How good is the SA cricket team?

2007-11-17 00:00

New Zealand have produced their poorest team in over 40 years, while the widespread turmoil in Pakistan, both on and off the field, has not been conducive to getting their cricket team into reasonable shape for the South African challenge.

The second Test match against New Zealand, which will already have started by the time you read this, is certain to be a reprise of the affair at the Wanderers that finished in an overwhelming victory for South Africa in just over three days. It took South Africa only three-and-a-half sessions to convert a losing first innings score into a position from which defeat became unthinkable. That is not possible against good teams.

The turn around was due to some excellent individual performances from Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis backed by a typically sharp performance from South Africa in the field. The Kiwis batting, however, was awful on a pitch on which technical deficiencies were quickly exposed as has often been the case at the Wanderers.

Once Shane Bond, almost inevitably, was injured the New Zealand attack lacked menace and the partnership of Kallis and Amla, assisted by some sloppy fielding, cashed in to the full.

Given that the pitch was not completely docile, the batting of Amla and Kallis was a joy to watch but, even on Friday afternoon, when the game should have been in the balance, the New Zealanders looked weary and resigned to defeat.

The cricket then had the air of a village match after lunch on a hot afternoon with the fielding side morose in the realisation that the length of their ordeal depended entirely on the timing of a declaration rather than their own devices.

In fact, so much time was still available that Graeme Smith could have prolonged South Africa's second innings until the end of play on Saturday without endangering the final outcome. Some of his batsmen would have welcomed the chance to fill their boots against the demoralised Kiwis, but it may have been that Smith realised that neither his own team nor the tiny crowd could stomach the sight of Ashwell Prince grinding out an innings of no consequence.

Smith may also have been unwilling to place the imperturbable Amla in a position from which the bearded Dolphins bastman might have threatened his own record Test score of 277. One could scarcely blame him for not wanting to see a new summit reached in such undemanding circumstances. The match this weekend, depending on the state of the pitch, may confront him with a similar dilemma. Once Kallis eventually reaches 200 you can be sure that he will have Smith's record in his sights.

The management of the South African team should temper their satisfaction with the team's recent performances with concern over the side's balance and the form of some senior players.

Against some teams, South Africa will not get away with batting four genuine tailenders from as early as number eight. Next year, in England, a 90 for five start on a lively pitch could well become 125 all out and the Test would be irrecoverable against a decent home team. A tail that is so long and so inept can only be supported by a line up that contains more than just one truly world-class batsman.

Apart from Kallis, and Prince to a lesser extent, all the batsmen have unusual techniques that render them susceptible to the moving ball. On flat Test match pitches such as one can find in England one would expect them to do well, but not all English pitches are batsmen friendly all the time. England have an attack that is good enough to run through our top-order in helpful conditions. The last thing we then want is to see AB De Villiers or Mark Boucher having to shield the number eight from the bowling with the sore at 115 for six.

It is important, therefore, that Morne Morkel and Shaun Pollock are kept in the mix of the Test match squad. Morkel is still recovering from an injury but I am not sure what kind of message Pollock is getting from the selectors. If Pollock is not going to play at the Wanderers, he is entitled to ask just when his talents might be required. Surely it is logical to play Pollock in conditions that not only favour his style of bowling but where his batting skills will be required?

Mickey Arthur is on record as saying that a policy has been devised whereby a fresh fast bowler would be introduced into the team in order to reduce the stress brought about by the back-to-back Test matches that are a feature of modern schedules. Where the fast bowling resources are ample such a strategy is sensible but now we constantly hear that a winning team deserves to stay intact.

Must we conclude that Arthur's strategy applies only when Test matches are not won? One would have thought that is neither smart nor conducive to keeping players such as Pollock in a suitable frame of mind. Andre Nel, for example, struggles to get through back-to-back Test matches. This weekend should have been an ideal time to rest him and put the new strategy into place rather than leave it chilling next to the worthy products of the team's sponsor.

There is also the not-so-small matter of the declining form of the talismanic Makhaya Ntini. Some feel that Ntini has too many miles in his legs. Others believe that he is one of those fast bowlers that is better left running rather like a swimming pool pump and has yet to recover from his winter's rest. The fact is that Ntini has yet to capture the form that has made him such an important member of the national team. Does he miss the claustrophobic support of Pollock at the other end?

There is also the smaller matter of what to do with Neil McKenzie who has also made a big hundred against these New Zealanders. Had Amla been caught for two in his second innings at the Wanderers, the chances are that McKenzie would have been chosen for the second Test. The selectors keep telling McKenzie that he is in the frame but the call never comes. Has the chance for this most talented of batsmen to get back into the Test team now gone?

Nothing will be achieved by playing the same team throughout a summer in which wins against New Zealand and the Windies are to be expected. The real test of Smith's side will come in England where the overall quality of the squad may well be called into question.

By relying on the mantra that winning teams should not be changed the selectors could deprive themselves of the opportunity to discover some answers that they will need before the squad to tour England is chosen.

Clever selectors require imagination, not a list of clichés.

•RAY WHITE is a former UCB president.

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