November 17, 1999

Zimbabwe v South Africa at Harare - Zimbabwe Cricket Online review

Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock smiled at the Harare Sports Club pitch, and the pitch smiled back at them. They were quite compatible. The only wish now of the South African pace pair was for their captain to win the toss so they could bowl on it when it was at its most co-operative - and Lady Luck smiled on them all.

This is a major complaint of Zimbabwe players. "Other countries prepare pitches to give their players home advantage, so why can't we?" they understandably cry. The Harare Sports Club pitch, with quite a bit of grass left on it, favoured the South African pace attack far more than it did Zimbabwe's comparatively inexperienced seamers. Our batsmen, so lacking in practice in the longer game recently, needed a good sound batting pitch to regain their confidence. Instead they were doomed to struggle all the way against the two most successful pace bowlers in the world during the past two years.

The way Zimbabwe have been playing recently, they would have lost this match heavily whatever happened, whatever pitch they were playing on. This is not to denigrate the team; if they were able to play with the same spirit and fire that they had shown in the World Cup match against the same opposition in Chelmsford who knows what could have happened? At their best they can take on any team in the world with confidence. Without that confidence, they have had a disastrous time this season. Things were looking better in the Bloemfontein Test, and had the umpires always been able to make the right decisions they would not have lost by as much as an innings. The improvement would probably have continued in Harare. It was like kicking a man when he's down to expect the team to play on the Harare pitch as it was then.

Curator Charles Wallace has come under a lot of criticism this season for his pitches, especially the one-day pitch against Australia, on which two matches were played. Again the excessive amount of early life played into the hands of the Australian pace attack - because, needless to say, Zimbabwe lost the toss on both those occasions. Mr Wallace prides himself on producing pitches with pace and life, and when he gets it right it is a beauty, as it was for the Test against Australia, and that against India last year. But if there are any problems in preparation, or he leans a little too far in that direction, Zimbabwe are in serious trouble. As former national captain David Lewis said during the match, a pitch on which the captain winning the toss is eager to bowl is not good enough for Test cricket.

On the day before the South African Test, Dave Houghton and Andy Flower were looking with concern at the amount of grass left on the pitch. Mr Wallace admitted it would not be as good as the one against Australia, and he dared not take off more grass for fear of it crumbling. Things clearly had not gone quite according to plan in the preparation, and it must be admitted that he has a very difficult task at present, with the worst still to come. No Test ground apart from Harare Sports Club has ever hosted four Test matches in a season before, let alone four in the space of two months. And that excludes five one-day internationals to be played on the ground.

Zimbabwe are still unable to have much say in when touring teams visit the country; we are still in a position of having to be grateful they come at all. Unbalanced programmes are likely to remain a fact of life, unless we can one day produce one of the most brilliant and attractive teams in the world - and even then it takes years to build a reputation. It is at times like this that we may wish there were other centres in Zimbabwe able to hold Test matches, or that Harare had a second Test ground on which to play, as do London and Colombo. If the Harare Sports Club pitch cannot handle all the international matches yet to come, then the Zimbabwe Cricket Union will have some hard thinking to do in future.

Once they had been inevitably put in to bat, Zimbabwe inevitably struggled. They certainly should never have been bowled out for 102, their lowest ever Test match total, but the South African bowling was brilliant and the Zimbabweans just did not have the form or confidence to handle the attack. Even the weather conspired against Zimbabwe. Rain washed out most of the first day, meaning that the home side had to go in again early on the second morning -- and half an hour earlier at that, to make up for lost time -- and face the usual early life in the pitch all over again. Only Neil Johnson reached 20, and even he did not look in good form. Nobody managed to come to grips with the bowling and conditions, a sign once again of low confidence as many have shown their ability to handle such situations in the past.

One-day batting techniques were also very much in evidence. Too many of the experienced players, who have coped with the fastest bowlers in the world in the past, were failing to move sufficiently across their stumps to get behind the line, resulting in many slip catches. It is noticeable that the least experienced of the batsmen, Trevor Gripper, got into line better than most. Significantly, he has yet to play in a one-day international! The others have played up to 23 one-day matches in the seven months before the arrival of the Australians, including county warm-up matches and those against the Australian Cricket Academy. They are still very much in one-day mode and some serious reprogramming is needed -- as they themselves recognise.

