SA spinners - greatest threat to Australia

2009-04-03 00:00

AFTER an age spent bidding farewell to five-day specialists, greeting coloured-clothed experts, playing 20-over matches in front of frenzied crowds and otherwise twiddling toes on a tour that began as tightly-packed as an Indian bus and has become as languorous as a stretch limousine, finally the teams can get back to work as the 50-over series gets underway. Happily five matches have been arranged, which gives the side defeated in Durban plenty of time to fight back, an opportunity missing in both Test campaigns.

The news that hereafter four-match Test series will be played counted amongst the blessings of the summer. Africa tends to turn idealists into cynics — or is that just life? — so these little advances are cheering. Nor is that all. Last week Uganda, Kenya and Afghanistan (yes, I know that is not Africa, but the topic is hope and despair!) secured fine wins to reach the next stage of the World Cup qualification.

These contests ought to be compelling as the hosts seek to defend their hard-earned top place in the 50-over rankings. However the Australians are a point behind and biting at their ankles. So far the visiting team have won every campaign played between these sides this summer except the recent 20-over jubilation. As a rule the advantage lies with the home side but that does not outweigh the mood in the opposing camp. South Africa arrived Down Under as a team on the rise whilst their opponents had more headaches than a European banker. Australia duly sorted out their balance sheet and reached Africa ready to resume trade. Meanwhile the hosts had gone walkabout.

From the Australian viewpoint the most pressing need is to score more runs against the spinners. To watch the batsmen pushing and prodding against Johan Botha and even JP Duminy in recent meetings was to see supposedly formidable batters reduced to a state of semi-paralysis.

Poodles have shown more vitality. From the top downwards the batting lacked inventiveness, placement, boldness and intelligence.

The Proteas have every right to assume the visitors will once more play their tweakers with the sort of deference demanded by royalty. Whatever the pitch, Graeme Smith will expect his spinners to strangle the batsmen in the middle overs. Nor did Botha and Duminy merely slow the scoring —- they took wickets and reduced the batsmen to the state detected amongst schoolchildren when the demons come, or else at exam time.

All the more reason for the Australians to devise a bolder strategy.

Sometimes it is best to attack an opponent at his strongest point. Ricky Ponting and company need to plunder the slowies or suffer the consequences.

Hitherto the batsmen have not scored off enough deliveries thereby allowing the pressure to build. Hopefully the Australians have recognised the fault and worked out ways of taking runs off at least four balls an over. It is not only about singles. Alert batsmen can guide the ball into gaps so that a second run can be taken. By no means is one-day batting all biff and bash.

In its own way it can become an art form. Whatever, the visitors cannot let the spinners settle.

Apart from anything else the very notion that spin is South African’s strength is a novel notion that needs to be challenged.

Watching the local tweakers tease the Aussies confirms that precious little can be predicted about the development of the game. Fifty-over cricket was expected to signal the death knell for spin. Twenty-over matches were supposed to serve the same purpose. Not much fun sending down a tempter and watching it disappear out of the park with the frequency previously encountered in nets and schoolyards. But spin has not merely survived. It has prospered.

From the South African viewpoint, Graeme Smith’s return is good as opposed to great news.

Botha performed admirably and forged a resilient spirit in his side. He led with an unusual combination of controlled passion. Everyone could sense that his heart was ablaze and yet his mind remained calm.

Certainly he did not get into a flap whenever things seemed to be slipping away. Nor, though, did he suffer from the devotion to preconceived ideas detected in some Afrikaner leaders, a group inclined to regard a change of strategy as a sign of weakness. Botha’s willingness to mix and match without panic will be missed.

On the other hand Smith is a proven leader and a superb batsman in any form of the game.

Moreover he is better on the field than hanging around with a hand in plaster. The custom of injured captains remaining in the rooms has little to commend it. Smith has a powerful and well-balanced team under his command, an impressive combination of youth and experience.

Herschelle Gibbs and Morne Morkel will be followed with particular interest as both can rise and fall like a storm-tossed kite. Gibbs’ eye is keen but his brain is not quite as reliable. Morkel has all the ingredients needed to become a great bowler except knowledge.

South Africa have the edge over a side missing heavyweights. Five matches await and then comes IPL. Cricket is alive in Africa.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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