Placid Durban pitch damages Proteas' plans

In April 2008 India were one-nil down to South Africa going into the final Test in Kanpur and, as is their right, they asked the Green Park groundsman to prepare a pitch that would suit them very much, indeed.

In April 2008 India were one-nil down to South Africa going into the final Test in Kanpur and, as is their right, they asked the Green Park groundsman to prepare a pitch that would suit them very much, indeed.

With inch-wide cracks on day one South Africa lost the match inside four days and India avoided losing the series. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, in his first Test captaining the side, was so happy with the groundsman that he wrote him a letter of thanks and enclosed 10,000 rupees in cash notes as a gesture of thanks for the bespoke pitch.

One could easily be forgiven for thinking that the Kingsmead pitch was also prepared according to Dhoni's will as it is flat and dry and lacks both grass cover and any of the sharp bounce that used to so trouble visiting teams in Durban. As an Indian journalist muttered an hour into the day's play, "This looks like a flat Ranji Trophy pitch in Jaipur."

South Africans are a hospitable bunch and CSA have buckled to India's demands, so perhaps it is no surprise that the groundsman really seems to have gone out of his way to make the visitors feel at home. The pitch is so dry that Morne Morkel said after the day that when the ball was 13 overs old it looked like it was more like 60 overs old. Jacques Kallis, he of almost 300 Tests wickets, too, didn't look like making a breakthrough in his final Test.

India are sitting pretty at 181 for one after a day where South Africa's bowlers were made to look as venomous as a Brown house snake. Batting first was an easy decision for Dhoni to make when he won a good toss and South Africa laboured with little reward on a typical summer day in Durban, where the combination of high temperatures and humidity were as stifling as any day in the Mumbai summer.

The only respite for the Proteas came when some cloud arrived and the umpires took the players off for light at 15:35 local time. A cameraman told me that they played on in far darker conditions in Johannesburg and the light seemed fine to the naked eye long after the day was officially called off at 17:00 local time.

Murali Vijay (91 not out) and Chateshwar Pujara (58 not out) have both proven their appetite for huge scores and they find themselves in a good position to fill their boots again after they feasted on the generous fare and caused the South African fielders heads to drop. Once again Shikhar Dhawan failed to get beyond a start as Morkel, the only bowler to have caused any real problems, found the edge of his bat. The world's two best bowlers – Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn – were made to look like medium-pacers as Vijay and Pujara helped themselves to boundaries whenever they fancied.

The flat pitch only serves to justify the public's conception that South Africa's management is too conservative. The public was livid after the Proteas did not go for the win in the final overs at the Wanderers and the preparation of this pitch can only be described as a negative move in a match that South Africa should be very hungry to win – it's as if not losing is far more important than winning for the side that has not lost a series for nearly four years.

South Africa have a far superior quick-bowling attack and the fact that the groundsman did not produce a result pitch is inexcusable. One could see the logic in not going for the win at the Wanderers but preparing a road at Kingsmead when there is a series to be won is just plain bonkers.

There were some beautiful shots on display but for much of the crowd the most exciting part of day was when a fan managed to get Dale Steyn and then Morkel to sign his blow-up doll on the boundary. Rain is forecast at the weekend and it is hard to see how either side will take 20 wickets in this Test match.

A good crowd may have showed up but I don't expect the same on Friday. As the groundsman, Wilson Ngobese, told me when I bumped into him toward the end of the day's play, "You can't please everybody."

I then asked Ngobese if he had been asked to roll a smooth road so that Kallis might cash in in his final Test. My question was answered with a good laugh and a "maybe".

<b>Nick Sadleir</b>