England’s one-eyed cheerleaders

2012-07-14 00:00

YOU could be forgiven for thinking that the Wimbledon men’s final was, before, during and afterwards, all about Andy Murray. The BBC commentators, with the exception of Boris Becker, were so biased towards Murray that they were unable to offer more than a few worn words of praise for Roger Federer’s stunning performance in winning his seventh Wimbledon title. Even the woefully incompetent post-match interviewer, Sue Barker, indulged the tearful runner up with more time than the most crowned Wimbledon champion to whom she gave no opportunity to speak for himself.

During the first two sets, the main BBC commentator, Andrew Castle, spent so much time glorifying Murray while ignoring the ever commanding play of his opponent that the possibility that Federer might actually win the second set totally escaped him. Some readers might recall that Castle was one of the more hapless contestants in the show Strictly Come Dancing. It might have been better for Castle and the BBC’s own reputation if he had been ordered to listen to some of the tapes of Dan Maskell rather than footling round a dance studio for a couple of months.

Sadly, Castle is not alone among the modern British media in the jingoistic manner in which they cover sport in that country. The media there have taken it upon themselves to behave as the official cheerleaders for British athletes and teams. In their eagerness to embrace the possibility of a Murray victory, the British media completely neglected the portents of Federer’s four-set demolition of Djokovic. There was a time when readers of the better English newspapers and television viewers could rely on intelligent and objective reporting of sports events, but no longer.

The beautifully written prose is still to be found, but it is now couched in the language of the one-eyed. It is something that the South African cricketers must get used to over the remaining months of what the Poms are calling “the golden summer of British sport”, despite the oceans of rain that have fallen and are forecast to continue falling until well after the Olympic Games.

Many cricketers will tell you that they do not read the newspapers. It would be more believable if they told you that they do not read books. With very few exceptions cricketers pore over every word written about them. If England start getting the upper hand in the looming series to determine the number one ranking in world cricket, the English papers will make uncomfortable reading and viewing for our players.

They would already have had a sample of this in the barely concealed glee with which the nasty accident to Mark Boucher has been reported. Any incident, however unfortunate, that goes some way to preserving England’s number one status is to be welcomed as good news. The loss to the Proteas of “the heart of their dressing room” has been seen as such a blow to South African morale that a series win for the visitors is now regarded as much less likely.

On a different tack, one English writer wrote that South African cricketers are slow to learn from their mistakes. The subtext to this statement is that the offspring of the old colonialists, Boers and indigenous tribes are too thick to approach any task with intelligence, conveniently forgetting that southern African coaches are in charge of more than half of cricket’s Test playing teams.

Sadly, there is one example from this writer’s comments with which I agree. In 2008 the Proteas entered the first Test at Lord’s in anything but a fit and proper state to play Test cricket. Graeme Smith won the toss, sent England into bat and his attack yielded nearly 600. The batting, apart from the admirable Ashwell Prince, was abysmal and the South Africans were asked to follow on. On a dead pitch the weary English attack exhausted themselves to such an extent that some of them were no longer a factor that summer. We saved the match and won the series.

The undercooked Proteas were saved by a fortuitous combination of circumstances, but the lesson of that match has not been learnt. We go into next week’s Test with a team that has, since the end of March, played just five days’ cricket against dubious opposition. That is simply not enough to bring the even greatest talents up to speed. Remember that at home against far less exacting opposition than “the number one team in the world” (a description that our boys will have to get used to over the coming months), the Proteas have stumbled in the first Test matches of several recent series.

In a cold, wet and windy summer it will take bad weather or something of a miracle for our boys to get out unscathed from the first Test at the Oval, where we have lost all three Tests played there since 1994. In a three-Test series, which we have to win to take the number one ranking from England, the scant level of preparation that the Proteas have had amounts to a certain degree of recklessness. I am a great admirer of Gary Kirsten, but I think he has got this wrong and is, as has been written, guilty of not learning from past mistakes.

Preparation apart, my own feeling was that the difference between the two teams would be the batting of England`s lower order. It is not only the runs made by the tail that are important, but also the energy sucked out of an opposition attack that is supposed to take the 20 wickets required to win a match. I think now that the absence of Boucher will also be damaging to Protea hopes. With De Villiers keeping wicket I will be surprised if he does not fare less well than anticipated with the bat and astonished if he does not miss at least one crucial chance behind the stumps.

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