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Newlands shows the way - the first 'Test' of 2016

594   //    09 Jan 2016, 10:16 IST
cook amla
Hashim Amla handed over the captaincy to De Villiers with two Tests to go.

An England team brimming with confidence landed in the glorious southern South African city of Cape Town, their inconsistent run flowing like water in the Table Bay. Following double 1-1 results in the West Indies and at home to New Zealand, the Ashes was clinched by a slender 3-2 margin, only to have lost 0-2 to Pakistan in the UAE. And only a day ago, they had comprehensively triumphed over Hashim Amla’s men at the Kingsmead in Durban, more than twelve hundred kilometres north-east of the Cape. And only two days later, they would have to lock horns again.

The hosts were naturally nervy, with one defeat piling on another. The defeat by 241 runs to the visitors became a terrible pill to swallow, as it stretched South Africa’s winless run to seven in Tests though three of them comprised rained out games. The unwavering Amla was under severe scrutiny – the team lacked the power prevalent during Graeme Smith’s reign, and all Proteas supporters accusing time for its surprising turn found, in Amla’s string of low scores, an excuse to only multiply excuses.

And so it was Smith, England’s scourge, who joined his ex-teammates for an advisory role – parallel to his commentary stint – for the remainder of the series. It was Smith who showed the way when Nasser Hussain resigned as captain; it was Smith who inspired his colleagues when Michael Vaughan quit; it was Smith with his nose ahead when Andrew Strauss retired – all during or after a series in England. And it was to be Smith again – at home this time – if South Africa were to banish the compounding demons, especially after a fruitless India tour.

Stokes scored 250, Bairstow 150 and England 629:

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Ben Stokes fired 30 fours and 11 sixes from his blade

A bright day, two days into a new year, saw Alastair Cook call correctly and have a go at raw meat, with the frequently niggling Morne Morkel the only exception. De Villiers’ gloves had gone to Quinton de Kock and Chris Morris made his debut for Steyn. But when Cook’s team was reduced to 223/5, with the dependable Joe Root gone, no captain could have been audacious enough to dream of a 399-run stand between two young lads, one a rising all-rounder and the other a slick wicket keeper-batsman.

Ben Stokes fired 30 fours and 11 sixes from his blade in surreal fashion, as a calm Jonny Bairstow resembled a pillar at the other end. Stokes came second only to Nathan Astle in terms of the fastest Test double hundred, his mammoth innings of 258 eventually concluding in a freakish run-out. Bairstow carried on from the second innings in Durban – he fell for 79 then – and eloquently enjoyed an emotional feat. England declared at a humungous 629/6.


Amla scored 201, Bavuma 102 and South Africa 627:

hashim amla
Amla returned to form with the bat with a magnificent 201.

England knew South Africa’s batting troubles ran deep; they were aware of the pressure that Amla found himself under – he had no half-century in 11 innings – and they were sure that De Villiers, their only successful batsman in India, could not take his side too far by himself. At 7/1 and then 85/2, the English bowlers looked quietly confident of wrapping up the batting order.

But that hope was shattered first by an 183-run combine of the hosts’ most experienced batsmen Amla and de Villiers, then for another 171 between Amla and Faf du Plessis, which preceded Temba Bavuma’s undefeated 102. Debutant Morris contributed 69 in his first innings in the whites, and South Africa finished at two short of England’s total – not bowled out, but declared with seven down.

Amla stood like a rock and batted for a hundred and sixty-one overs, was dropped thrice and eventually crossed 200 for the fourth time in his colourful career. Stuart Broad broke the resistance when the skipper sat on 201, a tinge of in swing blowing away the bails. De Villiers struck a valuable 88 and du Plessis shone with a patient 86.

But the bright light in the fifteen and a half hour innings was the little Bavuma’s score. The first black African to triple figures in Tests brought more tears than smiles. A glad father in suites stood to appreciate his son’s effort, the entire Newlands rose to applaud Africa’s squib son, the hero to all in his native Langa.

Among all this, only 30 minutes of play remained on day four, and the match seemed to crawl to an obvious conclusion – a lifeless draw. 1,256 runs were amassed in the first two innings, which left a marginal scope of a result. But that margin widened once the South Africans hit the right areas with the ball. Four men were back within lunch on day five, with England leading by a small 89.

Another two – including Stokes – fell in the next twelve overs and Amla sniffed an opportunity to dig his team out of the hole. But Bairstow and Moeen Ali stood firm, and rain did the rest for England. 

The play ended prematurely to ultimately result in a draw.

hashim amla
Amla resigned as South Africa captain after the second Test.

Some time later, Amla’s leadership also stalled, as he resigned from the post after nearly two years in the hot seat. He was unenthusiastic to lead earlier and had stepped down as vice-captain in 2011. This was doing the rounds in his head for two weeks, he said. He was accused of defensive field settings at Newlands, and all knew that South Africa’s golden run of nine consecutive years as unbeaten in a series on foreign soil died under Amla. Maybe he realised captaincy was not his cup of tea, and stepped aside for a better captain to lead. He dropped a few catches in the final Test in India, and neither led from the front throughout the series.

Cricket South Africa’s CEO Haroon Lorgat, while respecting Amla’s decision, passed the baton to de Villiers for the rest of the tournament only, though their coach Russell Domingo claimed the former was “the frontrunner for the job” in the times to come.

The same de Villiers, who sought a lighter shoulder for all his responsibilities, was made captain. The same de Villiers, who was disappointed on not being originally chosen so, abruptly found himself where he wanted to be in 2014.

From de Villiers unburdened of wicket keeping to Stokes’ and Bairstow’s mastery; from Amla’s comeback double ton to Bavuma’s historic hundred; from an expected dull draw to a fine fifth day; from Amla’s resignation to de Villiers being handed over captaincy (albeit officially temporarily) – this was the Newlands Test, the first of 2016.

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A childhood cricket enthusiast, my earliest cricket memory goes back to the 2003 World Cup, when I was 7. With a hobby of cricket commentary and writing from my early days, I earned an invitation for employment by aged only 20, and have also had the opportunity to interact with the great analyst Harsha Bhogle.
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