Tough road ahead for SA

2014-04-26 00:00

AS the warmth of the Highveld autumn gradually gives way to winter’s chill, it is at last evident that the southern summer is over and with its demise has eventually come the end of the cricket season. The Proteas ended it all where they began it, on top of the Test tree, which is what matters most to the majority of the game’s lovers.

The gap at the summit, however, has closed. The departures of Kallis and Smith have left the South African team looking vulnerable and low on resources.

An undemanding schedule lies ahead, which is just as well given the gravity of unanswered questions that face players and management.

Another home defeat by the Australians dispelled any illusions that the post-Kallis era might be easily managed. The balance of the team was immediately called into question and it was also clear from the outset that the wisdom of a long and mighty career was missing from the decision making of the Proteas.

In retrospect, Gary Kirsten’s unexpected retirement from the position of coach could not have come at a more unfortunate time. It is one thing to look after a team who are bristling with talent and form from top to bottom, as Kirsten did, but entirely another to be faced with the problems now worming their way into the mind of the inexperienced Russell Domingo.

I have likened Domingo to Pie­ter de Villiers in a past article but his recalcitrant attitude towards some thoughtful criticism from the country’s most respected pundits suggests that his fate may be closer to that of the unfortunate David Moyes, lately of Manchester United.

The way things work in the world of sport is that a groundswell of murmuring discontent can quickly develop into an unstoppable demand for change. Only two things can halt such a movement — success and a willingness to concede that you do not have all the answers. At the moment Domingo has neither such barrier.

Sadly very few pluses emerged from the Proteas camp this summer.

It would be unfair not to chronicle the progress of JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis. Both had good moments against the Aussies and Indians. Both were the victims of some bad luck in the shape of brilliant catches and unpredictable deliveries. As well as they did, both will know that they have a long way to go if they want to mitigate the departures of Kallis and Smith.

In the provinces, a few batsmen suggest themselves for higher honours. I like the look of Stiaan van Zyl, who has been around for a while, and I wonder if the older Justin Ontong is not worth another look, but neither are opening batsmen where there are vacancies. Sometimes I wonder if all the other batsmen in the provinces realise how close they may be to a place in the national team. All it needs is for the hungriest of them to raise their games by a few percent and they will be there.

Apart from a few memorable sessions in Port Elizabeth and Durban, the bowling of the Proteas was mostly ordinary. Three times the Australians reduced the Proteas’ efforts in the field to downright embarrassing, which was not what we expected from the world’s number one team.

It is clear that, in this era of back-to-back Test matches, the greater Proteas’ squad needs several more fast bowlers.

Kyle Abbott made good progress this season but not enough, it seems, to have gathered himself a place in the T20 World Cup squad. I thought he bowled well enough in difficult circumstances at Newlands to ensure that he will be in both next season’s Test and limited over squads.

Apart from Abbott the cupboard of fast bowlers has plenty of room in it. It is too soon to talk of Kagiso Rabada who did so well at the U19 world cup.

We have a history of breaking the bodies and spirits of young black fast bowlers. Rabada looks to be exceptionally promising but he must be carefully managed if his promise is to be realised rather than ruined.

I have not seen enough of the Cape off-spinner Dane Piedt who has had a remarkable season for the Cobras but those who know more about these things than I do believe that he is the real deal. Again, one should be cautious because spinners take time to mature. The danger is that there really are no alternatives to Peidt.

A few South Africans apart from Kallis and Smith have also departed the scene.

We said farewell to Ashwell Prince, who I have always thought was one of the best and unluckiest of our Test batsmen. He played so many important innings for South Africa that he deserves to be recognised for what he was, which was a thoroughly well organised and dependable middle-order batsman.

It is arguable that of all the batsmen who ultimately made centuries in the 2008 Lord’s Test, it was Prince’s first innings hundred that really saved the day for the Proteas. Without his century in the first innings we would almost certainly have followed on against a fresh England attack and lost the match. As it was, Prince drew the sting from their bowlers who were then unable to finish the job in our second innings.

Prince then went on to score 149 in the second Test victory that set up the series win. He played 66 Test matches and should have played many more. He was the first non-white player to captain South Africa in a Test match.

Elsewhere it did not go well for other South African-born Test cricketers. Kevin Pietersen was booted out of the England team for “disconnecting” and Jonathan Trott took himself out of Test cricket after suffering a mental collapse. Anyone who saw his deranged TV interview with Ian Ward will not have been surprised that his return to the game lasted one match.

Five gifted South African-bred batsmen have departed the scene. Of their successors there is no sign.

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