As You Think So You Become
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At the Dukes fast food stand in the parking lot at St George's Park, the equivalent of USD 4.18 buys "The Big Vern". If it lives up to the chalkboard menu's promise, it's a monster: "flame-grilled double beef patty, triple bacon, double cheese burger with sweet red onion, gerkins [sic] and lettuce on a toasted sesame seed bun". In only the seventh over of the third Test, Quinton de Kock stood as close to the stumps as the first Dukes customer in the queue was to the counter. De Kock was keeping to Vernon Philander.
That the pitch would be slow was no surprise. Should someone profess knowledge of a fast surface at St George's Park, they're in politics. That the pitch would be as slow as has transpired wasn't expected, but neither was two solid weeks of humidity layered onto an already sizzling summer. These things happen, and there was one of the most successful new-ball bowlers of his generation in his fourth over of the match, running in from the Park Drive End brandishing the still-new ball towards a wicketkeeper stationed snugly just 22 yards away.
Still, that was more explicable than the choice of who barrelled in from the Duckpond End once Philander had got through those first six deliveries for a single. Dane Paterson is a beefy medium pacer who has collected 21 wickets at an average of 21.80 and an economy rate of 2.82 in five first-class matches for the Cobras this season, and he has done a decent job in some of his four one-day internationals and eight T20s for South Africa. But using him to open the bowling on debut on a pitch as flat as the nearby beaches and in an attack that harboured Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje seemed to make little sense, even if England's openers, Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley, had managed an hour or more at the crease together just once in their previous four partnerships in the series and would need all their discipline to stay attuned to the conditions. Charl Langeveldt, South Africa's bowling consultant, saw the matter differently: "We stuck to our gameplan; trying to keep them under two-and-a-half for long periods. We tried to bowl straighter lines. What we wanted to achieve we achieved today." So it wasn't pretty, Langeveldt appeared to want to say. So what?
Philander reeled off a first spell of four overs for five runs. He bowled only seven more overs in the day. Surely that was too light a workload for a strike specialist of his calibre? "The surface doesn't suit 'Vern' that much," Langeveldt said. "It's quite slow, and batsmen can adjust [to how the ball moves] off the wicket. 'Vern' is great with the new ball but, as we've found out in these conditions, we'll use him sparingly." In that case, shouldn't Philander have been spared the bother entirely? "He's doing a job for us. It's a holding job. If he takes wickets with the new ball it's effective. If there's any reverse swing he can be effective as well. I wasn't thinking of not playing him."
As for Paterson: "On this surface, we needed to make the new ball count. 'KG's [Rabada] a wonderful bowler with the new ball, but Paterson does bowl a fuller length - he makes the batsman play more." There's logic in Langeveldt's argument, but could he appreciate that others might see South Africa's approach as resignation to the view that the pitch mitigated against attacking bowling? "Everyone has an opinion. You always look to strike. We looked to strike with the new ball. We just thought with a bit of moisture in the air this morning we needed to bowl a fuller length. In the second innings 'KG' will take the new ball again."
Not that Rabada didn't have his moments, putting the first chink in England's armour four overs after lunch when he had Sibley caught at leg gully to end the opening stand at 70. Then, in the seventh over after tea, he nailed the top of a leaving Joe Root's off-stump with a delivery that stayed low. That triggered a raw and raucous celebration by Rabada that was reminiscent of how he sent Steve Smith on his way at this ground in March 2018 - when the two players collided and Rabada had to fight off a ban on appeal. This time, although shoulders came close to connecting, there was no physical contact. Fast bowlers like Rabada, Langeveldt explained, walked a tightrope: "KG's that type of person, he's always looking for a scrap to get him motivated. It gets him fired up. I always say to him, 'Just control your aggression'. You need fast bowlers to be aggressive. It's hard work on this wicket and the plan worked. We spoke about it: a fuller length to Joe Root to try and get him lbw or bowled, and it worked. Fair play to him; he celebrated."
Rabada's reaction might also have owed something to the challenge of trying to bowl fast on a pitch that is all about about the ooze, rather than the flow, of runs and wickets. It's a surface that doesn't give a damn about what anyone wants or even needs. You get what you get, now get on with it.
De Kock's burger bar boogaloo up to the stumps was the first suggestion that Faf du Plessis was re-assessing his tactics. Confirmation was surely Keshav Maharaj wheeling away as early as the sixth over before lunch. And on and on he bowled until his wheels must have felt like falling off - all the way through the second session and until the 10th over before the close, when the new ball was due and immediately taken, this time by Nortje and Philander. Maharaj's spell of 30 overs, the equivalent of bowling an entire session from both ends, cost less than two runs an over: still another indication that, on this pitch, patience will be an even more valuable virtue than usual. Maharaj was back for two more overs to end the day's play. And for all that his sole reward was the wicket of Joe Denly, who might still have been batting had De Kock not yelled a lone appeal after spotting that the ball had struck the pad flap before Denly middled it. In his next over Maharaj might also have removed the ICC's newly minted "player of the year" for the third time in five innings in the rubber, but Ben Stokes escaped by the skin of an umpire's call because the delivery had hit him outside the line. "He created a lot of chances, he kept the run-rate down, and he looked the most threatening of all the bowlers on that wicket," Langeveldt said of Maharaj's endeavour.
He bowled a smidgen less, less than three times the number of overs Philander sent down on Thursday (January 16), and is surely set for many more as the match unfolds. Perhaps 'Big Vern' should do the decent thing and buy the man a burger.
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