55 cm or close on two feet. That was the distance by which Bob Beamon, competing in the 1968 Olympic long jump final in Mexico City (altitude 2240 meters above sea level), smashed the world record.
The jump was of such unanticipated length that it was beyond the range of the optical measuring mechanism and an old fashioned tape measure had to found to record the distance of 29 feet, 2.5 inches.
That day, no other jumper got near Beamon and his record stood for 23 years.
Johannesburg, where the second Test in the two match series between South Africa and Australia began five days ago, is located on the high veld at 1750 m.
At these heights the air is thinner and resistance lower. Hits go further, balls go quicker and they swing later. But as the Beamon jump indicates, the effects of altitude are neither consistent nor predictable. It’s cricket with altitude.
Things are made even less easy in November as patchy weather can make it difficult for groundsmen to get their preparations right and changeable cloud coverage add to the potential for sideways movement.
No surprise then that 33 wickets have fallen in four days and that there have so far only been four significant partnerships in the match – one per innings.
In SA’s first innings of 266, de Villiers and Prince put on 112 runs and their last six wickets fell for 15. Australia’s openers Watson (88) and Hughes (88) posted 174 but the remaining batsmen could only muster 122 more to them a slender lead of 30 runs.
In the third innings of the match, Amla (105) and deVilliers (73) scored 147 together in the side’s total of 339 which asked Australia to make an extremely competitive 310 to win.
The visitors were in deep trouble at 19 for 2 before Khawaja (65) and Ponting (not out 54) set the match up for a gripping final day with a partnership of 122.
It has therefore been a match of four partnerships interspersed between calamitous conditions – matching the comings and goings of sun and cloud.
Only now on the fifth morning has play been disrupted by rain and, with an hour needed get the players on the field once the rain stops to, Australia’s time to get the 168 runs they need to level the series is shrinking as fast as a woollen vest washed on Programme 8 – Stubborn Steyns (sic).
For spectators now inured to fielders throwing in on-the-bounce to scuff the ball for reverse swing, the clue has been that not a single throw from anywhere, from any player of either side has bounced before being carefully pouched and buffed in the specially designed soft kidskin-covered gloves of Boucher and Haddin.
Back in the hands of Steyn (career strike rate of a wicket every 39 balls – someway better that that for any other bowler having taken over 200 Test wickets), Philander (who in 2006 when playing for Rishton – altitude 75 m or 250 feet – in the Lancashire League made very little impression but who, at 5741 feet above sea level, is bowling beautifully), Morkel and Kallis, the Kookaburra has swung and seamed to the consternation of the batsmen.
For the Australians, Cummins, the 18 year old debutant playing in only his fourth first class match took 6 for 79 in 29 overs in a spectacular third innings performance to realise the promise held out by his highly creditable 1 for 38 in 15 first innings overs.
Siddle has beaten the edge on numerous occasions and even Johnson using a very short run and bowling in the 130s was able to make life difficult for the batsmen.
But to the credit of the groundsman, the wicket has also helped the spinners with Lyons (an in-drifting off-spinner) taking important wickets in both innings, the under-bowled Clarke picking up two wickets and Tahir, after a nervous start, demolishing the Australian tail in the first innings and breaking a potentially matching winning partnership when finding Khawaja’s outside edge with a googly the left hander hadn’t read.
So … everyone waits for the rain to stop and for what could be a suitably competitive end to a match-up as compelling as any Olympic final.
It’s been cricket at maximum altitude with maximum attitude.