Testing times at the Oval

The University Oval. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
The University Oval. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
The scene is set. The University Oval is prettier than a picture. The first ball is to be bowled at 11am today in that all-important first session on the first day of the first New Zealand-South Africa test match.

The University Oval, Dunedin, has hosted seven tests, the first in January 2008 and the last in December 2015. Today, South Africa, always a leading cricketing nation, returns five years after its last visit.

The ground, in its relatively short test history, has witnessed many of the premier names in world cricket strut their stuff, or in a few cases attempt but fail. There has been the likes of Alastair Cook, Kevin Petersen, James Anderson, Joe Root, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Vernon Philander, Angelo Mathews, Mohammad Yousuf, Daniel Vetorri, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Trent Boult.

Notable is the absence of stars from Australia or India. Tests against those nations will have to wait. An Australian test was nearly scheduled but appeared to fall to the lure of the more lucrative shorter form of the game.

While, inevitably, there was sadness to leave behind Caris- brook's tradition and history, few could doubt the wisdom of the shift away from what became essentially designed as a rugby ground, with its concrete and capacious stands and the exposure to just about every wind.

The shift has probably consigned Dunedin to missing out on the higher ranking one-day internationals or twenty20 contests. Even with the extended banks, the University Oval is a boutique ground holding only up to several thousand spectators.

Nonetheless, the cricket purist will revel in the challenge of test cricket, in its rhythms and variety, in its ebbs and flows, in its demands for long bowling spells and intense batting concentration over hours and in the endless subtleties. In fact, a test is preferable for many of these cricket tragics.

It is, as has often been observed, the gourmet three-course meal to be savoured rather than the quick hit of the one-day tasty takeaway.

Meanwhile, the non-purist who is unlikely to understand or seek out the nuances of test play, can also slide into a different rhythm, observing and taking part in a different event experience, enjoying the chance to slow down and to appreciate as well the unhurried sociability of a test spectator.

In an era of instant gratification, Instagram, short attention spans and busyness, test cricket is an outlier. What other field sport will last for five days? What sport might then well end in a draw, especially if rain interrupts play? What other game is played over more than six hours each day?

There is, indeed, the opportunity to bask on the embankments, watch from the historic Otago Daily Times stand and appreciate the green outfield, the red ball and the white clothing, all redolent of another era, another lifestyle.

There is always some anxiety among New Zealand cricket followers, and not just about the weather. South Africa, even without Stein and de Villiers, is packed with class, speed and experience.

New Zealand batsmen and bowlers are in for a true test, and not one which will be done in 20 or 50 overs. Wins against South Africa are rare (only four so far and two of those were on the 1960-61 tour of South Africa), and all the more sought for that.

Test cricket is appropriately named, for cricketers are thoroughly tested, and in many dimensions. Williamson, Taylor, Boult, Tom Latham, Mitchell Satner, BJ Wattling, Neil Wagner et al have their chance on the beautiful Dunedin stage to play their part on what we all hope will be a memorable test match.

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