Decision time

2009-03-27 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s crushing victory at Newlands said little about the respective strengths of the two contestants. It certainly put an emphatic full stop to an enthralling summer of proper cricket and hopefully an end to these three-Test match series that have blighted the contests between South Africa and Australia ever since resumption. Even the dimmest of shortsighted administrators must realise that four Test matches should be the minimum quota for series between the two countries. A three-match series gives too much advantage to the team winning the first Test and lends an increased possibility to the curse of a dead rubber.

That both the hosts should have lost their own series served to illustrate that there was not much difference between the two teams. Strangely, it was the visitors in each tour that seemed more up for the Tests than the home team. Too much should never be read into the final match of a dead rubber, but it was curious that changes to a settled side seemed to produce better performances for the home teams both at Sydney and in Cape Town.

Certainly, the Proteas went into the Newlands Test with a line-up that looked set to fail. It was no secret that Prince’s overdue return to the team was accompanied by a lingering resentment on his part at his treatment from the team’s management. He was also a little peeved that none of his team-mates had been prepared to move out of their comfort zones to accommodate him in the Test match side once he had recovered from injury.

There was an interesting moment during Australia’s prolonged second innings when captain for the match Kallis left the field with an injury. By all rights, the job of on-the-field captain should have been handed to Prince, who had not only been the original appointee for the match, but is still the official vice captain of the team. Yet Kallis gave the role to Boucher, the long-serving consiglierie of the team’s Mother City mafia. Prince’s face as Kallis left the field reflected little pleasure at this turn of events.

As it was, Prince had to accept a role as opener and performed it with all the grit, determination and considerable skill that his batting has accumulated in recent years. His was the performance that established the foundation for the massive score that proved too much for the Australians.

It emphasised that he should never have been left out of the team irrespective of the wishes of coach and captain.

It also highlighted a poor start by Mike Procter to his term of office. If selectors are to have a meaningful role in the picking of teams, they must be able to divorce themselves from sticky sentiment. Their role is to take the hard decisions that those too close to the team are not prepared to face. Their failure to do so removes their very reason for being.

Apart from the Prince saga, the team for Newlands contained a debutant who showed that he was not up to it with either the bat or in the field and a pair of fast bowlers who contributed very little to the final victory. That Imraan Kahn will be sent back to his province with just one Test to his name is sad for him, but no problem for the national team. In the short term, Smith will return to the top of the order and further out there are several classy young batsmen waiting to mature.

The fast bowling is much more of a problem. Albie Morkel did well with the bat, and his lone wicket, that of Ponting, was an important one, but at no stage did he really look the part of a Test match bowler. His brother, for whom a winter without cricket has come at the right time for a spell of remedial work, is a better bet for the future. The selectors dare not be seduced by the better batting of Albie unless he can find a higher gear for his bowling.

If Procter and his panel have acquired an appetite for tough decisions after Newlands it is just as well because the no small matter of Ntini awaits them. Makhaya is poised on 99 Test matches and everyone in South African cricket will want to see him reach a milestone achieved only by the few and great. It would be hard-hearted in the extreme to deny this most iconic of all South African cricketers the chance to play in a hundredth Test match.

The most recent evidence, however, suggests that Ntini is at the fag-end of his brilliant career.

As a new ball bowler, he made few early breakthroughs during this past summer. He still runs in hard, but that relentless pace and accuracy that brought him so much success has fallen away into something more defensive and less penetrative. The torrent of wickets that marked his best days has fallen to a trickle.

The next Test matches are against England, who may be fresh from an Ashes victory. It is important that our best team is chosen, but from the evidence of the recent series that should not include Ntini if there is anyone ready to replace him. His and the selectors’ saving grace may be that such an individual is not yet apparent.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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