Smith’s team is too fragile

2010-02-20 00:00

SOUTH Africa were mauled in Kolkata. Obviously the loss of Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith’s injury upset the balance of the side, but that does not excuse the extent of the defeat. The Proteas were outclassed. Smith’s side threw away its advantage on the opening day and thereafter played second-rate cricket. Something stops this team building on its momentum. Maybe they try to consolidate. Certainly they lack the relentlessness detected in top teams. Regardless, the loss confirmed that the team depends unduly on a handfull of players and domination remains a distant prospect. Plain and simple, the team is too fragile.

India, though, deserve credit for their strong display. Every team has its driving forces. India do well when Virender Sehwag flourishes. His ability to take a match by the scruff of the neck is unsurpassed among openers past and present. At full strength, India’s batting order is as strong as any the game has known. Mahendra Dhoni’s captaincy was also a factor. He is not a man easily put off his game.

Several points arose from these curiously fraught contests. For a start, two-match series are ridiculous. Nothing serious can be settled in such a short and unsatisfactory period. An eagerly-awaited tussle between the two strongest sides in the world deserved better treatment. It was all put together in an off-handed way. Populists think it is arrogant to say that Test cricket is the highest form of the game. To the contrary, it is patronising to pretend otherwise.

It’s the same in other fields. History alone can determine greatness. All else is transitory. Inevitably cricketers will be fêted for their deeds in the cacophony of one-day cricket and remembered for their feats in the harsh arena of Test cricket. South Africa and India deserved a proper series, not a couple of quick matches.

From the local viewpoint, Alviro Petersen’s hundred was encouraging. Here was another fine player emerging from the coloured townships around Port Elizabeth, where his amiable father drives a taxi. Petersen’s improvement in the last two seasons is more telling than his age or record. Some players keep rising; others peak early and stay put. By all accounts he rose to the occasion and his only mistake was to lose his head on reaching three figures, a lesson he will learn.

Peterson’s success was timely because the other coloured batsmen are struggling. Both Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy have been overcome by anxiety. Prince has lost his air of permanence whilst Duminy’s game has deserted him.

Although both are small-ish and left-handed, they are different types of batsmen — the rock and the iceberg. Even the best batsmen can lose their touch as life and luck take their toll, but in these cases the problems may be as much psychological as technical. Prince has been bashed about and Duminy’s life has changed beyond imagination. Both situations can eat into the core.

If all was well in South African cricket, the setbacks endured by these fellows might not be so worrying. Unavoidably, though, colour is a factor in this country. A revolution occurred and new forces were swept into power.

Then those forces were called upon to change the very structure of society without destroying it, an immensely difficult task. Alas, slow progress has been made in taking cricket to the masses. As much could be told from the Michaelmas cricket weeks staged in this city. If anything, fewer black players take part than 15 years ago. Not even complacent apologists for the establishment can claim otherwise.

Nor is it right to say that cricket is a closed book to some people. This column has often condemned the shysters running the game in Zimbabwe, and the cold and greedy masters they serve, but as far as black cricket is concerned, that betrayed country is streets ahead of South Africa. Black cricket is also bouncing back in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Doubtless, the divisions of history are partly to blame for the lack of budding black players hereabouts, but cricket is failing to deliver. It’s high time the issue is given its due because otherwise the day of reckoning will come.

Makhaya Ntini papered over an awful lot of cracks.

The final point to arise from the series concerns the tactics adopted by Paul Harris and the touring think-tank, and the response they drew from Ian Gould — the best umpire on the list. The policy of bowling over the wicket and pitching a foot outside leg stump has nothing to commend it and Gould was right to call as many wides as possible. It is a negative tactic designed to exhaust the patience of batsmen and spectators alike. It kills the game.

Test cricket cannot afford these sorts of strategies. Already it is battling to retain public interest. No-one in their right mind wants to sit in the hot sun watching a spinner land the ball out of reach and a batsman thrusting out a blocking pad. India allowed frustration to affect them in Nagpur, but arrived in Kolkata with a plan.

That Harris was taken apart was bad for his team but good for the game. Cricket is a contest between bat and ball, not a war of attrition. Positive play is needed or else the crowds will continue to decline.

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

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