<
>

SA's recipe to tame Australia: prepare 'slower' pitches

play
Wessels: SA can't afford spicy pitches against Australia (4:45)

Raunak Kapoor and Kepler Wessels look forward to the upcoming four-Test series between South Africa and Australia starting on March 1 (4:45)

After putting in specific instructions for pace and bounce for the Test series against India, South Africa have asked, not demanded, that their groundsmen prepare good cricket pitches that lean towards the slower side for the four-Test series against Australia starting Thursday in Durban.

After only getting what they wanted once at Newlands during India's tour, South Africa have not only toned down the severity of their requests, but have turned them the other way. They don't want green tops for this series - keeping in mind, perhaps, the strength of Australia's pace pack - but are instead keen on surfaces that could even take some turn. South Africa see that as their best chance of beating Australia in a home series for the first time since readmission.

This is partly why coastal cities have been awarded three of the four Tests, because they usually assist the quicks a little less than surfaces on the Highveld. Russell Domingo, who was still South Africa's head coach when the schedule was announced, explained at the time that the team had identified Australia's struggle against spin - they had just lost in India and Bangladesh.

But South Africa are being careful with how much slowness they're asking for, because they've already been made to rue their requests more than once this summer. "Everybody knows what happened at the Wanderers, so we've left the groundsmen to prepare the best possible pitches that they can this time," head coach Ottis Gibson said after the final T20I against India on Saturday.

Leaving the groundsmen to do their job has long been suggested as the best way to get balanced pitches. This time around, even the pre-series meeting between them and captain Faf du Plessis hasn't taken place. Further, some groundstaff have complained about a lack of proper equipment and training but they haven't been heard by CSA yet. This has left some officials worried about the quality and standard of pitches in the future. However with South Africa's expectations for the Australia series in alignment with how conditions normally are at this time of the season, it may not be a too much of a problem just yet.

There is a fair amount of wear on almost all the surfaces around the country, having been in use since September. Newlands and Wanderers have already hosted a Test, an ODI and two T20s, St George's Park hosted a Test (albeit one that lasted one-and-half-days) and an ODI. Only Kingsmead in Durban is fresh; it's been required for only one ODI at the start of February.

The ongoing drought issues in Cape Town that have forced cancellation of all club fixtures for the second half of the summer and have diminished opportunities for a grassy surface. This could make things tricky for Evan Flint, the Newlands groundsman, especially if a tournament like the Global T20 is added to an already packed cricket calendar.

"Around the country, pitches are old and need replacing and when you do that, you have do to them one at a time," Flint told ESPNcricinfo. "We only use the three pitches in the middle for televised games, so those get used a lot and very rarely replaced. I think we should really start to think about drop-in pitches because then we also provide the team with exactly what they want when they want it."

While Flint is in du Plessis' good books after his Test pitch provided seam movement against India, he wasn't exactly thrilled with his work and aims to produce a more balanced pitch in future. "It was the least controversial pitch but I don't think it was that good. It was too one-sided towards the bowlers," he said. "We've been discussing preparing good cricket pitches and they won't mind if they are a bit on the slow side. That's sort of where we are at anyway, because we're late in the season. And a pitch of that description doesn't require freshness. It should be a good series."

That's what we're all hoping.