Great decision to bowl first

Graeme Smith’s propensity to lead with his chin means he’s always likely to attract a couple of right hooks, and despite his iron jaw, some punches land. And hurt.

The South African captain never shows pain, however, so it’s difficult to know when he’s suffering and when he’s bustling along allowing the criticism to wash over his head. His decision to bowl first after winning the toss at Newlands allowed his critics to load their weapons with an endless supply of vitriol but, on this occasion, they were firing blanks.

The decision to bat or bowl first should not be judged on the result of the match but on the ‘reading’ of the pitch and predictions of conditions for the five days of the Test match.

Smith, in conjunction with his senior professionals – most prominently vice-captain Jacques Kallis, predicted the way the match would go as surely as a soothsayer. “The pitch will be best for bowling on the first day and will get better and better for batting as the match goes on,” Smith said in explaining his decision on Thursday. He was absolutely spot-on.

Once New Zealand had weathered the storm on the first morning, when Dale Steyn beat the bat with a dozen of the 30 deliveries he bowled with the new ball and Makhaya Ntini, too, could have taken two or three wickets with more luck, they were able to post a massive total. They also played with huge courage, skill and commitment which is a fact that appears to escape Smith’s critics.

Smith may be prone to the odd outspoken outburst, but he is also perfectly capable of the kind of restraint necessary from an international captain and a role model. He based his decision to bowl first on a collage of information and opinion from a variety of sources but he always knew the final decision was his and that he would have to bear the brunt of the criticism if it backfired. The easy option would have been to share the ‘blame’ but he did not. Others did.

“Just look at how things have turned out – the way the match has gone is all the evidence you need to see that Graeme’s decision was right,” said coach Mickey Arthur after the fourth day’s play when all agreed that the match was over as a contest.

Meanwhile, as bizarre as it may sound, Herschelle Gibbs should take some credit for what will be an honourable draw for South Africa.

The reasons behind his admission to selection convenor Haroon Lorgat that he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to play in the final two Tests against New Zealand may be in dispute, but the fact that he suggested that Hashim Amla deserved a chance is not.

Most cricketers in the world would have done all they could to preserve their place in the team if asked to assess their own state of mind and readiness for combat, but Gibbs had the courage to admit the truth. He was asked by Arthur at the beginning of the season to assume the responsibility of batting at number three in both forms of the game and, eventually, he was worn down by it.

Gibbs did not refuse to play for his country. He did not even request that he was left out. Instead, he made a constructive, honest and very difficult suggestion that someone else should be given a chance. Even Gibbs, who is not prone to over-analysis on any subject, would have known that such a suggestion was a risk. Amla confirmed that by scoring 149.

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