped short of the slips.

Once I had settled they began getting frustrated because they wanted to get the game over, but there were still Gavin Rennie and myself sticking it out there. I got a few bad balls, and I was happy that I was getting them away. It's a sign of confidence: if you can hit the bad ball for four, you're getting your confidence back.

Then Gavin and Bryan Strang got out, and I was batting with Henry again, and we went back to the same old method as in the first innings. This time Allan Donald came round the wicket, and I don't lie when I say that was quick! A couple of times he went back to his mark, stopped, took a breather, tied his shoelace and was ready to come in again. There was a lot of aggression in the way he was running in; he was running in quickly and hitting the deck. Once I saw the length of the ball and my hands were coming down ready to play it; I just managed to drop my hands and it shot past my nose -- a very quick delivery!

Fortunately Henry hung around and I managed to see Donald through to lunch and got my fifty. I was really pleased about that because it was something I've never done before, get fifties in both innings in a Test match.

JW: It was interesting to hear you say how well Donald bowled in that particular spell, because the match reports I've read suggested he had a poor match altogether.

GW: Yes, I think he struggled with his line and his length in the first innings, and didn't have as much gas as in the second innings. Then he came round the wicket and bowled with a lot of venom and a lot of pace, good direction. In the first dig he wasn't there; I think h had just bowled fifty overs in a Free State game and was quite tired, and he had just had that ankle injury. He came back in the second innings after a couple of days' break and he was flying. I didn't have a look to see how fast he was bowling, but he was quick!

JW: How did you assess the other South African bowlers in that match?

GW: Kallis bowled with a lot of heart, good swing and he's skiddy. He is quick and he has a good bouncer at a skiddy pace. He bowled within his very disciplined channels, a hit-the-deck bowler. Pollock a world-class bowler; he's at you the whole time, gets close to the stumps, moving it away, trying to set you up for the one coming back.

Adams is interesting and different, but I was well in at that time and my confidence was there so I was moving a lot better, and he was actually quite a nice break from the quicks. It must be quite nice to be in a team where your fourth seamer, Lance Klusener, is bowling at about 135 kilometres an hour.

JW: I've heard reports that Klusener didn't bowl very well in that match.

GW: They use Allan Donald as their main strike bowler, and I think Klusener did bowl very well; it was a flat deck and they bowled very well outside off stump and then the odd straight one. It was just a case of bowling line and length and containing the batsmen; don't give them anything; let them make the mistake. Even with a quick attack like that they were very disciplined, just like the Australians. They just kept it simple.

JW: What was the feeling in the team after an innings defeat, although it would not have been by that great a margin had we had better luck with the umpiring?

GW: Disappointment. In the whole Test match once again the batters hadn't done too well and they were very disappointed; I think maybe within themselves they felt that they had left themselves down, because they had been so focused on that Test match. I think you feel the desire to do well even more when playing against these big sides, because you want to come out well and be able to say I got a fifty or a hundred against the best pace attack in the world. At the end of your Test career you want to know that you've done that against the best.

JW: I gather we held all our catches in this match, unlike against the Australians.

GW: That's what I said. Andy Flower came right up to the stumps and geed everyone up in the field, and Grant Flower and Murray Goodwin were superb. They were running past everyone with so much energy in the field, which kept the bowlers going and everyone else going. I think in the Australian Test that just became contagious.

JW: The bowling seemed pretty good within its limitations.

GW: That's what it's all about and how we're going to play.

JW: So it was a bit of a surprise to me that Alistair should resign as captain when in some areas things were beginning to look slightly better.

GW: I cannot really comment on that. We've all been through some tough times, but I'm disappointed that he couldn't stick it out because when things are bad like this I just feel that we're one game away from coming right. Anything can just turn around. But it's gone now and we just have to pull together with Andy Flower through to December. It's up to each individual; we know what this game's about; we have our highs and our lows as individuals, but now we've got to learn as a team. When all the individuals come together the team comes together.

JW: Anything else worth saying about the South African trip?

GW: Well, just going from the big South African cities down to Bloemfontein is like going from Harare to Bulawayo - that same sort of atmosphere that I always like. It's a nice quiet place, very friendly hospitable people.

JW: The crowd wasn't very big, I gather.

GW: It was big on the Sunday, but we didn't really expect a big crowd the rest of the time because of the World Cup rugby. When we went out on the field on the Saturday at lunchtime I said, "I bet you those banks will be empty by half-past three, and by a quarter to there were perhaps five or six people still there. Everyone had gone to watch the rugby.

JW: How partisan are they down there?

GW: South Africa were on top all the time, so they had nothing really to say; they were just a generally good cricket crowd that appreciated good shots and good bowling.