Inglorious rise to the top

2014-08-02 00:00

IT was an inglorious rise to the summit after a match that was played by the Proteas with the ambition only of avoiding defeat. Certainly it was not a good toss to lose and the Sri Lankans made good use of what was initially a perfect batting pitch to rack up a match-winning total.

That the home side failed to win the match was partly due to some obdurate batting by the Proteas who were helped in their cause by poor weather. The Sri Lankans, however, must be pondering the wisdom of leaving South Africa a target that was way beyond their reach. By doing so they reduced the time available in which to claim the 10 wickets they needed for the victory that would have squared the series.

They also condemned the South Africans to the outright defence that was resolute enough to stave off defeat. In the end it was a close-run thing and a good advertisement for the longer form of the game that permits the thrilling draws such as this match was. It was not a pretty performance by the Proteas but good Test teams need to be able to avoid losing matches when their opponents play well enough to win.

That they did so on this occasion must have been a source of satisfaction to Hashim Amla, who led by example with an undefeated century that was all but half the total of his team’s first innings total. He alone looked untroubled on a pitch that gave considerable assistance to the Sri Lankan spinners. Others in the team batted bravely for long periods but one always felt that for them it was only a matter of time before they fell whereas Amla’s defence looked impenetrable.

For Amla this was an important innings that not only saved his team but also showed them that he can lead from the front. He will play more fluent innings for his country but he demonstrated last week that for the time being the burden of captaincy sits lightly upon his shoulders.

This may not last if he is compelled to play too many lone hands such as he did in Colombo. In this regard one wonders just how much longer the selectors are going to tolerate the soft dismissals that have become so characteristic of the batting of Alviro Petersen. This is an opener who has made several important contributions with the bat but mostly we remember the growing number of times that he has presented his wicket to the opposition after making decent starts.

This tendency has been frustrating for his supporters because they know he has the talent to do much better. His last two efforts have been more annoying because he contrived to give his wicket away almost as soon as he got to the crease. It appeared that his mind was nowhere near the task at hand. His early dismissals made life all the more difficult for his colleagues and contributed to the negative mindset that infected the batting of the entire team with the notable exception of the captain.

Petersen is now rising 34 years of age, which means that he has reached that age beyond which many opening batsmen find the going becomes more difficult as their reflexes slow that fatal half second.

The Proteas are moving through a fallow period of Test cricket. All that lies ahead until the end of our next summer is a lone match against Zimbabwe and a three-match home series against the Windies. It might be a good time to blood someone such as Stian van Zyl who has been on the fringe of selection for some time. It is not very realistic to assume that Petersen will still be in the frame at the end of 2015.

The other worry is obviously the spin bowling. Imran Tahir had a poor series and I think an opportunity was missed not to have given Dane Peidt a start in Sri Lanka. He could not have done worse than Tahir and almost certainly would have given Amla some control over affairs on the field in both Sri Lankan innings.

For all that Russell Domingo must be reasonably satisfied with his charges. The captain got away to a good start and most of the other players can reflect on a job well done. Steyn looked back to his best and Morkel made important strides forward. Philander had little luck with the ball but his batting has become an important part of his ability as a Test cricketer.

Across the world the England captain, Alastair Cook, has responded to substantial pressure by bloody mindedly digging in to his crease and resolutely refusing to bow down to calls for him to resign from the captaincy. The charges against him have been led by a coterie of former Test captains, all of whom either retired completely or gave up the captaincy when the going got too tough.

That these fellows should have led a campaign to persuade Cook to stand down smacks of an unhealthy dose of self justification when they should have been motivated to inspire Cook to do what they had been unable to do, that is, stick it out. It says much for Cook’s character that he did not allow pundits with their own baggage to undermine him. One hopes that he now begins to be more appreciated both by his team and a sour bunch of past captains.

Cook, it should be remembered also, got off to a flying start as captain when he scored a mountain of runs and led a winning team. His intermediate fate is a reminder to Amla that critics are a fickle lot whose opinions are settled nowhere close to the ground. When the bad times come as they surely will, Amla is best advised to stay true to the course that has always served him well.

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