Cricket: Cautious hope for PE pitch

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The Independent Online
SOUTH AFRICA has always been a place of good news and bad news for the English since the first large batch of settlers arrived in 1820 with a song in their hearts and a scythe under their arms, ready to farm the wide open spaces of the eastern frontier. Colonisation was one thing, cultivation quite another: the Suurveld (sour land) turned out to be utterly useless for their purposes and the new settlers fled to the towns.

Thus, the current crop of visitors will be heartened by the information that the pitch for the Second Test on Thursday will be, according to the groundsman, Andrew McLean: "A straight down the middle type of wicket, a wicket that will give something to everyone but will last beyond the third day. It won't be low and slow, as its reputation for three or four years still continues to suggest."

The less welcome information is that Port Elizabeth, the venue for this encounter, is where, before it grew low and slow, Allan Donald had returns of 5 for 55 and 7 for 84 to dismantle India. It remains his best match analysis. Since this great fast bowler could be said to be in form, having taken 11 wickets in his country's triumph in the First Test, the bad news might outweigh the good.

"It should be borne in mind that we've had some cracking results at the ground in the past few seasons," said McLean. "Last year the game against West Indies barely lasted three days, the year before Pakistan made two low scores [106 and 134], and Australia won another game with not many runs the season before that.

"I wouldn't say those results speak of low and slow, but all my preparations have been geared to providing something that everybody can operate on, where the bowlers never feel they're out of it but the batsmen are given an opportunity to make some proper runs. We can't have pitches where the games last hardly more than three days. We've got a duty to the people we want to come and watch these games."

McLean's good intentions may be thwarted somewhat by the weather down in the place everyone knows simply as PE. It is raining and the forecast says it will continue to rain. In that case a touch of dampness on the surface may be unavoidable, but McLean may take heart from the status of weather forecasters in South Africa. It may be the only country in the world where they are derided, affectionately, more than in England.

"I won't pass comment on the Wanderers pitch for the First Test," said McLean, "but while the toss should always have some influence it shouldn't decide the whole outcome."

South Africa's overwhelming win has given them a big edge. The players may be adopting a "this is tougher than it looks" stance in an estimable stab at public humility, but the rest of the country is not bothering with such courtesies.

The paper in Durban said that England's present opposition might be the most inexperienced in Natal's history. "But will it matter? Playing against the much-maligned England tourists who have been vainly trying to find their feet for the past umpteen seasons round the world, this wet-behind-the-ears Natal side may still have enough to pull off a victory against a once mighty nation." So there.

South Africa the team may be saying the right things, but still they cannot avoid giving the impression that the earnest debate about whether to play the spinner Paul Adams or the young speed merchant David Terbrugge is cosmetic. There is common consent that, not for the first time, there is nothing for the English to cultivate here.