Bor­ing... or good for the game?

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - SPORT - STU­ART HESS

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.”

BACKPAGEPIX

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.

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