“Hopefully pace, hopefully bounce,” Newlands’ curator Evan Flint told ESPNCricinfo on what the pitch would offer on the first day when India begin their Test series against South Africa in Cape Town.
With the city suffering one of its worst-ever droughts, the groundsman has been finding it tough to prepare a wicket that would assist the hosts’ dangerous pace department.
“We have been able to water the pitch twice a week using borehole water. It’s not quite as much as we’d have liked,” he said.
What kind of tracks the South Africans would want is a no-brainer: one that aids pace and movement of the ball - lateral and upward. For, it is in such tracks that the Indian batsmen have been traditionally troubled. But to make such tracks isn’t very easy. There needs to enough fresh grass for the ball to move sideways on the first couple of days. And, the track needs to rolled for it to be hard, so that it can assist bounce. But not so hard that the grass in it is gone.
Such a track was laid for the hosts last January at this venue when it took on Sri Lanka, who also have a batting line-up that’s uncomfortable dealing with the moving ball. But the tourists won the toss and fielded to make the best use of the excellent bowling conditions. In 23 overs, they reduced the South Africans to 66/3. Centuries by Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock, however, helped the hosts recover to a solid 392, which is 43 runs higher than the venue’s first innings batting average in the last 10 years.
Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander then shared four wickets apiece as the Lankans were bowled out for 110. The deficit was too much for the visitors to balance in the second innings and they eventually went down by 282 runs.
The more pertinent figures of the match are of the wickets claimed by the pacers: 30 out of the total 37. In the last three Tests at this venue, the fast bowlers have picked up 59 of the 81 wickets.
But only a year before the Sri Lanka Test, the venue saw England make 629/6 in the first innings with Ben Stokes making a 198-ball 258. For the loss of just 19 wickets, 1415 runs were scored over five days.
The South Africans wouldn’t want Flint to gift the Indians such a homelike track. Flint knows that. Which is why, despite Cape Town’s stringent water restrictions, he’s been using the ground’s borehole to water the pitch.
“With the pitch, we’ve been able to carry on watering it as usual every day with borehole water,” he told iol.co.za. “But the outfield, under the City’s regulations, we’ve only watered it twice a week so it’s a little bit drier and maybe not as lush as we would like it.”
With Cape Town’s groundwater level dipping to a record low, he’s been looking heavenwards for help.
“Ideally, what we need is a little bit of rain in the morning and then sun in the afternoon and I don’t know how many days we will get that for,” he said.
The unusual January showers that Cape Town received on Sunday and Monday, albeit insufficient to quench the city’s water scarcity, Flint counted as a “blessing”.
“Since I have moved to Cape Town I cannot remember it raining this time of the year, but I am certainly not complaining. It has breathed some life into the outfield.”
In six of the last 10 Tests at Newlands, the toss-winning captain has preferred fielding first. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, in India’s last Test at the venue, did the same. But for Virat Kohli, when he walks out for the toss, the past records of the venue wouldn’t matter as much as the team management’s assessment of the track on Friday. And, the toss itself, at this unpredictable venue – where the first innings score in the last decade have ranged from 45 to 629/6 – might prove crucial.