And on the last morning of 2017, it rained.
Okay, it drizzled, but for the people of the Western Cape, the province of South Africa enduring its worst drought in more than a hundred years, the drops were welcomed like small mercies. Things in this part of the country are bad. Showers are timed at no more than two minutes, toilet flushing has been reduced to only if absolutely necessary, and people have been asked not to use more than 87 litres of water each per day.
It’s in these circumstances that India’s tour of South Africa begins, in these conditions that South Africa hope to be able to present India with a pitch with pace, bounce and seam movement. And the only way that can happen is with the sprinkling of water.
Luckily, Newlands has borehole-water supply but groundsman Evan Flint told ESPNcricinfo it has still been a tricky preparatory period. “With the pitch, we’ve been able to carry on watering it as usual every day with borehole water. But the outfield, 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. The challenge is that we need to leave live grass on the wicket, thin grass, so that there is pace, but we want to make sure the ball doesn’t grip and turn. 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.”
December 31 was a rare day on which exactly that happened, but Flint hasn’t seen much of that over the last few months. The usual Cape winter rains were thin and the unseasonal spring and summer showers have been few and far between. Still, he has been hard at work since the off season started in April.
Flint usually spends months “keeping an eye” on his Test pitch – it is generally the same one and it generally does the same things. There’s some life in it upfront, it flattens out over the next two days and then starts to deteriorate. In recent years, the wearing down of the pitch has not happened as much as expected, something Flint recognised. “That has sometimes been a criticism of my pitches – that they don’t deteriorate,” he said.
The 2011 New Year’s Test , which India played in, is a case in point. After India made some early inroads, both sides scored first innings totals of over 350, South Africa’s second innings was just under 350 and India were set 340 to win. They would likely have got there if time hadn’t run out. It’s tough to say the same about South Africa’s chances of taking wickets. The drawn match at Newlands gave India their best result in a series in South Africa: also a draw.
That they hope to go one better this time is a no-brainer and they have come with a balanced enough side to mount a serious challenge. Furthermore, South Africa will remember how the green mambas in Johannesburg in 2006 and in Durban in 2010 backfired on them. Those two matches remain the only two India have have won in this country, having played 17. Back then, they had an attack with one or two standouts (Sreesanth in 2006, Zaheer Khan in 2010) and a few supporting acts. Now, they have a five-man attack, all equally capable of holding their own.
Still, South Africa see their best chance as trusting in their bowlers to do the damage and their batsmen to withstand, much like India did the last time South Africa visited their shores in 2015. Rank turners in Mohali and Nagpur meant two of the four matches end inside three days, in India’s favour. The Nagpur pitch was subsequently rated poor by the ICC but the fact remained, India had ended South Africa’s nine-year unbeaten run on the road. It doesn’t need any further explanation to conclude that South Africa will want to get some of their own back.
“Everybody is pretty clear on what they want. We’ve tweaked a few things in terms of trying to get fresh green grass and we’re also working on getting the wicket hard, so we’re rolling it, but we have to keep the grass alive at the same time,” Flint said. “It will help the bowlers out in the beginning but it’s not going to be the Wanderers or Centurion.”
South Africa may have to wait until the second and third Tests upcountry to really unleash their full hostility on India. Until then, they can only know that Newlands has done everything it can to support the cause, and, like everyone else in the province, they can pray for morning rain.