Dare to dream again, SA

2010-01-02 00:00

SPORT, being the great equaliser that it is, simply waits for no man and respects no reputations.

This time last year, the world was Graeme Smith’s oyster as he led a team brimming with talent, luck and confidence and burst Australia’s bubble in unforgettable fashion in their own backyards.

But was it unforgettable?

Certainly for the fans, the memories will never fade. But for the chief protagonists in the matter, the players themselves, those heights seem to have been lost under a sea of meaningless matches and puzzled performances.

The Proteas of 2008 were brave, bustling and had little fear of any opponent.

They briefly held the throne of world’s best, but it seems the crown did not rest easy on the head of Smith and his team.

The Proteas of 2009 have been unrecognisable in some respects. It is the same set of players save for Neil McKenzie, whose obdurate manner would not be amiss at the top of the order right now.

The expected ascent to even higher honours trickled through this fine side’s fingers because, it seems, they started to believe their own hype.

They turned up to the return series against the Aussies satisfied by a lack of an intensive build-up — because they thought they could.

That wasn’t a once-off either, because they also turned up half-baked at the Champions Trophy and were duly knocked out by those irritating Poms.

Somewhere along the line, South Africa’s notoriously demanding approach to battle deteriorated into a farce brought about by complacency.

Great sporting sides find a way to the top, but only then the real work begins.

Staying at the top requires an unquenchable thirst for success and a pride that does not allow even the most mundane of routines to slip down the list of importance.

It is a fact in life that some are prepared to do just enough to get by, and fade into obscurity.

Certainly, Smith and company had the thirst for the job. A brief look at the captain’s own diary presents us with a team that plotted out a series of missions — with a final destination.

Perhaps that was the problem. Everyone said that Australia in Australia would be the culmination, and so it proved. Who is to say what would have happened had the Aussie scalp been labelled as merely a pit-stop on the way to immortality?

It is frightening how limitless and limiting the human mind is all at the same time.

Usain Bolt routinely says that he can run faster, and then proceeds to enthrall us when he lowers previously unfathomable times while hardly breaking a sweat.

Before the Jamaican juggernaut, the world had called Michael Johnson’s 19,32 in the 200 m nigh on untouchable.

Well, that lad from Trelawney has smashed it not once, but twice in the last two years.

Why, we may ponder.

Because he refuses to listen when people put a limit to his dreams, his goals or his potential.

South Africa seem to have had the opposite approach.

“A win in Australia will be our greatest achievement.”

That sentence suggests an end, a proverbial deadline on the period of success at the Proteas’ disposal.

Of course, they did not go into matches after that great victory telling themselves that they could not win. But it is much harder to rouse yourself for another push when you have already hit your goal.

Smith now faces a major examination of his abilities as a leader.

He challenged his troops to dare to dream of winning in Pakistan, England and Down Under. And they did it.

Now, though, he must rouse his charges to show that they are not one-hit wonders.

He must tap into their reserves of self-belief and let them run free again.

Do you remember JP Duminy a year ago?

He was positive and precise, even when under the most severe pressure at the MCG.

Now he appears leaden-footed, unsure and throttled. No one with his talent becomes a has-been overnight, and it is the job of South Africa’s leaders to re-ignite that fierce determination that exists deep within.

The Proteas have not become a bad team over the last year. They just seem to have had only enough gas for the journey to Australia, and little else besides.

It’s time to plan a new journey, one whose destination is a mystery.

And, as road-trips go, it is sometimes not a bad idea to leave behind those who are well travelled, and instead take along a new set of eyes through which to see a brave new era.

Much like in ODI cricket, the Proteas’ Test gameplan has become stale and predictable.

The top six must score the runs and the four bowlers must take the wickets.

Maybe on hard, bouncy surfaces, but what happens when they play on featherbeds like Kingsmead?

Where then is the unexpected and the inspired?

A spinner picked as a run-restrictor is only effective when surrounded by strike bowlers.

Paul Harris looked average in Durban because he offers little variety and well set batsmen will take him apart.

Makhaya Ntini is not the force he once was, and there is no shame in that.

South Africa have to move on.

And playing half-fit superstars is far more damaging than plucking out an eager apprentice.

Friedel de Wet’s sole Test performance was far more threatening than Dale Steyn’s return because the former was fit and hungry while Steyn was still trying to find his form.

Test cricket respects no reputations.

The Proteas of 2010 need only remember one thing. If it’s been done before, it can certainly be done again.

But they need to believe that, or this cocksure England outfit will thrive on taking them apart.

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