Liam Brickhill in Cape Town
Castle Lager picked up the sponsor’s tab for this Test series against Pakistan, and the outfield at Newlands is adorned with the beer company’s #SmashTheLabel campaign ads. The gist is to break down the stereotypes South Africa’s disparate groups and peoples have created for each other, and using the hashtag you can nominate someone on social media to win a free ticket to the cricket, provided they’ve never been to a match before.
Castle, and Cricket South Africa, are trying to attract people other than the stereotypical cricket fan to the ground. The common or garden Capetonian is pigeonholed as a laidback, dope-smoking, driving-slowly-in-the-fast-lane-on-the-way-to-the-beach, knocking-off-at-3-o’clock-on a-Friday-to-go-surfing, cooler-than-thou hipster. An afternoon stroll around the ground showed that a lot of the people attending this match still fit the cliche. But a whole lot didn’t, and South African cricket is slowly but surely stretching beyond its traditional boundaries. The recent Mzansi Super League was a signifier of that transformation, and South African cricket crowds – Newlands included – are increasingly diverse.
That wasn’t the only label smashed today. The stereotypical Newlands track has a bit of wobble and a five-for for Vernon Philander in it, and starts to turn on day four. Three quicks and a spinner is the standard arrangement for both visiting and hosting teams here, and examples of any deviation from that formula are few and far between. South Africa had no specialist spinner in their XI here five years ago against Australia, but that plan backfired as JP Duminy and Dean Elgar bowled a combined 61 overs in that game, and South Africa lost by 245 runs.
You’d have to go back to well before the turn of the millennium to find another Newlands Test that South Africa played without a specialist spinner – or someone like Nicky Boje or Robin Peterson, who perhaps weren’t quite ‘specialist’ in the truest sense, but were the next best thing in the South African context. So conducive can the Newlands track be to spin that Paul Adams once opened the bowling here, against England way back in 2000. Paul Harris won a Player-of-the-Match award here, for goodness sake.
South Africa thus broke down a major stereotype at this ground when they decided on four fast bowlers this morning, which is a combination normally reserved for the Wanderers or Centurion. Indeed, Philander has played 55 of his 56 Tests with either Dale Steyn or Kagiso Rabada to share the new ball with, but day one at Newlands was only the seventh time all three had operated together, and the very first time that they had all been together in an attack wholly centered around pace.
The decision to go against the grain in selection clearly worked. Steyn and Philander. Rabada and Olivier. Rabada and Steyn. Philander and Olivier. No matter which way South Africa’s four quicks were combined, there was no let-up in the pressure exerted on Pakistan, and they were blasted out by tea.
Philander is regarded as the undisputed King of Cape Town, but perhaps that’s not a label that fits either: Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock have all taken more wickets here. Or maybe it does: Philander took his 50th wicket in his 10th Newlands Test this morning, while Pollock took 51 in 11 and Ntini 53 in 13. Steyn has 70 but has played five more Tests than Philander here, and Philander has, by far, the best strike rate of the four, taking a wicket every 35.7 balls under the mountain.
Philander is part of a South African squad that is embracing change, and smashing labels along the way. Indeed, they’ve come a long way since the aloof, burly-man clique of the noughties that had a reputation for making the team rookie feel like a fuzzy-lipped 13-year-old being hazed into his first day of big school.
Things have changed. The world has moved on. And the label no longer fits. Current captain Faf du Plessis welcomed the uncapped Zubayr Hamza to the Test squad with an invite to come and stand in the slips if he gets a chance to take the field as 12th man.
“I’m looking forward to him coming on to the field as 12th man and getting one of those high ones that just test you as a youngster, just to see where you are with a bit of swirl in the wind here in Cape Town,” du Plessis said of Hamza. “Hopefully he takes it. He’s a good fielder. I made a joke with him yesterday, to say is he ready to come and field in the slips there with the big boys. And he said yes, he’ll come, he’s ready for it.”
One doesn’t like to stereotype, but it’s hard to imagine the Smith-Kallis-de Villiers cordon inviting a fresh-out-the-box greenhorn into the slips with them.
But I digress. Life is different under Faf. As a captain, he is not above a bit of 21st century PDA to thank his players for a good performance, as when he said he’d give Steyn a kiss on the cheek to congratulate him on the Test bowling record, or when he enveloped Dean Elgar – lying prone having held a blinder at third slip – with a bear hug this morning.
Tabraiz Shamsi, who was not at Newlands but was clearly watching, tweeted: “U will know you’ve found ur soul mate when u find somebody who hugs u the way @faf1307 hugs his bowlers when they take an important wicket lol.” Du Plessis is willing to experiment, smash labels, and be different. Hell, he’ll even play four quicks on a pitch that traditionally has something for the spinners if he needs to.