It's all in the mind, Graeme, it's all in the mind

2008-08-29 00:00

AMBITION is a critical factor in every sporting outfit. A team must crave success as a chicken does grain. Defeat must hurt more than any mere blow. Once ambition wanes, the slide begins and it is the devil’s own work to stop it. Morale is everything in sport. After all, it is a form of combat. To walk on to the field with compromised thoughts is to leave it with head bowed. Victory goes to the single-minded. It has never been easy to win let, alone to keep winning. Losing is the easy part.

As a cricketer, I had the fortune to play in the most successful teams raised by two counties, Somerset and Devon. All sorts of differences could be found between them, but they had in common a burning desire to prevail. Somerset eventually fell apart as bad habits set in. By then, the cider county had lifted five cups, the first it had secured in its colourful existence. Devon’s streak of success began in 1991 and is still going strong — the minor county has just won another final at Lord’s. Actually it is not a streak, but a culture. Somerset faded and could not return to the top till the entire stable had been cleansed. Devon retained their pride and 17 years later still dominates their competition.

South Africa have lacked ambition on their tour of England and hereafter will suffer the consequences. Winning a Test series in England for the first time since Graeme Pollock smashed the bowlers all around Nottingham in 1965 was a fine performance. Rightly, the team celebrated and its praises were sung. After a few days rest, though, it was important to get back to work. Instead, the players went walkabout. As much could be seen for the defeat at the Oval.

Suddenly, batsmen were swishing away outside off-stick or lifting catches to cover. Far from kicking their prostrate opponents, they assisted in their resurgence. Obviously the new captain also inspired England, but he must have expected stiffer resistance.

Admittedly, dead rubbers can flatten the spirit. Australia lost plenty of them until Steve Waugh challenged his players by publicly calling for a clean sweep before a series had begun. He refined success, wanting his players to strive till the last ball. South Africa should have learnt from that but instead let laziness creep in. It is an insidious vice and, unless checked, will prevent the team realising its potential.

Graeme Smith’s team have played abysmally in the 50-over matches. Even beforehand, the captain was saying that his players were tired of life on the road. That is not good enough.

Virender Sehwag used to think along those lines, and for a couple of seasons it cost him his place in the Indian side. Bad attitudes can spread faster than the flu. Strong teams do not allow themselves to think negatively. The mind can be conquered. Indeed, that is the primary challenge of sport. Champions rise from their beds determined to win again. A properly motivated side does not allow weak thoughts to linger. Such outlooks are the province of the doomed.

Far from recovering rapidly from the loss in London, the slump has continued. As a matter of urgency, the visitors need to get back on track. It is vital to end a tour on a high note. A birdie on the last hole can lift even the most downcast spirits. Otherwise the team will come home not in triumph, but turmoil It’s not much of a way to start a campaign that includes two meetings with the Australians.

The Aussies understand the dangers of complacency and it’s hard to imagine themselves slipping so far so fast. Not that Australia is the model for everything. Apparently, it has the world’s largest area of uncivilised terrain. Surprise has been expressed that any of the continent is considered civilised. But the Aussies never play limply.

Occasionally, they lose matches and sometimes series, but they fight back. Nor do they tolerate talk of tiredness. Warriors have walked across deserts, pensioners have finished Comrades marathons. It is not for healthy sportsmen to complain. Professionalism is not about payments. It’s about remaining fresh.

Unless results improve, South Africa must change direction. After losing in the early rounds of the last World Cup, India dropped most of its old guard. As a result, the team started playing with vim and vigour. Smith needs younger men around him, sharper in the field and between wickets, eager for the fray.

AB De Villiers can guard the stumps, Hashim Amla can play and clodhoppers and mild spinners can be sent packing. The selectors might also reflect on the gap left by Shaun Pollock. All the evidence suggests that he should have been the last of his generation to be replaced, not the first.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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