SPIRO: Great day for South Africa and Channel Nine coverage

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South African batsman Jacques Kallis. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

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Graeme Smith won the toss at Brisbane in the first Test between Australia and South Africa and did the right thing by deciding to bat.

I say the right thing despite the fact that the pitch had a slightly greenish tinge to it, suggesting a certain liveliness, especially in the two hour session before lunch. Also, the selectors had picked four pace bowlers, five if Jacques Kallis’ burly medium-pace stuff is taken into account.

Smith, like Mark Taylor, is an opening bat. And like Taylor he invariably puts his team first when making a decision about whether to bat or not.

There is the temptation to avoid those supposedly dangerous opening couple of hours for captains who are opening bats. This was a temptation that Smith rejected like a saint being offered the run of a carnal house.

There was some discussion, in fact, before the Test about the wisdom of batting first at Brisbane. Ian Chappell made the argument he hoped Michael Clarke would dismiss the adage ‘nine times out of ten you bat and on the tenth you think about it and bat,’ if he thought there was something in the pitch and he won the toss.

Far be it from me to quibble with Ian Chappell, one of cricket’s finest captains, but here goes. The beauty of batting first is that if the best of the pitch is utilised properly and a very big first innings is accumulated, a side has gone a long way to winning the Test.

It is a fact of nature that deterioration will set in, especially on the last day, even on a pitch as good as Brisbane generally is.

And with this deterioration, even a relatively modest run total to win the Test can be really hard to achieve. There are not very many successful fourth innings run chases of over 250.

Even if a team collapses on the first day of the Test, it can still recover and win. This has been done from time to time.

But batting first gives a team its best chance of forcing an opposition to bat last. And we know what happens generally when a team has to bat last and try to knock over any total over, say 250.

At the end of the first day’s play, South Africa has batted itself into a position where it is possible to see them bowling out a defensive Australian side on the last day of play.

This is why I would argue this has been a great day for South Africa.

I followed the Test mainly on Channel Nine. And I would assert the coverage was, in a word often used by Richie Benaud, “splendid!”

We had a (deserved) tribute to Benaud, with a wry commentary from the great man on his 35 years of commentary on Channel Nine, which started with the World Series Cricket matches.

Benaud made the point that WSC, “changed the game for ever and for the better.” He is being unduly modest. Benaud has helped improve the game and enhance its popularity with his playing feats, his attacking attitude to the way the game should be played and then his thoughtful and considered journalism and broadcasting on cricket in a long career (he is 80) after his playing days were over.

There are some old-timers, and I am one of them, who aren’t greatly enthused about the enthusiasm and hoopla of the T20 circus games. But in terms of the presentation of the game and paying the players, cricket is a better game to watch, especially at home, than it has ever been by the ingenious work of Channel 9 experts.

Benaud mentioned cameras from each end, snicko (“one of the best innovations”), cameras broadcasting from all angles, coloured clothing and the high-defenition slo-mo camera shots. All these innovations have come out of the WSC venture and most of them inspired by Benaud’s determination to fulfill Kerry Packer’s brief to televise cricket in a way that enchants the faithful and enthralls those who know very little about the game.

The presentation of the opening day was up to the very best standards that have been set by Channel Nine in the past.

Glenn McGrath has been brought in as a replacement for Tony Greig. His informed commentary fitted in well with a commentary team that was strong on analysis and information and lighter (thankfully) in the good-old-boys banter and in-house joking.

As I was watching, I put a comment or two on The Roar’s continuous verbal commentary. Early on, for instance, I noted the current obsession with bowlers’ special plans for specific batsmen is a nonsense. It is a distraction to the bowlers. And I was chuffed to hear several minutes later Ian Chappell making a similar point himself.

My point is the obsession with bowling plans places too much emphasis on policy. The emphasis, though, should really be on process.

As Ian Chappell pointed out, it is generally better for bowlers to do what they do best, rather than get into complicated plans which have them bowling in a way they are not accustomed to.

Under Craig McDermott the Australian pace attack knocked over a strong Indian batting side six innings in a row. They did it by paying attention to the process of pitching the ball up, getting it to swing and then inducing mistakes from some of the best batsmen on the planet.

When I switched off after a most enjoyable day of being informed and entertained by a terrific presentation of a cricket Test, I had the sad feeling of what an opportunity Channel Nine stuffed up with its pathetic coverage of the Wallabies Tests. If only there had been someone at Channel 9 with a passion and intelligence for rugby union to match Richie Benaud’s mastery of all aspects of cricket …

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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