Careless cricket

2012-12-22 00:00

AT the height of summer, it is barely credible that the number one ranked cricket side in the world will have had nothing to do for a full month. I am sure that the Protea entourage have been delighted with this unexpected opportunity to spend an extended holiday with their families after a mildly arduous year, but their extended vacation has done nothing to kindle interest among the growing supporters of cricket in South Africa.

It is daft that the Proteas have had zero chance to play in front of home crowds in the same year that they achieved their elevated status. It is hoped that a measure of common sense has returned to the administration of cricket since the end of the Majola era and that the scheduling anomalies of this year will be seen as a one-off aberration.

Perhaps one can use this mid-summer lull as an excuse to provide some perspective on the recent trip down under, where a moderate Australian side was defeated one-nil in a three-match series. The first comment that needs to be made is that the extraordinary batting of Michael Clarke, and to a lesser extent of Michael Hussey, masked the deficiencies of an otherwise ordinary Aussie batting line-up. When both failed, as they did in Perth, the match was lost.

This can happen in a three-match series, but what was revealing is how ordinary and defenceless the Proteas looked while these two were plundering Graeme Smith’s attack in the first two Tests. One can argue that there were extenuating circumstances with the injuries to Philander and Kallis, as well as the dreadful form of Tahir. But it should not be overlooked that Dale Steyn was also a long way off his best bowling.

The concern is that Steyn’s bowling may be headed towards a permanently lower standard of performance. The features that made him such a lethal bowler have been searing pace and a deadly accurate late out-swinger, combined with the ability to move the ball into the right- handers with the old ball. This is the stuff of batting nightmares and that contributed to his remarkable strike rate. In Australia, his pace was down, his out-swinger was only sporadic and his in-swinger was pretty well on leave.

In other words, Steyn looked like another ordinary, not-so-fast bowler for much of the trip. Clarke and Hussey played him as such, which was much more worrying than the absence of Philander and the incompetence of Tahir. For seven fruitful years, Steyn has been the great provider for Smith, but unless he recovers his most potent weaponry, he could be morphing into something with a longer life, but less deadly.

I would have thought that is a change that no one other than opposing batsmen want to see happen. If Allan Donald is to earn his keep as a bowling coach, one hopes that he is using this hiatus in activity to work with Steyn on recovering his best form. I have often wondered how smart it is for a fast bowler like Steyn to be plying his trade within the bowels of the IPL. It is obviously very lucrative for him, but what does it do for a fast bowler’s ego to watch nothing and to lose batsmen smashing you all over the place in contests that lack any meaningful context?

So my first hope for the New Year is to see Steyn back to his best against the Kiwis.

Gary Kirsten could not have been that pleased with some of the careless cricket played by his leading batsmen during the Australian series. Alviro Pieterson ought to have had a great series, but he continually contrived to present his wicket to the Aussies when well set with the result that he failed to produce the telling innings that leads to a massive score for the team. This has long been a weakness of his and one he needs to fix before someone comes along to usurp his place in the team.

It is criminal for top-order batsmen to be run out. This has happened three times in the last six Test matches, and each time it has halted the momentum of the innings and given the opposition a wicket that they did not look like taking. The best teams do not make a gift of wickets to their opponents. So please let us have no more run-outs and not any involving Hashim Amla.

Much as I dislike the three-match series against the better Test teams, I think that this year’s shorter series suited us. If this team is to sustain a decent run at the top, it will have to find a number of reserve bowlers who can move seamlessly into the highest level of the game. There are a few quicks of promise among the provinces and it might not do any harm to bring them closer to the national squad.

The challenges facing Gary Kirsten are of no great magnitude, but his frustration may be that there is little immediate need for his team to make those small improvements, which should transform the Proteas into a ruthlessly efficient unit.

The New Zealanders cannot be expected to offer much resistance in their two Tests and, thereafter, come the Pakistanis, whose recent tours to South Africa have descended into a shambles of poor discipline and suspect fitness.

England, the main rival for the crown, will not be confronted for several years, by which time the respective strengths of the two teams are unlikely to have changed in favour of the Proteas.

It is clear, however, that Faf du Plessis and Robin Peterson have improved the balance and fielding of the team, which should look forward to 2013 with great confidence.

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