A balance between bat and ball is generally held to be the defining trait of a good cricket pitch. But sometimes difficult conditions can make for thoroughly absorbing cricket, as was the case when Zimbabwe made a fist of their defence of a paltry 117 in the opening ODI of their series against South Africa. Both teams were surprised by the bounce on offer, and for Man of the Match Lungi Ngidi bowling on a pitch with some venom in it was "a lot of fun".
"The wicket was a different one," Ngidi said. "It was a lot of fun bowling out there today. It was a bit uneven. But as we saw how Heinrich Klaasen batted, if it's a good ball let it go, and then put away the bad ones. It was a challenge for everyone. Driving was difficult, depending on the length. If you pitched it too full, it was really easy to hit, but if you did hit that good length it was really difficult to drive."
Ngidi, who is South Africa's leading wicket-taker in ODIs this year with 21 scalps, provided the first breakthrough in the morning when he had Solomon Mire caught in the slips for a three-ball duck - the first of five Zimbabwe batsmen to fall behind the wicket. Looking to get the most out of the pitch, Ngidi's variations of seam, cut and pace brought him two more wickets, including that of eventual top-scorer Elton Chigumbura to end Zimbabwe's innings. Ngidi tipped his hat to Dale Steyn, who didn't play the opening ODI but is in the squad and seems to be embracing the mentor role envisioned by coach Ottis Gibson, for some helpful advice about which variations to use.
"Dale is very helpful," he said. "He's our most experienced bowler. And he also gave me a few tips when we were out there: maybe try a few cross-seam balls, maybe the odd slower one. It really does help having Dale in the system, and in the team. There are all sorts of ideas to bounce off him."
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, were left ruing what might have been, had they been able to squeeze a few more runs out of their top order. Captain Hamilton Masakadza reckoned that 180 might have been a defendable score for his own bowlers, and Zimbabwe's medium-pace was arguably even better suited to the conditions than South Africa's quicker options.
"We just didn't put enough runs on the board," Masakadza said. "The wicket played a little differently to what we expected, but even after having adjusted we still didn't bat for long enough. We needed at least another 50 or 60 to really make a game of it. One-eighty to 200 would have been really competitive.
"[The pitch] was sometimes slow, and sometimes bounced a little more than expected. A lot of guys got hit on the shoulder of the bat and on the gloves. But having said that, we still should have been able to adjust. As international cricketers, you come across things like that and you should be able to adjust and make use of the conditions you get.
"But the guys showed a bit of character trying to defend 118. We bowled well up front and guys really came out firing."