Peter Robinson

A heartfelt plea for stability

2005-01-18 08:01

On the radio on Monday evening, after England had won the fourth Test, a former cricketer and administrator was trying to explain what had gone wrong for South Africa.

"I remember what Tiger Lance used to say," he said. "You can't buy experience at the OK Bazaar."

He was referring, in particular, to AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn, but the point was a more general one and took into account the frequently offered suggestion that the South African team is going through a rebuilding phase.

Well it is and it isn't. The team that lost at the Wanderers included five players with 50 or more Tests caps. Of the remaining seven, Graeme Smith and Boeta Dippenaar have 30 caps or more, Nicky Boje won his 28th cap at the Wanderers, but first played limited overs international cricket in 1995 while Jacques Rudolph played his first game for South Africa in the unofficial Test match against India at SuperSport Park in 2001.

In other words, this was not an inexperienced team. Not as experienced as England, perhaps, but not exactly a bunch of school kids more accustomed to smearing pimple ointment rather than shaving cream over their faces in the morning.

Yet England prevailed in a contest that was a lot closer than the final result might suggest. Only on the fifth morning, when Marcus Trescothick, with some help from Ashley Giles, did England play themselves into a position from which they were unlikely to lose. And even then, a draw looked the most probable result until Matthew Hoggard bowled the tourists to victory.

It takes time to mature

It was a Test match, then, that shifted one way and then the other in much the same fashion that the series has see-sawed. Hoggard, deservedly, took the man of the match award for one of the great exhibitions of fast-medium bowling seen at the Wanderers, but he would not have been in a position to win the match for England had it not been for the batting of Trescothick and, in the first innings, Andrew Strauss.

Here's the point: Hoggard made his first class debut in 1996, but had to wait four years before moving up to the Test team at which stage he was nearly 24 years old. Trescothick had to wait seven years before graduation to Test cricket. Strauss, meanwhile, was 27 before playing Test cricket for the first time last year after six years in first-class cricket.

All of them, in other words, had time to learn their own games before moving up to the highest level, and of the three, only Strauss was an instant success.

It takes time for many cricketers to mature and it's probably fair to say that there are very few cricketers who are worse players at the age, say of 27, than they were at 20.

Closely contested series

The South African tendency is to blood them young and discard them young, if they don't succeed at the first attempt. And so the likes of Martin van Jaarsveld, Neil McKenzie, Adam Bacher, HD Ackerman and Lance Klusener have watched this series mainly from the sidelines.

It has been a closely contested series, and there may yet be a further twist at SuperSport Park, but England have their noses in front not simply because they have more experienced players, but because consistency of selection has made them a more experienced unit and because several of their most important players were picked when they were ready for Test cricket.

The reason South Africa are rebuilding is because South Africa have chosen to rebuild. It's a process that some believe to be necessary, but it's also a process that has left a team not quite sure how to deliver the killer blow.

After the first Test Graeme Smith made a heartfelt plea for "stability".

Let's hope someone was listening to him.

Do you agree? Tell Peter what you think.

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