Kingsmead returns to green glory days

“I’ve never seen the colour of the grass at Kingsmead like it is right now.” – Keshav Maharaj

Telford Vice | Durban

OLD-TIMERS joke that the only way to tell the pitch from the outfield at Kingsmead used to be by locating the stumps and the creases. Then you took guard to face Neil Adcock, Mike Procter, Vince van der Bijl, or other fine fast bowlers on a surface that rivalled a snooker table for greenness. 

But Kingsmead’s emerald fire has dwindled. Tests here have become attritional struggles against spin and the elements. This is where, in August 2012, South Africa and New Zealand bowled and faced only 99.4 overs in a game ruined by a sodden outfield. It’s also where Rangana Herath took match figures of 9/128 in December 2011 to seal Sri Lanka’s first win in the country. Almost eight years later, the Lankans returned to Durban to spark what would be a 2-0 series triumph — the only Test rubber won by an Asian team in South Africa. Indeed, conditions at Kingsmead have become un-South African enough for the home side to have won only one of their last nine Tests here.

This time, it seems, things might be different. Dean Elgar and Keshav Maharaj, a local, mind, have both spoken of the unusual amount of grass, and its colour, they have seen on the pitch being prepared for the match.

Thereby hangs a theory. Kingsmead hasn’t hosted a Test since Sri Lanka’s win in February 2019, and South Africa have since played 10 matches in the format at home. The ground staff can’t do anything about rain and bad light, which are both frequent factors in matches here and seem set to feature again, but they can try to ensure the surface gives the home side’s fast bowlers something to work with and that it lasts five days. Not doing so, on both counts, would seem detrimental to the ground’s future as a Test venue. It seems they have taken that possibility seriously enough to relay the table.

Even so, Elgar might grimace at the unfair irony of Kingsmead finally delivering a seamer’s pitch when most of his first-choice fast bowlers are not around. Kagiso Rabada, Marco Jansen, Anrich Nortjé and Lungi Ngidi, along with Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram, have all high-tailed it to the IPL. The unfortunates among us who don’t somehow consider professional cricket a profession could see this as betrayal of national duty. The rest of us accept it as a business decision made by people whose primary motivation for playing cricket is to be paid. Would any of them turn out for South Africa for free?

Of course, that’s not Bangladesh’s problem. They have to find a way to maintain the momentum generated by their stunning 2-1 win in the ODI series, their first in any format in South Africa. It will help that seven of the players who helped achieve that famous success are in the Test squad, and that Tamim Iqbal, Taskin Ahmed and Mehidy Hasan — who starred in the ODIs — are among them. It will also help that, with Herath and Allan Donald in their coaching staff, they have both bowling bases covered. And that Russell Domingo knows Kingsmead as well as any coach. And that, thanks to the IPL, which has taken 128 Test caps out of South Africa’s squad, the visitors are the more experienced side.

But the temporary return home for family reasons of Shakib al Hasan, as iconic a player for Bangladesh as anyone is for any other team, is a setback. Happily, he is due back for the second Test at St George’s Park, which starts on April 7.

Bangladesh have lost all six Tests they have played in South Africa, five of them by an innings. But they have also never played a match in the format at Kingsmead, where India and Sri Lanka have won all three Tests they’ve played since December 2010. Conditions this time may mitigate against a fourth victory for Asian side in five matches in Durban, but that doesn’t mean South Africa will anticipate a lesser challenge.

With the calamity of the ODI series still fresh, and considering South Africa have lost the first Test seven times in their last 11 series — and in both of their most recent rubbers, at home to India in December and in Christchurch in February — the visitors will know their time is now.

When: Thursday, 10am Local Time

Where: Kingsmead, Durban

What to expect: More green grass than has become the norm for a Test here. Even if that is the case, the primary challenge for batters early in the match will likely by swing rather than seam. Then, as the surface slows, spin will come into the equation.

Team news

South Africa: Stand by for changes galore, what with the IPL defections. Keegan Petersen’s return from Covid-19 was always likely, and we could see an overdue debut for Ryan Rickelton

Possible XI: Dean Elgar (capt), Sarel Erwee, Keegan Petersen, Temba Bavuma, Ryan Rickelton, Kyle Verreynne, Wiaan Mulder, Keshav Maharaj, Glenton Stuurman, Lutho Sipamla, Duanne Olivier

Bangladesh: Tamim Iqbal is set to come in for Shadman Ismail, who scored 53 runs in four innings in New Zealand in January.

Possible XI: Tamim Iqbal, Mahmudul Hasan Joy, Nazmul Hossain, Mominul Haque (capt), Mushfiqur Rahim, Yasir Ali, Liton Kumar, Mehedy Hasan, Shoriful Islam, Ebadat Hossain, Taskin Ahmed

What they said:

“I’ve never seen the colour of the grass at Kingsmead like it is right now. Traditionally Kingsmead spins, and I would hope it does from my personal point of view. But I think it will be a decent, traditional pitch.” – Keshav Maharaj on Kingsmead’s return to greenness.

“Experience-wise we are ahead but they are playing at home, so they will get some advantage. Both teams will have advantages but whoever plays good cricket for five days will win.” – Mominul Haque walks a diplomatic tightrope.

First published by Cricbuzz.

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Kingsmead returns to green glory days