The Aussies regroup

2009-01-16 00:00

AS far as South Africa are concerned, it’s a pity the tour down under did not end with the Test series. By remaining to play obligatory one-day and swipe matches the Proteas have given their opponents a chance to regroup. But that is the nature of modern tours. Likewise, Australia will entertain the masses after the forthcoming series on African soil.

And without popular support the game loses relevance. Already Ricky Ponting and company are busy rebuilding confidence and recovering form. Forced to attack, Michael Hussey and other strugglers are starting to get their feet moving. Also Australia will get the opportunity to repair injured bodies and try out new players. By the time the team is chosen to visit these shores they could be a handful.

Meanwhile, the South Africans find themselves struggling along with a party containing only a handful of completely suitable players. If they serve any purpose at all, the matches may convince the selectors that the time has come to allow seniors to focus on Test cricket. Jacqus Kallis and Mark Boucher have been magnificent servants but they are too long in the tooth to learn the new tricks required by 20-over frolics. Small wonder that the two matches were dominated by free thinkers like David Warner and JP Duminy, aware of the basics of the game but not consumed by them.

Twenty-over cricket demands a liberated mind. Boucher and Kallis failed in IPL because they could not escape their training, could not bring themselves to risk it all on the role of a dice. Rude strokes such as the flick over the keeper’s head hardly fitted within the disciplined framework that has served them so well. Test cricket belongs to the brave, T20 to the bold. Nor are Ashwell Prince and Neil Mckenzie suited to these capers. It is not an insult, merely a statement of fact.

T20 will have its own specialists, like Shaun Tait.

All the more reason for the selectors to scan the fields for more youngsters to throw into the 20-over pot. Certainly they should take the matches seriously. Winning is a habit. So is losing.

South Africa must develop a 20-over side. Of course it will contain the hard core of important cricketers — Dale Steyn, Graeme Smith, AB De Villiers, Duminy, Morne Morkel and so forth — but it will also include a sprinkling of talented newcomers.

Nor need any fears be held that techniques will be ruined. Youngsters are as brilliant at changing their games as at acquiring languages. Duminy has been proof enough of that. The opposite may be true. By encouraging them to cut loose and explore their abilities, T20 may produce a flush of gifted youths. Gautam Gambhir, Amit Mishra and now David Warner have made their names in its new world.

More than likely South Africa will find the going hard in the 50-over capers as well. Playing on their own patch and with an entire cricket community at their disposal, the Australians will start as hot favourites to win the five-match series. In that case the Protea selectors may recognise the pressing need to reconstruct their side, with AB de Villiers keeping wicket and Makhaya Ntini replaced by the younger pacemen trying their luck in the antipodes. Where Herschelle Gibbs fits into these plans is anyone’s guess. For all his tomfoolery he was South Africa’s most responsible batsmen in the 2003 World Cup and the architect of its greatest triumph in 50-over cricket.

For their part, the Australians are busily rebuilding their side in all forms of the game. Matthew Hayden’s withdrawal was timely and his contribution acknowledged. At such times reporters inevitably err on the side of generosity. Nevertheless the fawning nature of some farewells raised eyebrows. In some quarters the rough and tough Queenslander was portrayed as a latter-day saint. In fact he was a formidable and abrasive batsman who ran out of runs.

Most likely his place will be taken by Phil Jaques, an efficient left-hander with a good track record unlikely to scare any bowlers. Australians yearning for enterprise prefer Phil Hughes, a 22-year-old from the country with a sound game and a bright future. Hayden might not be the only casualty of the current clearout. Stuart Clarke has just started bowling again and has little time to persuade the selectors to take him to Africa. Brett Lee and Andrew Symonds belong to Hayden’s generation and group, and may suffer the same fate.

More likely Australia will turn to Ben Hilfenhaus, Jaques, Hughes and back to Jason Krezja, a spinner whose omission caused such a furore. The team may not be as formidable on paper but it will be fresh and hard to beat.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands, and currently following South Africa’s tour down under.

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