Just six weeks after they shockingly pulled out of the tour of India, West Indies spent two chastening days in the field in the first Test against South Africa as Hashim Amla, AB deVilliers and Stiaan van Zyl, a belated debutant, helped themselves to effortless runs.
“They are at least fulfilling their tour of South Africa, but if they are there in body,they are hardly there in spirit,” was David Hopps’ cutting take on their effort in his ESPNcricinfo report.
As deVilliers and Amla, ranked second and sixth among Test batsmen by the ICC, bedded in for their record 308-run partnership, a hush gradually enveloped players who had been as excited as chirpy schoolboys when they seized the first three wickets at 57. In spite of the cheerleading efforts of captain Denesh Ramdin behind the wicket, fielders ambled around to gather balls in the deep, repeatedly tossing them back underhand. The lack of intensity was palpable.
The attitude reflected a scoreboard that became more daunting with every passing over.
Through it all, one West Indian contradicted Hopps’ otherwise suitable observation. As the two formidable South Africans and their new recruit comfortably clocked off the runs, Sulieman Benn wheeled away steadily for 46 overs with his left-arm spin. It was an arduous task made all the tougher by the combination of an ankle injury that ended the Test for Kemar Roach, West Indies’ one threatening bowler, midway through the first day, and Benn’s sore right shoulder, which required intermittent ice-pack treatment.
Benn had experienced such challenges many times before in 23 Tests, spasmodically spread over six years; it comes with the barren territory occupied by West Indies for close to two decades. His overly aggressive manner has often got him into trouble with match referees and, once, even with his captain, but he has always been there for West Indies, in both body and spirit.
South Africa’s first innings was the tenth time he had pegged away for more than 40 overs in an innings, the third of over 50, as various opponents piled on the runs.
His longest marathon was 53 overs (5 for 155) against Australia at Adelaide Oval in 2009, when West Indies came close to turning an innings loss in the previous Test into unlikely victory.
His statistics are modest, 81 wickets at 36.55 each; he is better judged by the work demanded of him and his miserly rate of 2.72 runs an over in moderate bowling teams on modern Test cricket’s unhelpful pitches. His attributes are his cricketing acumen and the bounce his 6′ 7″ inches height affords him.
As South Africa’s total mounted relentlessly at Supersport Park, Big Benn’s patience was once more tested; he had to wait until the second day and into his 32nd over for the first of his deserved rewards – de Villiers miscuing to cover. Amla would follow a lot later.
With the third-wicket pair separated, Benn spotted the chance of another quick break. As the left-hander van Zyl replaced de Villiers, Benn recognised the understandable nerves of the first-timer and the limitations of strokes off his legs.
Before he was into double-figures, van Zyl made a couple of indecisive prods off the gangling spinner; both eluded Kraigg Brathwaite a handshake’s distance away. The first was too quick for a catch at short leg, the second went into his hands low at leg slip and out again.
In earlier times, Benn might have flailed his arms around in annoyance at his young team-mate, and perhaps let out an expletive or two. He possibly harboured similar unpleasant thoughts now, but at 33 he has mellowed since the time he was regarded as an uncontrollable bad boy.
He was twice suspended under the ICC code of conduct in the space of six months for spats with Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson in the Perth Test in December 2009 and with the South Africans on home territory, at the Kensington Oval in Barbados later in the year.
In an earlier ODI in that series, his captain (and close friend) Chris Gayle actually went as far as sending him off the field for refusing an order to bowl over the wicket. After a futile, rain-ruined tour of Sri Lanka in late 2010, Benn was dropped; his conduct was thought to be a factor.
Offspinner Shane Shillingford settled into his place and took a glut of wickets until his bent-elbowed action led the ICC to order remedial work. Veerasammy Permaul, another left-armer, was given two Tests in Bangladesh, one each in India and New Zealand without persuading the selectors he was their man. After six Tests, Sunil Narine determined that his method was more suited to the white ball than the red.
So Benn was recalled for the home series against New Zealand in June, four years on from his previous appearance. Centurion was his sixth successive Test. Three against New Zealand and two against Bangladesh in the Caribbean brought 14 wickets each; the going was altogether tougher against South Africa this past week.
It is unlikely to get much easier anytime soon. Unless Roach’s ankle recovers in time for the Boxing Day Test in Port Elizabeth and Jerome Taylor can relocate his radar which malfunctioned so badly in Centurion, more South African heavy scoring is virtually unavoidable.
That would lay more hard labour on the beanpole Benn. As usual, he’ll be up for it.