Cricket: Kepler lifts a grey day

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The Independent Online
South Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .296-7 dec

Northamptonshire . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20-0

IF Keith Fletcher learnt anything from watching the South African's struggle on a slow green pitch, it is that they do not give in easily.

After losing four of their top five with only 100 on the board, Kepler Wessels, Jonty Rhodes and Brian McMillan, all passed 50 in a pugnacious display that was typical of the new South Africa.

On a pitch this green Ernie Els would have looked less out of place hunched over his putter than Wessels did hunched over his bat. It was no surprise that South Africa struggled and for much of the day their batting had the inert look of a drab, grey stone wall. This comes as no surprise after the Australian tour, where their run rate never climbed above two per over.

Dour it may be, but their method again got an early test when Rob Bailey inserted the visitors and the Northampton bowlers were treated to a close- up view of Gary Kirsten's front pad being thrust down the pitch. Quite why Kirsten - who had just taken a double century off Durham - should resort to the ungainly tactic of a man out of form was a puzzle. He was not alone as South Africa tried to combat a Northants attack missing Curtly Ambrose.

This would have been understandable had the ball been darting about, but apart from some variable bounce only the occasional ball seamed. Such commitment to the front foot must leave the South Africans vulnerable to the well-directed short ball and it will be interesting to see how they cope if Darren Gough gets his tail up in the Test.

As it was, both Kirstens perished to less than lethal bouncers, Gary clearly off balance as he miscued to mid-on, while later Peter, his older half brother, helped a ballooning bouncer from Paul Taylor meekly to square leg. Taylor had earlier removed Gerhardus Liebenberg with a ball slanted across the right-hander that found the outside edge.

Recoveries can be painstaking things and Hansie Cronje, in tandem with Wessels, seemingly swapped their bats for sappers' spades and promptly dug in. By lunch, the score had staggered to 86 for three, but so hypnotic had the stonewalling been that Cronje's dismissal, caught behind off Mark Bowen, almost passed unnoticed.

Cronje was also quick to plant his front foot down the pitch, which tends to make the batsman play at deliveries wide of off-stump, and Cronje proved no exception as he edged the ball behind.

Once Wessels had lost Peter Kirsten, he began to open up, taking boundaries either side of the wicket with a series of punchy drives and cuts. When Wessels first played for Australia, the left-hander had no leg-side shots worth speaking of, but two fours off Taylor showed that hard work down the years has now made it second nature.

In a brisk partnership worth 74 with the perky Jonty Rhodes, Wessels looked close to his best form of the tour, and his fifty was brought up with a cracking cover drive off Penberthy.

Wessels became the third batsman to succumb to unimaginative and ill-directed bowling as he skied a long-hop to short mid-wicket. Happily Rhodes was still punching his weight and under his and Brian McMillan's perspicacity South Africa passed 200 before Rhodes too perished, trying to loft Jeremy Snape's off-spin over the marquees at the football end.

McMillan followed soon after, having contributed an aggressive fifty, before Wessels declared on 296 for seven, leaving the Northampton openers a nasty half an hour to negotiate.