… and a pat on the back

2008-07-18 00:00

Not even the inane blatherings of Julius Malema or the attack on the Constitutional Court by senior government ministers could spoil a week notable for some fine athletic achievements.

At such times, sport fulfils its purpose of cheering us all up. It also demonstrated the possibilities of the new South Africa. If only it could all be left to the sportsmen and businessmen and lawyers (by and large, nations run by ex-lawyers have been blessed).

Pride of place went to the Boks, whose thunderous victory in Dunedin was secured in the most traumatic circumstances. Traumatic for supporters, that is. The language emanating from our TV room when that blithering idiot JP Pietersen hoofed the ball into touch with a minute left and all New Zealand ablaze does not bear repetition in a family newspaper. To curse a chap without fear or favour is part of our liberation.

As that great thinker Henry Blofeld once pointed out at the end of a long treatise on the topic: “Pressure is a funny old thing”.

But all’s well that ends well. The experts will provide the analysis. Suffice it to say that Ricky Januarie’s try was, for many reasons, a rousing moment. Here was a wonderful piece of opportunism from a feisty player. Although he remained calm and was quick to praise his players, coach Peter de Villiers must have been delighted. It’s hard enough surviving a day in Dunedin, let alone winning a rugby match there. Not the least impressive thing about the new coach has been his willingness to build a strong team of advisors. That is a sign of security and intelligence, not weakness.

Now the tricky part will be to treat De Villiers as just another coach. Some will rush to condemn him as a political appointment. Others will bend over backwards to praise. Both views are patronising, yet it is desperately difficult to eradicate these considerations from the mind. Somehow, in this country, it is almost impossible to remove the context.

The sight of Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince saving the day at Lord’s was likewise encouraging. It was quite something to see batsmen of Indian and coloured backgrounds playing cricket for South Africa and emerging undefeated with the match saved.

Prince’s first-innings hundred was a redoubtable effort. Whereas stylists seem to drift, the rugged left-hander knows his limitations. He brings his entire character to the crease and as a result surpasses more gifted but also more anonymous players. Lacking a wide range of shots, he seldom takes command at the crease and his downfall always appears imminent, but he is a sticker. It is an honourable tradition.

Amla is an exceptional batsman in the oriental tradition, full of wristy, serene strokes on both sides of the wicket. The leg clip played off the back foot counts amongst the most difficult strokes in the book, but he makes it seem as easy as cutting bread. England made the mistake of bowling short to him. Short stuff does not bring wickets. Apart from anything else, it eliminates several means of dismissal. The only purpose of banging the ball in to modern helmeted batsmen is to soften them up. Both teams send down too many half-pitchers. Steve Waugh often attracted the same attention from fast bowlers and it hardly ever worked. When bowlers start foaming at the mouth, it is usually time to give them a break.

Amla has been helped by playing his domestic cricket on a bouncy track. His reluctance to hook is commendable. His game does not work along those lines. Virender Sehwag does not hook, nor did Steve Waugh. It, too, is an honourable tradition.

Of course, the openers also played their parts. Graeme Smith needs to stop letting Kevin Pietersen get under his skin, because it is affecting his leadership. Heavens, the poor chap is going to spend the rest of his life in the land of East Enders and Coronation Street. Play him on his merits. Neil Mckenzie’s resurgence recognises that players mature at different ages, a fact the Australians have long since acknowledged. His inclusion adds weight to the team, and also judgment.

Yet sport did not provide the moment of the week. The speech given in honour of Nelson Mandela by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was as cogent as it was inspiring. Africa is not poor, she dared to say, merely poorly managed. Under her stewardship, her country has risen from 196 to 113th in the honesty table. Scorning those who destroy in the name of counter-revolution, she praised those eager to serve. Her speech pointed the way forward for an entire continent.

Januarie, Amla, Prince and colleagues are playing their parts, but power will determine the fate of the nation.

•International cricket writer Peter Roebuck lives in the KZN midlands (peterroebuck@telkomsa.net).

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