Testing times ahead

2014-06-07 00:00

FOR the first time in 11 years a new South African Test captain has been chosen. In other words, no prep school youngster has been conscious that the national skipper was anyone other than Graeme Smith. For the rest of us, the burly Smith was a comforting figure at the helm of our cricket from the moment he astonished the England team with a record-breaking double century on his captaincy debut.

Now we have a new captain, who rather like Smith, was not on the radar for the job as little as six weeks before his appointment. In fact, so late did Hashim Amla throw his hat into the ring that the suspicion lurks that someone in a high place not only talked him into considering the job but promised him that, if he did so, he could be guaranteed that he would get it.

Amla seems to be far too humble a character to have pushed his own name forward when all the talk had been which of AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis would become the new Test captain. The fact that he had a somewhat unsuccessful stint as captain of the KZN Dolphins together with his own avowed intent to avoid the responsibilities that go with captaincy might raise some questions about his late entry into the market.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent a man changing his mind. Nor should it be held against anyone for wanting to become his country’s cricket captain if he feels he has the qualifications to do the job. Neither of the other two candidates was a shoo in to be selected. Both, for different reasons, have question marks about their suitability to lead the Test team.

It is, however, known that one of the national selectors nurses a long-held bitterness at the failure of what was then a largely white-dominated hierarchy to have recognised his (mediocre) talents as a cricketer. Allied to this fellow’s acute political sense of what can be achieved in the new South Africa, there are fears that there might have been other factors at work in the appointment of Amla.

This would be a pity and I hope it is not so. Amla does not deserve to have his captaincy tainted by the smell of politics. He has been a magnificent cricketer for his country for almost a decade.

If a captain first needs to serve a lengthy apprenticeship in the team, Amla has more than done his time. In any case, the example of Smith has illustrated that the ability to learn on the job is probably a much more important criterion for Test match leadership.

No one doubts that the intelligent Amla possesses the mind and character to get up to speed with the requirements of the job in quick time.

There is a protocol in place for the selection of the national cricket captain.

In the first place, the task of choosing the captain falls to the selectors and coach. Their decision is then communicated to the CSA board that has the power to veto that decision. To my knowledge, no board has refused to confirm the choice of the selectors.

Given the leaky plumbing of cricket administration, if Amla was not the first choice of these selectors we shall know soon enough.

In the mean time, it should be recognised that the selectors did not have an easy decision to make. De Villiers was clearly the leading contender to succeed Smith. He has captained the One-Day team for several years as well as some time spent running the T20 outfit. It would be fair to say of him that he was a better captain more recently than he was as a freshman.

The problem with AB is that there has been a reluctance to burden such a valuable player with the responsibilities of a captain. In his dual role as leading batsman and wicket-keeper he gives a balance to the team that cannot be achieved if he gives up the gloves now. He alone can provide the selectors with the options they need to go forward without the immense talent of Jacques Kallis.

There will be those who point to the examples of MS Dhoni, Alec Stewart and Kumar Sangakkara who have all been captain, keeper and batsman of Test teams. Of the three, only Dhoni has done three jobs for any length of time and he has never been India’s leading batsman. The others found that the heavy responsibilities affected their batting and were happy to play under someone else.

AB is such a valuable batsman that it is perfectly reasonable for the selectors to want to do nothing that might risk his ability to make runs. It is a tough call to make without giving AB a chance to prove them wrong but no one can say that it is a poor or thoughtless call.

In time, someone like Quinton De Kock might develop into the player who provides balance to the Proteas’ Test team. AB could then get his chance to lead South Africa but in the meantime he has become a victim of his prodigious talent. At the very least, he deserves to be promised that, unlike so many other positions in SA cricket, the Test captaincy will not become a position for which pale South Africans no longer qualify.

Faf du Plessis’s position was very different to that of AB. He has only been a fixture in the Test team for five minutes and so is still finding his way in the five-day game. It would have been a bitter pill for AB to swallow if he had lost the job to a cricketer so recently drafted into the team.

So there it is, Hashim Amla is our new Test captain. With a miserly six Test matches in the next 12 months, none of them against top ranked teams, he can afford to take a relaxed view of his new responsibilities. Let’s wish him the luck that all captains need.

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