Dull Proteas hang onto top ranking

2014-08-16 00:00

I AM indebted to a letter in the latest edition of the Spectator for enlightenment on the distinction between a sport and a game.

This is something that I have often wondered about without ever seeing an authoritative comment upon the difference between two words that usage appears to have rendered interchangeable.

According to Johnny Leavesley from Staffordshire, a sport is something that a gentleman can do while smoking. Thus fishing, shooting, billiards and golf are sports whereas all forms of football, racquets and cricket are games. I had always thought that proper sport should have an element of physical risk but I appear to have been mistaken.

I raise the matter because it may be that we have just seen the dullest Test match that actually ended in a result and not a draw. I refer, of course, to the mostly dreary affair that took place this week between South Africa and Zimbabwe. For long periods this match was so devoid of incident, particularly when the Proteas were batting, that one would not have been surprised if the “tobacco farmers” had not broken open a packet of fags while standing in the slips and started smoking.

In the end the brave but limited home team did not manage to stretch the match into a fifth day but showed enough enterprise and determination to suggest that they belong in the lower echelon of Test match cricket. Whether the other inhabitants of cricket’s nether region and those countries still on the fringes of Test cricket agree is another matter about which cricket’s new order probably cares not a jot.

Although they won easily enough this was not a comfortable match for the Proteas. Too much of their cricket was not worthy of their number one ranking. They struggled to dismiss an ordinary batting line-up and wound up relying too much on Dale Steyn and the debutant Dane Piedt who finished the match with a combined haul of 15 wickets. Philander once again struggled on a pitch that offered him little of the assistance that he seems to require to be effective.

Piedt will be pleased with his seven wickets on a pitch that offered him considerable turn from the outset. One felt a bit sorry for Imran Tahir who would have enjoyed bowling at inexperienced batsmen on a turning pitch. It would have been a wiser decision to play Tahir instead of Philander in the conditions set out for this match and slightly disappointing that the selectors did not see fit to depart from their traditional template in the face of the circumstances that confronted them.

There was much to enjoy about the bowling of Piedt who found a pitch to his liking but I was a little disturbed to see what little use he makes of his left arm during his delivery action. It is the proper use of the left arm and pivot off the front leg that enables an off-spinner to obtain the subtle differences in flight that are necessary for the deception of good batsmen. A lazy left arm makes it easy for batsmen to pick the length of any delivery.

It is worrying that Piedt should pitch up in the Test side with an action that requires a fair amount of modification if he is to become a top-flight spinner. It makes one wonder about the quality of coaching at provincial and junior levels. Nevertheless there is enough promise within Piedt to hope that with the proper guidance he will develop into a good Test bowler.

The batting of the South Africans was far too stodgy in their first innings. They allowed the Zimbabwean spinners to settle into long spells by relying too much on defence. It is always easier to bat with an attacking mindset even on slow turning pitches. A few blows over the top invariably result in a widespread field from which singles are easily taken.

This was perfectly illustrated in the Zimbabwe second innings by Mutumbani who batted with enterprise and purpose in the most entertaining batting of the match. I remain unconvinced that Faf du Plessis should bat at number three. He is not the best batsman in the team and lacks the stroke play to get his team off to the kind of fluent starts that are necessary to make runs quickly enough to win Test matches against better teams.

I also think that JP Duminy is wasted down the order at number seven. He scores more freely than Du Plessis and is much more likely to score runs against good bowlers than De Kock at this stage of the youngster’s career. JP is batting as well as he has ever done and should be given a chance to make the big scores that will elude him if he continues to bat with the tail.

It is three months before the Proteas play another Test match and it is to be hoped that they resolve in the interim to play a more exciting brand of cricket. It would be a pity if their number one ranking became a burden to be protected rather than a stimulus to play better cricket than their rivals.

In the mean time, the Indians have suffered successive defeats against a rejuvenated England team. So poor were they that under a different order they would have been warned for not trying and reminded that their ability to warrant four and five Test match series against the best teams could be brought under scrutiny.

That, of course, will not happen. What is of concern is that Test cricket is not in good shape. The top countries have not refuelled their teams following the retirement of so many giants of the game. This is why teams like the Proteas must recognise the need to play entertaining cricket. If they hang on to the top ranking with a succession of dour performances, they may find that the prize is not worth having.

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