Paying tribute to the SA cricket selectors.

2007-11-17 00:00

Both teams played exceptionally well and both looked united, balanced and powerful. If the Proteas sustain this form, they will hereafter trouble the Australians. But formidable teams have a way of disrupting the thinking of their opponents.

In a few days, Sri Lanka omitted their most incisive pace bowler and conceded first use of an admittedly greenish pitch. To make matters worse, former captain and current opener Marvan Atapattu described the national selectors as “muppets led by a joker”. Even Mark Boucher has never gone quite that far, or not in public anyhow.

Although it cannot compare with sipping a glass of something soothing as the sun sets and someone else cooks a meal, selector-bashing is an entertaining way to pass a few hours. Indeed, it is a universal language. About the only selection that has survived the test of time involves the line-up named by a mightier force even than our Minster of Sport, and even He managed to get one wrong, though the revisionists insist that Judas (or Luke) was actually a cracking chap poorly treated by the mass media.

Spare a thought, then, for our new chairman of selectors. A case can be made that in the space of a few months he has presided over some intelligent and unsentimental decisions that have advanced the cause of cricket in this country.

Omitting Jacques Kallis from the T20 World Cup competition went down about as well as a plate of kidneys at a children's birthday party. To pinch from Mr Wodehouse, the cricketer himself appeared “if not disgruntled then far from gruntled”.

Worse followed as the South Africans failed to reach the semi-finals after suffering a brain outage spectacular even by their standards.

But the repercussions of the decision have been constructive. Kallis has been masterful since his return to the fray. Has not a spring been detected in his step? Has not pride been stirred? From a distance he seems cheerful - as does his team. Certainly he has overcome some of the inhibitions that held him back, technical niceties and psychological restraints that also prevented Colin Cowdrey cutting loose. Batsmen of a certain disposition dedicate themselves to the eradication of error. One Englishman drily observed that he “had eliminated all my risky shots and now I haven't got any left”.

Busy turning himself into a run-making machine, Kallis forgot about the importance of getting on top of the bowling, not least to set an example for team-mates.

Now Kallis is in the thick of the action, changing the course of a match with a destructive innings and building a decisive partnership with Hashim Amla, another absentee from T20. Kallis took wickets as well, provoking unwise comparisons with Sir Garfield Sobers, the best cricketer the game has known. Kallis is a great batsman and sits alongside Ricky Ponting as the finest of his generation. Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar were the giants of the last age and Kevin Pietersen is becoming the best of his time. But Kallis is merely an extremely good all-rounder because his bowling does not quite cut the mustard.

South Africa's other bold move was to treat Shaun Pollock on his merits and not reputation. As a rule, outstanding cricketers play continually until retirement. It is hard to think of a single player of this calibre who towards the end of his career came in and out of the side depending on conditions.

It has been an inspired move. Pollock remains a handful on damp pitches because he can cut the ball around and keep a length. On sleeping decks he lacks the yard of pace needed to turn little incisions into scalps. Of course, he can also give the ball a fearful crack. In short, he has something to offer but can no longer command a regular place. Far from wasting his ability, selectors and player have been mature enough to make a plan that serves all parties.

Thanks not least to these decisions, South Africa prevailed in Pakistan, and did not flee at the first sign of trouble. Upon returning home, the team has played impressively. It has been noticed. Don't worry, the Australians are watching.

Meanwhile the Aussies trounced the Lankans by an innings in a match played before smallish crowds (15 000 for the first few days) by local standards, and a shrinking television audience.

While other nations might have been pleased with these events, the Australians have contrived to turn it into a crisis. Apparently Test cricket is doomed and Australia ought to lend players to weaker teams in an attempt to produce tighter contests. But it was only one match. The weather was dreadful, school exams were in full swing, Shane Warne was not playing, Sri Lanka lost the services of its leading batsman, omitted their most dangerous pace bowler, gave their hosts first use of the wicket and were distracted by a notably grumpy outburst from a famously grouchy batsman.

It is too early to say that the Australian domination will continue. Over the years great sides have contained great bowlers. None of the incumbents reaches that mark. Despite the slaughter at the Gabba, the Australians will come back to the field. But that is only half the battle. Rivals must also raise their games. Recent events in South Africa suggest that one country at least has accepted the challenge.

•International cricket writer PETER ROEBUCK (peter@peterroebuck.com) lives in the KZN midlands.

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