"I don't think ideally we want to play South Africa on a seamer-friendly surface and it's also not like we want to play on surfaces that are barren, because there is reverse swing and that's something South Africa are exceptionally good at."
Kiwi coach Mike Hesson's instructions to the groundsmen ahead of South Africa's tour to New Zealand last year was loud and clear. Going away from the traditional pitches that are on offer in the land, the management instead opted for slower and lower pitches, with an inch of turn, so that the opponents — who had among the best fast-bowling line-ups in the world – would not be able to exploit the seaming conditions that would have aided their attack.
But isn't cricket all about exploiting the home conditions? Moreover, when your team possesses players like Trent Boult and Tim Southee, who are equally menacing in helpful conditions, what was the purpose of opting for spin – something that is hardly a strong point for the New Zealand team? Wouldn’t it have made better sense to have had Southee and Boult go head-to-head with Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander than push Mitchell Santner and Jeetan Patel into the limelight, wherein they became the bowling mainstays of the attack?
In New Zealand’s bid to negate the help that was given to the Proteas fast bowlers, the camp failed to overlook the spin threat that would instead come their way. Santner, Ish Sodhi and Patel could hardly trouble the South African batsmen, while on the other hand, the Kiwi players were inept at handling the spin of Keshav Maharaj and even part-time spinner JP Duminy in the Test matches, with the former picking up 15 wickets at 19.93, with a match haul of 8 for 87 at Wellington.
With Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid bowling England to a win in the third ODI in New Zealand, the focus was once again on the track that had been laid out at Wellington and whether the Kiwi camp, had once again specifically asked for slower surfaces after the English fast bowlers had scalped 10 wickets in the previous two ODI encounters.
Ali and Rashid combined to bowl 20 overs for 70 runs, picking up five wickets between them. In the game, eight wickets fell to spin alone, which is the most number of wickets to have fallen to the slower bowlers in New Zealand after the game between Bangladesh and New Zealand in 2010, when nine wickets had fallen to the tweakers.
Rashid's deliveries spun at over six degrees off the pitch and Sodhi bowled 11 googlies in his first five overs, which meant that the particular game in New Zealand produced more turn than any other game in the country had ever produced. In the last year alone, while the opponent pacers have picked up 36 wickets at an average of 30.5 with an economy of 9.8, the spinners have fared better, picking up 14 wickets at 27.62 with an economy of 7.89.
But doesn't this tactic to focus on the other team's strengths rather than their own reek of timidity? When Southee had been dropped in the first Test against South Africa, did it not convey to the Faf du Plessis-led side that the squad did not have total belief in their premier bowler's skills? By eradicating all support to Morkel and team, Hesson and Williamson indirectly conveyed to Boult and Southee that whilst they were held in high regard, they were also not thought able enough to trump the African pace attack. And so, the ODI game and the Test match in Hamilton were instead played on the slower Waikari soil, that is made of clay and helps slowing down the pitch and not on the Patumahoe side that helps fast bowling, and which was used when the Black Caps accorded easy triumphs over Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
This move by the New Zealanders even surprised the recalled spinner Dane Piedt, who was called to the South African side once du Plessis assessed the conditions and thought it better to get another spinner on board after they had packed their side with six seamers before boarding the flight to New Zealand.
"I think they (New Zealand) have shot themselves in the foot. They didn't back their seamers to do the job, and I thought their seamers bowled pretty well in South Africa. They bowled us out for 263 in Durban on quite a sporting deck (in August).”
Hence, even though there are no hints so far of the pitches for England being doctored, the presence of bowlers like James Anderson and Stuart Board, who will be in the team for the two Tests, could force the Kiwis to once again adopt a negative attitude. Before thinking of going down that route, they would do well to look at their lack of technique against spin. Even when the conditions had not been tweaked, they were unable to figure out spinners like Ashton Agar, Shadab Khan and Shakib al Hasan, when Australia, Pakistan and Bangladesh had toured them, and the ongoing series only reiterates the fact that in cricket, a side should focus on their strengths and not try to suppress another team's high points.