South Africa baffled by Newlands conditions – ‘Never seen a pitch that quick on day one’


South Africa were surprised by the pace of the Newlands pitch on the first day of the New Year’s Test but both stand-in captain Dean Elgar and batting consultant Ashwell Prince stopped short of out-and-out criticism of the surface.

“It (The pitch) generally plays a little bit slower and as a batter you can adjust to that. This one just seemed to get quicker as the session went on,” Elgar told Star Sports in his post-match interview.

Prince, who spent the bulk of his career with Cape Town as his base, was more strident in his observations and claimed he had “never seen a Newlands pitch like this before,” because in addition to the way the ball accelerated off the surface, there was also variable bounce and seam movement. “I’ve never seen the pitch that quick on day one,” Prince said at the post-match press conference. “I don’t think as batters you mind the pace in the wicket but then you need the bounce to be consistent. The bounce was a little bit inconsistent with some keeping low and some bouncing quite steeply. There’s also the seam movement, which you don’t mind on day one but if you have the seam movement with consistent bounce, then it’s a different situation.”

The bounce was also notably different at either end. With bowlers operating from the Wynberg End – where Mohammed Siraj took his first innings six-fer – the bounce was up and down, while at the Calvin Grove End – where Lungi Ngidi took three wickets in an over – some deliveries reared up. “There was a lot steeper bounce that way,” Elgar said, pointing to the crease he would have been standing at with Ngidi bowling to him. “And that side, it was a little bit lower. So I don’t know what to make of it.”

Having played 19 first-class matches at Newlands, including one earlier this season, Elgar came into the match confident he would know what to make of the surface, even though its mottled look was different to its usual even-tone.

“From the naked eye it actually didn’t look too bad,” he said. “The wickets of the past, even domestically, haven’t played at all badly. They’ve actually been quite good. It didn’t look horrible.”

Still, he expected it to retain its bat-first quality and decided to stick to that but knowing this wicket was going to play like that, “I would not have chosen it,” he said.

Prince also backed the bat-first decision at the toss. “If we had arrived here today with overcast conditions, then perhaps (we would have bowled). But we arrived here with blue skies and even though there was a tinge on the surface, I don’t think our batters are ever bothered when there is a bit of bounce on the pitch as long as the bounce is consistent and the movement is consistent.”

Neither could explain why the pitch behaved so differently to surfaces in the past, but Prince had a theory. “I remember playing in the UK a few years back, particularly at Nottingham, and the locals saying when construction took place it changed the characteristics of the ground,” he said. “I don’t know whether that has played a role here. There is a lot of construction going on here.”

Over the last few years, a new building has gone up at Newlands, at the Calvin Grove End, which may affect the wind channels at the ground. There has also been a new groundsperson, Braam Mong, in place for the last two years and this is his first Test pitch. But rather than dwell on those things, South Africa’s brain-trust credited India’s attack for their disciplines early on, with Prince saying Siraj bowled “one of the spells of his life”.

Elgar said that India “put the ball in the right areas,” and also suggested more application should have been shown by South Africa’s batters. “As a batter, you have to play the way Virat (Kohli), Aiden (Makram) and Rohit (Sharma) applied themselves,” Elgar said. “You obviously got to take a few risks out there. And hopefully you get a reward.”

And because Kohli made 46, Markram is unbeaten on 36 and Rohit scored 39, Elgar, despite just scoring 16 runs in his final Test, would not label the pitch bad but simply challenging.

“I can’t say that because personally I’ve had success on wickets that have gone around. My record on our wickets has been pretty good,” he said, with a nod to finishing as South Africa’s second most successful opening batter after Graeme Smith.

“They have been challenging but I think that’s what you’ve got to experience as a batter. For me, it’s all about the balance between bat and ball and it’s a fine line to get that right. In South Africa, maybe they get a little bit wrong and it is more in favour of the bowler. But as a batter you’ve still got to go out and apply yourself and you’ve got to really be mentally hard on yourself to be disciplined, stay to a very simple game plan and execute. There’s no excuse going forward. You still have to apply yourself and that’s anywhere around the world. But particularly in South Africa where it is a little bit tougher.”

Asked if he would rate the pitch poorly, Prince also chose his words carefully. “One team can get bowled out. I remember a Test in India, where they had a formidable batting line-up, and we bowled them out before lunch on day one. If you give a top-quality attack, bowler-friendly conditions then they can do some serious damage,” he said. “To sum things up, if both line-ups can’t bat on the surface, that says a lot.”

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent for South Africa and women’s cricket

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