Cricket: First test finely balanced

By David Leggat

Kruger van Wyk. Photo / Getty Images
Kruger van Wyk. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand are mixing it with the big boys and are right in a fascinating contest at University Oval.

The first two days have been compelling viewing, and the prospects are intriguing for the second half of the opening test against South Africa.

The game is well advanced, New Zealand starting today at 243 for nine, having achieved a five-run lead.

Where it was the Chris Martin-inspired bowlers who had the world No 2-ranked team on the run on the rain-affected opening day, yesterday the batsmen did enough to squeeze out a morale-boosting, albeit slim lead, without a single hefty contribution.

Instead it was the sum of the batting parts which got the job done.

Captain Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Dan Vettori all made 40s while debutant Kruger van Wyk showed real mental strength in his 36.

Stands of 65 for the third wicket, 53 for the sixth and 41 for the seventh kept New Zealand moving forward. However, they will be disappointed no one kicked on, particularly Taylor and McCullum.

Events in the first couple of hours today shape as potentially crucial.

The pitch certainly helped the batsmen yesterday. It played pretty well, and most of the sting of the South African fast bowlers was drawn.

Which is not to say batting was comfortable. Far from it, and it required a degree of caution and good sense from the batsmen.

Opener Rob Nicol, on debut, found seamer Vernon Philander too tough, lasting only 12 uncomfortable balls.

It raised the issue of why he was at the top of the order. More so, once Martin Guptill and McCullum - the established opening pair this season - got to 40 by lunch.

They worked overtime against some hostile bowling, but Guptill wasted his good work playing on with a loose defensive stroke in the first over after lunch.

Taylor and his deputy rode a storm for a time, both taking blows on the body from Morne Morkel and the highly impressive Vernon Philander.

It was gripping cricket, with bowlers pressing hard to put the skids under what looks a thin batting lineup; the batsmen scrapping hard to get a foothold in the test.

A shame that both batsmen contributed to their demise, McCullum with a flawed execution of a sweep shot, Taylor chasing a wide ball having already struck two boundaries in that over from Morkel.

Vettori and van Wyk knuckled down. How often has Vettori ridden to the rescue. Think back to his 96 at Brisbane in December for the most recent evidence.

He cut, drove and pulled defiantly and little van Wyk put his head down for just over two hours, gradually gaining in assertiveness, to the point of twice cutting his old Northern Titans teammate Dale Steyn to the fence.

Vettori fell to a smart caught and bowled, Jacques Kallis diving forward to grab a return catch to a shot which looked to be a late change of heart on the batsman's part. Doug Bracewell then produced his most determined test innings helping van Wyk inch New Zealand ever onwards.

The second new ball and the skilful Philander did for van Wyk and Tim Southee in three balls, both edging low to first slip before Bracewell nudged New Zealand in front, only to depart the following ball.

Philander, operating at around 135km/h, was a handful throughout, moving the ball both ways off the pitch and probing for a weak spot, while legspinner Imran Tahir might yet have a key role to play as the pitch wears.

- NZ Herald

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