Black Caps hope for better after nightmare
MARK GEENTY IN PORT ELIZABETH
As a cricketing lesson it didn't come much tougher.
Now we await the bounce-back factor of this New Zealand team after an interminable pause for a rematch. It seems a lifetime since January 2, last Wednesday, and the Black Caps' darkest hour (and 40 minutes). The number 45 is imprinted on their psyche forever. But the aftermath needn't be.
They arrive in Port Elizabeth to face South Africa in the second and final test needing to give thanks to the cricketing gods who scheduled the match here, rather than bouncy Johannesburg or Centurion. They can also tip their black caps to Vernon Philander and his dodgy hamstring which saved them some pre-test angst.
The St George's Park pitch is also forecast to contain fewer demons, and perhaps get lower and variable as the test wears on. It's a reassuring thought as the batsmen take guard against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the recalled Rory Kleinveldt, a provincial team-mate of Philander's but nowhere near as imposing.
"Every time we've played him [Philander], he's taken five-for, so it can't help but be a good thing," batsman Kane Williamson said.
"But it's certainly not a release in any way.
"They've got good bowlers coming through, and there's Morkel and Steyn there."
Still, even with a few more things in their favour, it doesn't suddenly translate to a tense struggle that will span five gripping days.
We're still talking the world's best test side, with two bowlers and three batsmen ranked in the world's top 10. And they're facing a New Zealand team still without their best batsman (Ross Taylor) and bowler (Tim Southee), and with who knows how many mental scars from their Newlands nightmare.
In Cape Town, captain Brendon McCullum called correctly then got too bullish and batted first when he clearly should have stood back and given his bowlers first use. Here it looks a bat-first pitch but local cricket experts suggest caution.
It may have been mind games but AB de Villiers wasn't convinced either way.
"We batted first against England in my debut [in 2004] and we lost. It's pretty much 50-50, whether you bat or bowl first. You've got to make it count in that first session, play good cricket and be prepared to work for your rewards," he said.
New Zealand's batsmen, if they bat first again, need more of the same from their second innings in Cape Town.
Fast scoring wasn't on their minds, it was pure survival. McCullum was solid, Dean Brownlie and BJ Watling excellent against the quicks. It's a test match so crease occupation should be paramount.
"They batted outstandingly and put together a very good partnership, and to see them do it over here is fantastic," Williamson said.
A New Zealand win is too much to ask but a gutsy fight and some aggression with the ball will be welcome.
Opener Martin Guptill needs runs, badly, with a view to the England series. Even a half-century will keep the wolves from the selection door and boost his flagging confidence against the swinging ball. So too, does Doug Bracewell need a big test.
Since his match-winning deeds of Bulawayo and Hobart more than a year ago it's been a struggle.
Twenty20 cricket has confused the issue and he still can't hit that consistent test line and length.
New Zealand need both firing, to stay in the contest for longer and hope South Africa get a bit complacent.
- Fairfax Media
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