No mantle of superiority

2009-03-20 00:00

SOURCES close to the national cricket team are saying that the boys are displeased with the pitches presented to them at the Wanderers and Kingsmead.

This dissatisfaction has arisen despite the fact that the pitch at the Wanderers was regarded by many as one that encouraged excellent cricket. In fact Mark Nicholas, the knowledgeable and articulate commentator from England, has described it as the best Test pitch that he has seen.

While this may have been a typical piece of hyperbole from a man with a thespian upbringing, the Wanderers and Kingsmead pitches served up a couple of compelling Test matches in sharp contrast to the boring run feasts recently produced by dire featherbeds in both the Caribbean and Pakistan. Both these matches ended near tea on the last afternoon after two vigorously contested Tests in which there was much to applaud in respect of good batting and bowling.

This is as much as any cricket lover could ask for, but apparently the South African cricketers feel let down.

Their gripe is that they did not want sporty pitches at either of these grounds. Believing that the Aussies had only three bowlers and no spinners, the team’s brains trust devised a strategy in which the Aussies would exhaust their three bowling stars on flat pitches prior to the Newlands Test whereupon a lively pitch there would see them too tired to take advantage of it.

As a strategy it has the merit of some imagination but not much else. It seems bizarre that, whereas the Australians were relying on their ability to play good Test cricket, on whatever pitches that may have confronted them, the Proteas were hoping to exhaust the opposition bowlers by batting for day-after-day on flat pitches with the objective of seizing the moment only in the final Test.

If this is true, and I have no reason to believe that it is not, one is pleased for Test cricket’s sake that the team bent on entertaining by playing as well as they could have triumphed over the one whose plan encompassed boring the pants off all and sundry. Further, one is tempted to suggest that those responsible for such a plan should be condemned to spend the next five years watching a feast of non-stop Twenty20 cricket.

Those playing Test cricket profess a great love of it but too often their actions seem designed to push it into oblivion. Boring Test matches on flat pitches are the most certain manner in which to deprive Test cricket of public interest, which is the real lifeblood of proper cricket.

This story begs several questions, not least of which concerns the continued adaptability and desire of this South African team to make the most of whatever situations they might face. However disappointed they may have been by the pitch at the Wanderers, the fact remains that with the Aussies at 67 for three on a muggy morning and a simple slip catch on its way to the safe hands of Graeme Smith, the Proteas were poised to take command of the match.

That this catch was spilled and not another chance created until it was too late is the real reason that the current series is no longer alive. Given conditions that they might have ordered and a situation beyond their best expectations, the South Africans, sadly, were not good enough to seize the moment.

For some reason South African sports teams do not easily wear the mantle of superiority. Twice the Springboks have failed to follow up a World Cup victory with success in the Tri-Nations.

It is true that luck began to turn its face against them after Melbourne. A vital toss was lost in Sydney when first use of a wretched pitch handed victory to the Aussies and set up Smith for a broken hand.

In Durban yet another loss of the toss condemned the Proteas to a brutal day in the field. As soon as he saw the fall of the coin, Smith’s body language conveyed as much to both his team and their opponents. From the first ball the South Africans played as though this was a Test they could not win and might not save. Another injury to their talismanic captain was a further blow from which they could not recover.

The Newlands Test gives the Proteas a chance to show that the result Down Under was not a capricious fluke. Whether they can take it is another matter. This team is not the one that Mickey built and probably not the one he wanted.

It is just as well that the disgruntled Prince is not the temporary captain but Kallis has never shown much appetite for the job. He has a new pair of opening batsman, an ageing opening bowler, a third fast bowler of limited wicket-taking ability and a private concern about his own ability to deal with a fast left-hander bowling him deliveries of 150 km/h.

The portents before the Test started pointed to a sixth successive Test defeat on home soil against a team captained by Ricky Ponting.

Yesterday’s wickets and play might have provided some hope, but we shall have to wait and see.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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