Boring... or good for the game?
HIGHVELD LIONS coach Geoffrey Toyana described the first four weeks of the Sunfoil Series as being “boring” due to the bat so overwhelmingly dominating the ball.
It’s hard to argue with him. Fifteen matches have seen 14 draws. Forty centuries have been scored but bowlers have only mustered six ‘five-fors’ between them.
For batsmen, it’s obviously been a feast. In the last two seasons the total number of hundreds scored in the Sunfoil Series is 82 –we’re already virtually halfway to that figure after just half of this season’s competition.
The reasons for the dominance of batsmen are multifaceted, but a few major points stand out; pitches are drier and flatter – although that should, as Titans coach Mark Boucher mentioned this week, mean spinners should be more penetrative, which they haven’t –, there are a different set of Kookaburra balls being used, and the concertina effect from the injuries that have plagued the senior international seam bowlers.
The presence of inexperienced seamers on flat decks has eased the stress on batsmen. It’s resulted in 15 totals of 400 runs or more, including five over 500. Those flat, dry decks, the inexperience of the remaining contingent of seamers and a ball with a flatter seam – which is more difficult to shine and thus swings less – have all worked in the batsmen’s favour.
Some experienced campaigners like the Knights’ Rudi Second, the Titans’s Dean Elgar and the Dolphins’s Vaughn van Jaarsveld, have cashed in while the going’s been good, and they feature prominently among the competition’s leading run-scorers – all with aggregates of more than 400 runs.
Five of the nine leading wicket takers this season are spinners, but even those numbers are deceptive, for none of those spinners have played a part in winning a match on the final day for their sides.
The strike rates (average number of balls bowled per wickets taken) are high; Dane Piedt has taken 11 wickets but his strike rate is 114, Simon Harmer, fresh off a magnificent season in the English County Championship where he helped Essex to the title, has taken 12 wickets with a strike rate of 59.5 and Titans leg-spinner, Shaun von Berg, the leading spinner with 15 wickets has taken one every 73 balls.
The leading wicket-taker with 17, is Malusi Siboto, a skilful operator, though not a bowler blessed with extreme pace.
For the seamers, naturally it’s been tough and the one match local coaches and players keep pointing to as an example of the way the first half of the season has gone, took place in the opening round; when the Cape Cobras drew against the defending champions the Knights in Bloemfontein.
The Cape side were knocked over for 157 in their first innings; thereafter, the game turned, with the bat dominant. The Knights made 623/4 declared, with the Cobras responding with 567/6 in 154 overs. “The Knights bossed that game for three days, and then Hashim Amla, Justin Ontong and Aviwe Mgijima get hundreds and save that game,” said Toyana.
His counterpart at the Cobras, Ashwell Prince, called that pitch at the Mangaung Oval as bad for South African cricket. “The pitches and these new batches of balls, have all together, for me, made it boring cricket,” Toyana added.
The only win came for the Titans at the Wanderers on a far sportier pitch than anything the players had seen this season. Toyana said it was a deliberate ploy on the Lions’ part to leave the extra grass on the surface in the hopes of forcing a ‘result’ one way or another.
It did make for an exciting game, and the competitiveness of the contest was a far cry from the lopsided matches South Africa have played against Bangladesh this season.
Toyana and Boucher admitted the ebbs and flows of the match made for a better spectacle, but Lions captain Stephen Cook also cautioned against getting too excited simply because there was a result. “If we were to play every game on a pitch like that – and there was nothing wrong with it, it was sporty – then people would also be concerned for the competition,” said Cook.
Ultimately, there needs to be a better balance between bat and ball, something that hasn’t been the case in the first half of the Sunfoil Series this season, even at the Wanderers where it favoured the seamers too much.
The extended post match celebrations by the Titans following their nine-wicket win against the Lions was certainly merited. They now hold an 11-point lead atop the log, which will force teams who wish to challenge them to come out of their shells more when the competition resumes in February next year.
The points system in use this season – 16 points for a win and six for a draw – has been another matter of much debate among players and coaches. The consensus seems to be that it’s the right way to go.
As Cook explained, it’s given sides who may be in trouble midway through a match something to play for. “Normally, if you draw you just picked up the bonus points you earned in a particular match; now there is something to play for and that will help build a toughness with our players. “In terms of what we are trying to create as a culture for the Proteas in Test cricket, this is good because it’s creating that fight,” said Cook.
Equally 16 points is a valuable return for a win and it was hoped that it would encourage attacking cricket, something that hasn’t happened often this season. “You’ll see more exciting cricket in the next half of the competition once teams start to distance themselves from each other ... then you’ll see the big gambles happen,” said Boucher. “Then we’ll really know if the system works.”
NOT A COMMON SIGHT: Bowlers have battled for big hauls this year, but here the Titans’ Malusi Siboto, centre, celebrates taking a wicket in the only four-day victory this season, against the Lions.