Black Caps' challenge simply backfired

South Africa's captain Graeme Smith thought he heard correctly in the centre of Newlands. But he almost needed to lean in and say: "What's that, mate?"

"We'll bat," said Brendon McCullum, who had correctly predicted the coin toss.

Three days later, as the two captains cut vastly different figures after South Africa's innings and 27-run victory in the first test, the decision was still puzzling Smith, a Cape Town local.

"To be honest, I was a bit surprised," Smith said.

"But I've also been caught 50-50 at toss time before and the confident decision often is to bat. I didn't expect New Zealand to front up on day one, to be honest. I certainly was 50-50 but we'd chatted about it and we were going to bowl."

McCullum, in his first test as captain, was clearly trying to make a statement; that they weren't intimidated by South Africa's brutal pace attack, that he and his batsmen could scrap through the first hour.

We know how that turned out in 100 minutes of horror, and the number 45 is now imprinted on New Zealand cricket's consciousness like the number 26 (their record low from 1955).

The decision wouldn't have been McCullum's alone. Mike Hesson and the other coaching staff would have chipped in. Still, it rates as the biggest misread of a pitch since the 2003 World Cup when New Zealand went with a stacked pace attack in Bloemfontein and Sri Lanka played four spinners. They lost that one, too.

The toss decision loomed into view again as Dean Brownlie and B J Watling went about their work early on day three, batting like test players should and frustrating the heck out of South Africa's pace battery.

On a pitch providing variable bounce, but less sideways, it wasn't easy, but it was much more like a fair contest. Even if it was a near hopeless task, going into a second innings trailing by 302.

Brownlie was excellent and notched his maiden test century, New Zealand's 10th in South Africa. He had luck, dropped twice on 23, but counter-attacked well via an excellent back foot technique and efficient cut shot. He'd faced just three Vernon Philander deliveries on day one before nicking one that reared and seamed.

"I wanted to be positive; I didn't want to wait around to be gotten out. If the ball was there I wanted to take my chance with a little bit of luck and get on top," Brownlie said.

"They're all world-class bowlers. There were patches which were tough to get through but I was glad I got through with a little bit of luck as well. You never felt like you were doing it easy."

The disappointment of the defeat, after New Zealand were dismissed for 275, was paramount but he'd allow himself time to reflect on a "special" innings.

Brownlie thrived in Australia 13 months ago but he hardly scored a test run since, going nine tests without a half-century then being dropped in the West Indies in August. Recalled after solid domestic form and Ross Taylor's absence, he didn't feel he had a point to prove.

"I didn't have a great West Indies tour and if you don't make runs they will find someone who will. I had to go back and learn a few things and go away and work on a few technical issues. Hopefully I'll be a better player because of it."

His dismissal was the only disappointing aspect of his 109, off 186 balls, when he fell into the trap and cut Morne Morkel to deep point, five minutes before lunch.

It was a figurative body blow for New Zealand - they took plenty of literal ones - although making South Africa bat again seemed the only realistic target.

Watling also had a statement to make, with classy former Australian gloveman Luke Ronchi looming in his rearview mirror and eligible from January 13. After 211 minutes of defiance for 42 he was undone by one that seamed away from man-of-the-match Philander.

It soon got ugly as Dale Steyn charged in, got angrier and tried to hit people. He did so, namely James Franklin and Jeetan Patel, and the end was nigh.

McCullum compared Steyn, Philander and Morkel to the Australian pace attack of the mid-2000s as the best he'd seen.

And Smith marvelled at the speedsters at his disposal, having watched them dismiss Australia for 47 at the same ground 14 months earlier. "It did bring back memories. New Zealand were 29-6 and I remember thinking Australia were 29-9 and I couldn't quite believe it," Smith said.

"We bowled superbly in both new ball spells. We were excellent with the areas we hit and the intensity with which we started. There was one little spell after tea [on day two] where we got a bit loose but outside that it was a very good bowling performance."

Sunday Star Times