Close to the top

2008-04-13 00:00

FED on a diet of pushovers for the past year, the South African cricket team’s true worth has been partially hidden from view by the flabby performances of its opposition. During the early part of this fast-receding summer, some of us were concerned that the better teams would be able to exploit a shallow batting line-up, that even the weaker teams were able to undermine by quickly removing the opening batsmen. Although the bowling was sharpened by the form of Steyn, Ntini looked out of sorts and Pollock’s legendary status was unable to save his place in the team. Morne Morkel was injured for the domestic Test season, and we wondered how the attack would fare against top-class batting orders such as that possessed by India.

A few good days of Test match cricket do not make a great cricket team, but it is no longer possible to look at the Proteas with a clutch of reservations. From top to bottom, this looks like a team that is capable of beating the best the world has to offer. The main difference is that a sound platform has been laid by the opening batsmen, in contrast to the jittery starts that were set in motion by the poor form of Herschelle Gibbs.

It took considerable courage for the selectors to discard a batsman of Gibbs’s talent. For so long he has been one of their bankers, both as a batsman and as a player of colour, so leaving him out was bound to cause all sorts of repercussions. It would have been easy for Joubert Strydom to have yielded his ground in his battle to replace Gibbs with Neil McKenzie, but he held firm. He must now feel both satisfied and vindicated that he refused to blink in the face of Norman Arendse’s obdurate insistence that McKenzie should not be in the South African squad.

The Proteas’ stunning three-day defeat of the Indians in their own back yard has elevated them into the position of number one challenger to the Australians. It just remains for them to finish the job in India with a series win. Last week’s demolition of the Indians is no guarantee of success in Kanpur, where the conditions are likely to suit the home team.

As we know, too, cricket is a funny game in which massive victories one week can be quickly replaced by defeats. In all three of their tours to England since 1992, the South Africans inflicted large defeats on England in an early Test at Lords, and failed in each case to come home with a series win. Such failures confirmed that all three of those teams lacked the all-round ability to be the best in the world. The emerging belief that Smith’s team has just about got all bases covered will be confirmed if India are put away again this weekend.

Several factors have encouraged the optimism that we should be feeling about the Proteas. The first is that the batsmen are beginning to score big hundreds. On this autumnal jaunt to the subcontinent, only Prince and Kallis have not made scores in excess of 150. Kallis can be excused for his “failure” to get past 132 as it was his innings that set the team on the road to a winning total in Ahmedebad. It was this ability, of batsmen who got in to score big hundreds, that set the Australians apart for such a long time.

The second encouraging sign is that Ntini is getting back to the form that made him the third-highest Test wicket-taker in South African history. With Steyn rampant at the other end, Ntini back in wicket-taking mode and Morkel bowling sharp, lifting deliveries at 150 clicks an hour, the attack is formidable. Throw in the abilities of Kallis to take priceless wickets, and Harris to shut an end for long periods and you have an attack that will be found wanting only on slow turners.

What has really impressed me, however, has been the marvellous catching of those in the slip cordon. Almost everything that moves is caught. Have we ever had a better threesome in the slips than Smith, Kallis and De Villiers? McKenzie, too, is no slouch behind the wicket and Boucher misses very little. It makes such a difference to the confidence of the bowlers to know that any chance they generate will almost certainly be caught.

It is to the credit of Mickey Arthur that he has put such a sharp team on to the field. It is not easy to stand in the slips during a long partnership, such as that between Sehwag and Dravid in Chennai, but both batsmen were dismissed by a couple of excellent catches from the first chance that either of them offered. The ground fielding is consistently good and often brilliant. Sitting in the Indian dressing room, Gary Kirsten must have been depressed at the obvious difference in the field between the performance of his charges and that of his former team-mates.

Even though the pitch in Kanpur is certain to favour the Indians, we can expect another strong showing by the South Africans in a series that has been full of interest. This team has a look about it that suggests every step is now part of a staircase to higher things.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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