By Harbour Heather
BJ Watling was saying no. Jimmy Neesham was saying no. The bowler, Colin de Grandhomme, wasn’t overly enthusiastic either. But Kane Williamson went for it anyway. When he reviewed a muffled LBW shout for review early in South Africa’s second innings, it was an act of desperation. We can’t even blame the unyielding pressure of Tim Southee and his slightly morphed sense of review worthiness.
Of course, with only 81 runs on the board, you could forgive a captain for clutching at anything which may bring a wicket, and thus, a step towards a more dignified loss. But reviewing a ball so blatantly not out – to the point where commentators, viewers and spectators all knew it was pointless – was an indication of the state of mind of the captain. It was a “may as well” review, the way BJ Watling’s second innings dismissal was a last chance hope at some quick runs. It was a “may as well” review, the way almost anything that hit the pads in the final session generated an incredibly unconvincing enquiry.
The review was a metaphor. Everyone was resigned to the result when the New Zealand second innings wrapped up. The only question marks remaining were if the game would limp into a fourth day, and how many wickets would define the loss. This felt uncomfortably familiar, the informed sense of dread, the pained loyalty of sticking it out to the final ball. This is who the BlackCaps used to be, consistently. In recent summers, since the days of dreaming big under the helm of Brendon McCullum, the team has held their own in whites and coloured clothing, and being bowled out in under a day, twice within three days, seemed like a horrid repressed memory.
From a BlackCaps standpoint, who can walk away from this test with their heads held high? As the saying goes, you shouldn’t judge a wicket until both teams have batted. Criticism of the New Zealand batting effort was reigned in slightly when South Africa’s top order also struggled on Day 2. Credit then to Henry Nicholls, the only player to make triple figures, with credible attempts by Raval, Bavuma and de Kock. South Africa’s bowlers were more threatening than the hosts, with their line, length, game plan and consistency. Unsurprisingly, the tourists appeared more aggressive, more blood-thirsty, and perhaps it’s no surprise the only hint of this in the BlackCaps side was from a naturalised Kiwi.
This is even clear in the grit and commitment showed in the tail end batting. With a hat tip to the aforementioned, the most significant innings in the match belonged to Philander and Morkel. When a team is in a perilous position, nothing is more important than a wagging tail. It’s good entertainment value too – supporters of the batting team fly high with hope and laughter, while the fielding side grows increasingly frustrated, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Angry bowlers bowl short, get hooked for six, or overpitch and find themselves looking over their heads as the caution is thrown into the wind (not a dig at our lovely capital).
And the age-old response to this is ‘if we’re relying on 9/10/11 to score our runs then we’re in trouble’. Yeah, we were in trouble. Without Taylor in this line up, when Williamson twice fell early, I did not feel confident in the remaining players to score a defendable total. I am mature enough to admit Nicholls proved me wrong this time. His was an innings of hard work, guts and temperament. Jeet Raval’s second innings of 80 was solid, but with partners falling regularly at the other end, it never had a match-winning feel to it. The makeup of the batting line up will dominate the lead in to the final test.
The collective groan around a ground and cricket twitter when Southee comes to the crease shows that the outcome is inevitable. In the words of the wise owner of this site, the worst thing Southee ever did was score 77* on debut. With the brash confidence of a debutant who wasn’t responsible for scoring runs, he was carefree and having fun. It set the bar of expectation too high, which has proved to be a burden throughout his career. I wouldn’t be surprised if Southee hates batting these days. He certainly is the personification of being in for a good time, not a long time.
If it was instilled in him that not every situation is suitable for a shuffle down the wicket in attempt to clear mid on, would players like Raval, Watling, Taylor or Williamson have the opportunity to add runs/honour to the total? You would think, as a strike bowler, he’d like something to bowl to. Something to defend. To take the field with a new ball in his hand and feel like he has the chance to win a game. The longer he spends at the crease himself, the more likely this outcome would be. It’s not even about how many runs he scores. It’s about application. We can see it in Wagner and Boult at times, and there’s no reason why all players from 8-11 can’t have this same mindset. Chris Martin, bless his soul, was hopeless, but he tried.
It is not a personal vendetta against Southee, as I have enjoyed his frivolity in the past. But in the same vein of how it frustrated me that Brendan McCullum didn’t always respect some of the best bowlers in the world, I feel Southee’s contribution with the bat could be more substantial. And I’m not piling the weight of winning more games on his shoulders, more so the responsibility of playing for a guy at the other end to do so.
But what do I know? Like Nicholls, Southee had the last laugh in this game. He outscored a handful of more established batting team mates. Including his captain, who I imagine will be spending tonight writing 500 lines as punishment for not making double figures in either innings.
Side note. I have concerns about our slip fielding. Neesham and Raval both look unsettled, and Watling looked to be stuttering in his decision making too. With Guptill and Taylor, our time-tested slips cordon, on the injured list indefinitely, Watling should be the director in this area, clearly defining who goes for what, setting the standard. Slip catching is an art form, and the positions can’t be filled with stop-gaps who aren’t familiar with the technique and requirements. Let’s hope some serious time is invested in that.
What will Hamilton bring? Fingers crossed for a less angst-filled contest, after the team utilises two bonus days to polish what went wrong at the Basin.