Players will regret timidity

2013-12-28 00:00

GREAT teams do not fear defeat.

The Proteas passed up one of the great opportunities for an historic Test victory at the Wanderers. That they did so for understandable reasons is an excuse but it is the kind of excuse that is used by those whose nerves fail them at the moment critique.

Test victories of the kind that escaped them last Sunday are so rare that when they do happen they become etched in the folklore of the game and are remembered long after all the other deeds of the participants have been reduced to dust.

Even defeat in such circumstances becomes a glorious loss. No one of my generation, that is white and privileged, will forget the sight of Jack van der Schyff’s bowed head and slumped shoulders after his missed conversion that cost the Springboks victory in one of the greatest rugby Tests ever played before a crowd of 95 000 at Ellis Park. It was a match that sparked a British Lions tour like no other and ensured enduring friendships and memories for all the players of both sides.

Perhaps the most iconic of all cricket photographs is that of the famous run- out in the tied Test between Australia and the West Indies at the Gabba. In that single image is captured all the drama of two teams going hell for leather for a victory that eluded them both but preserved forever the memory of one of cricket’s most glorious moments. Both teams gave it their all, neither team succeeded, but their efforts enhanced the game of cricket for a generation. The amateur game gave cricket a match which, last Monday, the professionals were too timid to emulate.

There is hardly an innovation dreamt up by the ICC that has not rebounded on the game that it professes to protect and nurture. One of them is the Test Match Championship, which is determined once a year by means of a performance ladder. Almost inevitably this ladder was ignored by the teams until the ICC put up a bucket full of money that goes to the leading team at a given point in time. The sniff of dollars attracted the nostrils and fed into the brains of professional cricketers.

Thus on Monday all the players on both sides were aware that a loss then would threaten South Africa’s position as the number one Test team and and a loss for their opponents would end Indian hopes of supplanting the Proteas. Neither captain appeared to take the more positive view of the consequences for their teams of victory.

Without a championship to consider we may have seen one of the greatest Test match finishes of all time. As it was the game was put to sleep by two teams that were frightened to lose. Just before each of the 22 draw their final breaths, all their wonderful achievements will be as nothing compared to the regret they will feel at letting slip an opportunity that never came again.

The other ICC innovation of stunning stupidity has been that of the two- and three-match series involving South Africa. Had the Wanderers match been the first of four matches one wonders if the captains would have opted for such a timorous conclusion to an otherwise enchanting game. Not all the TV bucks in the world can make up for the loss of the finish that might have been.

Kudos must go once again to Chris Scott for preparing a pitch that almost produced the perfect game. The Wanderers is the country’s premier cricket ground by some distance and no tour involving the other big four of Test cricket should be without a game at this classic venue. That the Aussies will not play a Test match there is an act of scheduling that gives substance to Telford Vice’s jaundiced view of cricket administrators

For all that, I still feel that the Proteas would have won with some comfort had the selectors done what they did when we last played England at the Wanderers, which was to play five fast bowlers. The Wanderers is not a pitch for any but the very best of spin bowlers whereas it always gives a good fast bowler some assistance.

Let us not be deluded by Imran Tahir’s performance in the Emirates. Against good batsmen at the Wanderers he is a waste of space. He cannot bat, his fielding is indifferent at best and his bowling was unlikely to dismiss any batsman other than a rank tail gunner. Even then his bowling in the first Test would have matched the most dismal of expectations.

Ryan Maclaren was the fifth seamer against the Poms and he had a good match then with both bat and ball. He would have been a priceless addition to the team when Morkel was injured. Smith would have had more control of the game with him in the attack and how valuable would he have been in the final hour of that run chase. Please note Mr Domingo and the selectors — do not pick second rate spinners at the Wanderers where the margin of error for slow bowlers is probably less than any other ground in the world.

A pity then that a wonderful Test match limped to an unsatisfactory conclusion in its final minutes. Petersen and Du Plessis answered their critics. Kallis looked in good form until he was shot away by a poor decision. Most of the team had something to take out of the game.

Steyn, however, had a poor match with the Indians having done their homework on his bowling. They realised that he now swings the ball only when it is missing the “fourth stump”. Thus they left anything slightly wide, forcing him to bowl straighter whereupon they simply picked him off on the leg side. Steyn appears to have mislaid his in-swinger that keeps batsmen honest and was down on pace. One does not know if he was carrying an injury but that was his poorest return by far at the Wanderers.

One final thought; teams that pursue victory without fear of failure do not choke.

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