Changes in the making

2013-12-14 00:00

IT was ironic that, after the series loss to Pakistan, the Proteas’ one-day side had more problems about whom to leave out than who to play. Usually such a loss means that some players fall off the bus but one could not think of any member of the squad who was in imminent danger of being left behind.

This state of affairs has been upended after the two huge victories that won the series against the number-one ranked ODI team, almost before the general public was aware that the Indians were in the country.

The first casualty has been the much-admired captain of the Test team, Graeme Smith, who was left out of the Wanderers game and then released from the squad after the precocious Quinton de Kock played with such maturity and panache in a match-winning century on his home ground.

That De Kock should have reprised that effort a few days later in the second match against the Indians may have sealed Smith’s absence from the next World Cup in early 2015.

It was only a few weeks ago that many critics felt that Smith, along with Kallis, would form the spine of the Proteas next attempt to win an ICC trophy. Nobody was ready to contemplate a squad without one of these two great players but now some people are beginning to realise that neither of them may make it to Australia and New Zealand.

Of course, there is still some way to go before Andrew Hudson and his fellow selectors name their players for the World Cup, and much could change before then. In the meantime, however, Smith is out of the picture and Kallis has moved to the fringes of the team.

Smith’s surprising fall from his position at the top of the order has been due as much to his own poor form as to the rise of De Kock. There is a feeling that the opposition bowlers in one-day cricket have learnt how to restrain Smith’s scoring.

In this game, the fields tend to be more defensive than in Test cricket and Smith’s favourite scoring areas have been well-patrolled. The consequent limitation of his run rate has increased the pressure on Smith, resulting in a dip in his performances

Much now depends on the continued form of De Kock, who has made important strides this season with bat and gloves, but sterner tests than those posed by Pakistan and India await him before he receives the all clear.

It is obvious and correct that the selectors want him to relieve A.B. de Villiers from the burden of keeping wicket. That he has the potential to be a lethal batsman anywhere in the order is an important bonus, but it should be remembered that he is very young and his cricket is still a work in progress. A lot is expected of him if he is to secure a place in the World Cup team, but the risk to get him there is worth taking. His batting against India has revealed a maturity and fluency beyond his years, and is the reward, I understand, of many hours spent in the nets with Adrian Birrell.

That De Kock has been prepared to put in the hard work necessary to improve his cricket speaks well of the young man’s desire and discipline. His improvement this season may be bad news for Smith, but it has certainly been an exciting development. It is too early to speak of De Kock in the same class as Adam Gilchrist, but it should be remembered that the Australian was in his late 20s before he made an impact in international cricket.

Let us not get too far ahead of ourselves, but we should not be surprised if the selectors have begun to use a light pencil against De Kock’s name for a place in the Test team.

One of the problems of the matches against Pakistan seemed to be the inability of most of the batsmen, not including De Kock who made a century in the Gulf, to play match-winning innings. Too often good starts were not converted into scores of substance. There also seemed to be a general unawareness of the dangers of leaving the job to be finished off by those who go to the crease in the closing moments of an innings.

Thankfully, these issues seem to have been addressed within the team, who looked like a liberated unit against the Indians. If the Proteas are to prosper in the next World Cup, the batsmen must evolve into a core of reliable game breakers.

This brings one to Kallis, who is leaving it rather late to get into some kind of form. Prior to the third ODI, his total haul for the summer was fewer than 100 runs. This seems to be taking too far the desire to rest his body for greater things. The danger is that once the idea takes root that he is no longer an essential presence in the one-day team, it may become a difficult thought to dislodge.

There is a lot to be said for playing young cricketers who are hungry for success, rather than relying too long on those whose reputations are entrenched. Accordingly, this summer may be the last opportunity for Smith and Kallis to show that they still have the determination to play a role in the one-day team. This summer is nearly half done, yet the pair of them have played little cricket. Most athletes will tell you that the older they get, the more regularly they should play. We know that Kallis is a different kind of animal, but his many supporters would like to see him finish this season with a bucketful of runs. His sabbatical, even though it has been punctuated by a couple of appearances, has lasted long enough.

Smith’s problem is different; somehow he needs to find a way back into the ODI squad.

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