From the Sportsroom: Test match fever special edition
COMMENT: It’s already a disaster. The Black Caps haven't even lost the toss yet (or if you’re reading this after 10.45am they have) and it is already a disaster.
We know this because Ross Taylor is out and Trent Boult is out and, well, because it always is a disaster against South Africa.
As bilateral sporting engagements go, New Zealand’s attempts to play cricket in a competitive fashion with South Africa have largely resulted in miserable failure. Some of those failures have been epic, such as the dope smoking scandal tour of 1994/95 (chronicled by Ben Stanley today in the Sportsroom). That ignominious effort not only went down in history as the first time a country had managed to win the first test of the three-test series and go on to lose the series in over 100 years, but also created ructions within the team that were still reverberating a decade later.
It was an unmitigated disaster – and sadly just one of many.
The head-to-head numbers make truly grim reading. Of 43 tests played, New Zealand have won just four. Two of those victories came during the glorious drawn series of 1961/62, when New Zealand claimed the fifth test by 40 runs thanks to handy 4-44 with the ball from J.R. Reid in the final innings. Since then there has been that first test anomaly in Johannesburg, when it must be pointed out that South Africa were captained by one W.J. Crionje, and another outlier in 2003/04 when Scott Styris made 170 batting at number 4. At Eden Park. That victory put the Black Caps one-up with just one match to play but – you guessed it – they were soundly beaten in the third test by six wickets.
Things have been so bad, historically, that the insipid first test draw in Dunedin actually ranks as a bit of a triumph.
Dunedin provided a good example of why South Africa have proved so darn hard to beat at test cricket. Having summed up the playing surface as not conducive to strokeplay, the South African batsmen simply circled the wagons and played for time. It was a shrewd strategy. Had the Black Caps turned in a performance in line with their historical norm, the Proteas would have won comfortably inside four days. But even if the Kiwis gave it a real dig – as they clearly did – then there was no way Dunedin would turn on five rain-free days anyway, so the game would almost certainly run out of time.
On the weather, it was a little incongruous to hear some Auckland-based media musing about the unsuitability of Dunedin’s climate for hosting a sporting contest that requires almost a week of consecutive good weather. Normally, Dunedin – with its record of more lost days per test match attempted than pretty much any other ground in the world (I stand to be corrected on that) is fair game for such criticism. However, given the unlikelihood of a ball being bowled at all last week had the match been scheduled in Auckland while the city was thrashed to pieces by a five-day ‘Tasman Tempest’, it was just a little rich this time around.
Back to Wellington. If there’s one thing with the ability to underline the perilous state of New Zealand test cricket, it’s a strain to any part of Ross Taylor’s body. Losing Taylor to injury cuts our number of genuine world class batsmen down to 1.5 (Kane Williamson being the one and Tom Latham the 0.5). That’s not enough to win too many matches. While our bowling stocks tend to be a bit more robust, the loss of Boult is also a major blow. Bowling Boult into the ground on a dead pitch in Dunners now looks a touch, er, short-sighted.
Even the cheery optimists among the New Zealand Cricket faithful – if there is a such a thing – will be fearing the worst over the next five days. The rest of us aren’t really expecting the match to go that long.