Let the good times roll

2009-04-17 00:00

NOW that the one-day series against the Australians has been wrapped up, Mickey Arthur and the selectors may permit themselves a brief moment of satisfaction.

The victory itself was not that important, although it confirmed South Africa’s position at the top of the ODI rankings. The truth is that these Aussies have been a poor one-day team bereft of opening and middle-order batsmen, any spin bowlers and a good fast bowler to complement the overworked Mitchell Johnson. This particular Australian team would be hard-pressed to beat any of the teams ranked below them, excluding only the Bangladeshis and the poverty-stricken Zimbabweans.

The main mission of the Australians was to avenge the Test series loss back home. Having done that it seems that they decided to use the one-day series to see which of their reserve players could make the step up to the international game. The answer they received will not have warmed their hearts. Of the relative newcomers, Haddin alone has confirmed his ability to make an impact in 50-over cricket. Of the rest, only Callum Ferguson and the other Hussey are likely to get another chance.

What will have alarmed the Aussies was the failure of the two Michaels, Hussey and Clarke, to lift their games commensurately with their increased responsibilities. When the key batsmen fail on top of a dismal showing by the newcomers it is easy to see that Ponting had an impossible job on his hands, despite his growing reputation as a world-class tosser. It did not help the team that he, too, was far from his best with the bat.

Yet, a team can only play against those who turn up on the day. Apart from an opening blaps at Kingsmead, the Proteas did all that could have been expected of them by winning the next three matches with ease on the back of impressive performances by both the old stagers and the newcomers.

What must have pleased those who are managing the fortunes of the Proteas towards the next World Cup in India, has been the new-found ability of this team to control matters with spin bowling. Johan Botha’s skill confounded the Aussies who were unable to get after him, despite a number of concerted efforts to do so. His mastery of pace, length and bounce has made him the most formidable bowler at Smith’s disposal.

That Botha’s action has once again come under suspicion is unsurprising. To the naked eye it is far from pure. Cynics will suggest that now is the time for Cricket SA’s friendship with India to pay dividends. In the past any questions relating to the actions of any of their bowlers have been ruthlessly dealt with by the subcontinent mafia.

South Africans, however, should expect no help from that quarter in straightening out Botha’s problem. India’s benevolence does not extend beyond the interests of subcontinent teams. It will be entirely up to Botha to fix the kinks in his action without destroying his effectiveness. The Proteas’ World Cup campaign may well depend on how successful he is at meeting this latest challenge to his career.

Until this season, Botha has been the lone spinner operating amongst a worrying mix of quickies, but now his captain can look towards not only the talented Duminy for some spin, but also to the refreshingly enthusiastic Roelof van der Merwe.

Van der Merwe was the outstanding performer in the domestic one-day season and he has been able to make a seamless transition to international cricket where he seemed immediately at ease. Like Botha, he has good control of the essential variations of spin bowling, but he has the added virtue of being able to bowl well at the death of an innings. Against the Australians this particular skill was not required, but with the fast bowlers not showing much aptitude in keeping control at this crucial stage of an innings one can expect Van der Merwe to be doing some of this difficult work in future matches.

Botha and Van der Merwe are also excellent fielders and dangerous batsmen. In other words, both are the kind of all-rounders who lend balance to one-day teams. It was Peter Pollock and Bob Woolmer’s maxim that South African one-day teams should contain 11 players who were proficient at a minimum of two disciplines and nine of whom were competent batsmen.

The present team more than fills that template laid down by those wise men. Such is its all round virtuosity that there may even be a case for including Paul Harris in the one-day squad with an eye on the 2011 World Cup, where three or four spinners in the team may be no bad thing. One would rather have Harris aboard than an iffy fast medium bowler who could easily turn into cannon fodder under subcontinent conditions.

The season has ended with the promise of better things to come. With Makhaya’s great career tailing off, the stocks in the fast bowling cupboard are lower than one would like, but Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell offer enough potential to keep us interested. A good winter’s work from these two and the right remedy for Botha’s kink is what the Proteas need to keep enhancing their ODI mix for 2011.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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