The angled bat was also much in evidence, partly as a result of failure to get across and behind the line of the ball. Slow-motion replays showed one batsman after another dismissed caught off an angled bat, or by means of variation bowled or playing on through the gate left by an angled bat away from the body. Even our most technically correct batsmen have got into bad habits that will take time to eliminate -- and that time does not exist with the Sri Lankan series upon us without a break.

The South African batsmen, like the Australians, showed clearly how to bat in a Test match. Our bowling may not be fearsome, especially in the absence of Heath Streak and Adam Huckle, but they did generally bowl line and length, concentrating just outside the off stump. It was just a pity it took them a while to settle down to length especially, as Jacques Kallis in particular was waiting for the short ball and rarely failed to pull it for four. Once the bowlers learned to pitch it up and bowl straight to him, they slowed his rate of scoring considerably; but, fine Test batsman that he is, he simply bided his time and kept concentrating and accumulating.

Mark Boucher was another who was superb at punishing the short ball, and he too showed fine temperament and a wise game plan in fighting his way through patches where he became almost becalmed by the accurate bowling and brilliant fielding. The arrival of Klusener at the crease seemed to inspire him after a particularly dogged spell, and he almost matched his powerful partner stroke for stroke during a brief gaudy partnership of 44 in eight overs.

Only after lunch did the Zimbabweans begin to wilt. The bowlers lost their accuracy and there were some uncharacteristic fielding lapses as Boucher and Pollock took full advantage. Andy Flower took advantage of the drinks break to pull his team together, but they made heavy work of the tail end of the South African innings. Against Australia, Steve Waugh and Damien Fleming added 114 for the eighth wicket; now we had an eighth-wicket stand of 148, a new South African record. Pollock eventually fell, but the last pair were causing annoyance when rain halted play again for the day.

It is debatable whether Zimbabwe would have preferred to bat for an hour before the close that night or go in with the pitch showing its usual early-morning life the next day. Neither was recommended, but they got the latter. Then Grant Flower, continuing to suffer the bad luck that seems to dog batsmen struggling for form, received as his second delivery a virtually unplayable ball from Donald.

The traditional 'ball from hell' is said to be the first that Shane Warne bowled in a Test match in England, in 1993. It pitched outside Mike Gatting's leg stump and whipped right across him to hit his off stump. Donald's delivery to Flower cannot have been any better. It started from the bowler's arm, heading at least two feet outside off stump. It swung in, pitched perhaps a foot outside off stump, and then ripped in to knock out his leg stump. All at twice the speed of Warne's celebrated delivery. It was an appalling blow from which the Zimbabwean innings never recovered.

All came out looking to play positively rather than attempt the self-defeating exercise of blocking their way through, although Trevor Gripper has had some success at that in the past. So dominant were the South Africans, though, that they could never succeed for long. Alistair Campbell looked in fine form, relaxed and confident, but he was cut down on 25 by an umpiring error, the ball coming off his pad to be snapped up close on the off side with the umpire believing it had hit the bat in between.

Gavin Rennie made Zimbabwe's top score of the match, 34, by positive methods. Usually known for some rather dogged displays as opener, he has been put down the order to accommodate Gripper. Number seven is never an easy spot for a specialist batsmen, but Rennie has had to yield place to the senior men who hold on to the preferential spots in the middle order. He was particularly severe on Adams, hitting him hard and high several times and providing good encouragement for the despairing afternoon crowd until he tried it once too often and holed out on the boundary. Then the match was soon over.

It was Zimbabwe's worst result since gaining Test status and one of their worst ever, although some will remember the loss by an innings and 292 runs to Peter May's powerful 1956/57 touring team on the same ground. But there is only one way to go now after touching rock-bottom and that is up. It just remains to be seen how soon the 'up' will occur.