Emerging heroes can be the base for a formidable South African team

2008-03-29 00:00

AMIDST the routine doom and gloom it is worth remembering the achievements of South African sport. Often it seems that the scandals — the arms deal, Land Bank, Kebble and Selebi, Aids, the ANC’s pathetic response fo the suffering in Zimbabwe, the crime rate — distract attention from progress in the sporting arena. Obviously, it does not help that Norman Arendse and Ray Mali continually make asses of themselves. All the more reason to recognise achievements.

It is easily forgotten that South Africa won the recent Rugby World Cup decisively and celebrated by raising both trophy and president. South African teams also contested the Super 14 final. During the week, the national soccer team produced a performance of enough pace and energy to revive hopes of a decent run in the 2010 World Cup. Heavens, it might have been enough to convince our politicians that our coach might know his cards.

Last month, South Africa’s mixed and spirited under-19 cricket side reached the finals of their World Cup, only to be beaten by an Indian outfit subsequently exposed as containing several over-age players. By all accounts, the team played with discipline and heart under the admirable stewardship of Ray Jennings and Pietermaritzburg’s own Morgan Pillay. In the last few years, the same attitude has been detected in the rugby under-19 side. The kids just want to play. It’s about time our leaders stopped living in a liberation timewarp. If the evil forces presiding over the holocaust in Zimbabwe are anything to go by, that might not happen till the next generation has taken charge.

As far as cricket is concerned, South Africa have played with plenty of gumption in the first Test in India. Only optimistic players can succeed in that vibrant and exhausting country. Matthew Hayden can easily be mistaken for a bonehead, possibly even a boofhead (inexplicably, Australia’s main contribution to the development of the English language is in insults and words for “argument”). But in his struggling days, he paid his own way to India, to improve his technique against spin. And on his first official visit he noticed a group of fellows laughing and discovered that they were members of a Laughing Club that met every day at dawn. When touring India, the Australians abide by a mantra. To lose patience is to lose the battle.

Clearly the South Africans have retained a constructive outlook. It is easy to mouth positive sentiments. Everyone nowadays is media-trained. The entire Western World is one long press conference. It is much harder to remain optimistic inside. Evidently, Graeme Smith and his players are on the right track.

Apart from the obvious contenders, the two cricketers crucial to the South African cause are Hashim Amla and Neil McKenzie. Happily both scored heavily in the first innings, thereby building confidence for the remainder of the series. Modern Test series are tough on out-of-form players. Their only chance is to ask Zanu-PF officials to count their tally (By the way, A-level papers in Zimbabwe are being marked by soldiers).

McKenzie’s success is a reminder not to discount players in their late 20s. Australia doesn’t. It is tempting to categorise a player in his formative years. McKenzie did not quite fulfil his promise. Maybe puritans objected to the pretty thing on his arm. But Michael Clarke accompanies the antipodean version of Paris Hilton. McKenzie refused to be patronised. Instead he fought back, scored lots of runs, led with distinction and kept his hat in the ring. Arguably he deserved some of Boeta Dippenaar’s chances. At any rate, he retained his faith and will lift the team on and off the field.

Amla is another fine cricketer. It is conveniently forgotten that he, too, was patronised in his early days, not by Arendse and company but by the old guard.

The same fate befell Makhaya Ntini and Ashwell Prince. None was given much backing. Both have surpassed expectations, mine included. Amla is another case. He is an exceptional batsman and thinker whose time has come.

Alongside Smith (whose captaincy improves as his seniority rises), Dale Steyn, the Morkels, Jacques Kallis and the splendid A.B. de Villiers, this pair can help to build a resilient South African side. The next vital step will be to find a replacement for Ntini and to develop a top-class spinner, a process that can take years. All sorts of boobytraps await. To lose patience is to lose the battle.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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