Maybe now’s the time for Smith to say I surrender

2008-02-26 00:00

THE imminent West Indies tour provides the national cricket selectors with the last opportunity to shape their team before the tough stuff starts with the tours to India, England and Australia. Thus far, they have given no indication of anything other than an insipid desire to maintain the status quo. This is an attitude that makes sense with a team that is settled and successful, but the pleasing results against New Zealand should not be taken as an indication that all is well within Smith’s team.

For a start, the opening batting has varied from uncertain to awful. Against the better teams, the consistent exposure of the team’s technically weak middle order to good bowling attacks will prove fatal. The selectors cannot expect that Jacques Kallis will consistently come to the rescue and it should be remembered of our best batsman that his record against Australia is no better than ordinary.

The problems start with the captain. One cannot doubt the strength of his mind or the role that mental toughness plays at the highest level of any endeavour, but the sad fact is that Smith’s technique is a handicap that offers too many opportunities for skilful bowlers operating with a new ball. The primary function of an opener is to see off the new ball. If he cannot do this more often than not, he is simply not performing the role for which he has been selected.

I have long likened Smith to a golfer who regularly fails to make the cut. Such golfers may have the occasional brilliant tournament, but they do not prosper in the long run. Eventually, their growing list of failures sows the seeds of doubt that infect their confidence and their ability to succeed. Wise golfers soon recognise that they need a swing that is technically sound enough to provide them with a solid platform for long-term success.

There is no evidence that Smith has taken the time out to remodel his game, with the consequence that he continues to suffer repeated early dismissals, brought about by a poor grip and a bat that perpetually wanders off the perpendicular. That he has had some success as an opener is undeniable, but the trend of his recent performances is downwards as the best bowlers in the world learn to deal with his strengths and exploit his faults. Smith should remember that even Tiger Woods has twice taken time off to remodel his swing.

As an aside, Mickey Arthur could do a lot worse than sit all his charges in front of a video starring Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, the two Sri Lankan batsmen currently in such sublime form. Both have such neat, precise footwork and perfectly straight bats that they are not only a joy to watch, but also an object lesson in the art of batting.

When one adds the rich but infuriatingly wayward talents of Herschelle Gibbs to the opening mix, the team has the classical glory or bust opening partnership. Theirs is an opening partnership that does not measure up to the basic requirement of regularly providing a foundation for the rest of the batting. The great success that they have had in the past is just that. It is in the past and the time has come to recognise that the talents of at least one of them might be better deployed elsewhere in the batting order.

I would start with the captain himself and bat him at No. 5 in place of Ashwell Prince who is struggling to impose himself in a position that requires more aggression from its occupant. I do not like the juxtaposition of Kallis and Prince in the batting order as the two of them often bring the game to a standstill. Prince, in particular, falls back deep in the crease, thus limiting his attacking options and making him easy to contain.

I am sure that Smith would find batting a more lucrative pastime in the middle of the order, where his physical strength would be more likely to find expression and his technical weaknesses given a measure of protection from the new ball.

There is also the matter of allowing him some respite between captaining a team on the field and opening the batting. Smith is a resilient character, but the wear and tear of Test captaincy is bound to affect his readiness to open the batting. One should also remember that he has now been in the job for four years, which is a longish time for one who is still comfortably on the right side of 30.

“Demoting” the captain would leave the selectors with the problem of finding a replacement opener. It may be that they feel that no such batsman currently suggests himself, but until they try they will be none the wiser. Boeta Dippenaar is full of runs and now at that age, 30, when maturity enhances talent. If he is not invited soon he may be inclined to look elsewhere. It is also worth remembering that the fast-learning Jacques Rudolph is still only 26. If this scorer of a wonderful century against Australia is to be rescued from any notion of qualifying for England, the selectors need to move sooner rather than later.

Thus, it is not as though the selectors are short of options. It may be that they do not want to confront the problem of omitting Ashwell Prince, particularly now that Makhaya Ntini’s position in the team is less secure than it was. Prince is a good enough batsman to be kept in the squad, but he would have to vie with the talented but unpredictable AB de Villiers for the number six spot. The more attacking option, of course, would be to pick AB, but with a tail starting at number eight this might be a stretch too far for selectors short on both political and playing courage.

As I have written before, if Shaun Pollock is not played at either the Wanderers or Centurion, one wonders if he has any role left in this Test team? I cannot see South Africa’s most successful bowler wanting to hang round the team carrying the drinks unless he is assured of playing when the conditions can be expected to suit him. I am certain that he will be needed in England, but will he get a Test match this summer? The team’s management talk of keeping the fast bowlers fresh, but locking Pollock in cold storage will not do much for either his confidence or his form.

In any case, the selectors will want to give Morné Morkel a run as soon as he is match fit, whenever that is. Despite his batting, which has some way to go before he can be looked upon to add some ballast to the empty tail, Morkel is seen as the future all-rounder that the balance of the team requires. Therefore, if Pollock does not play in Durban, it may well be that the greatest wicket-taker in South Africa’s cricket history and one of its best all-rounders has played his last Test match in this country without so much as a “thanks for coming”.

On a brighter note, look out this weekend for the Warrior’s debut of Jon-Jon Smuts. This young man was a prolific schoolboy batsman and is coming off scores of 252 and 110 not out in a match against Boland under-19. Those who have seen Smuts bat reckon that he is something special.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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