It’s okay to be realistic

2008-10-31 00:00

ARE there too many optimists hovering around South African sport? One rarely hears negative thoughts emerging from the electronic media or the ever-increasing members of various coaching staffs. As for the players, it’s always a matter of “taking the positives” from even the most crunching of defeats. When last did you hear a player say “I was complete rubbish and if I do not get my act together, I will have to find a different line of work”?

Self-confidence is an essential ingredient of all sportsmen. There have been some, not many, athletes who have been diffident about their own abilities, but generally their internal demons eased them into premature retirements. Some, like the late Eddie Barlow, allowed themselves to be swept along on a wave of self-confidence that was the envy of their more talented team-mates. Surely, however, athletes need to be realistic if they wish to improve.

By denying negative feedback, optimists retreat into denial. This allows them to ignore signs of impending decline. It is an unintelligent way of disguising problems.

On a recent cricket programme, for example, Paul Harris was talking about the recent tour of England. He seemed to be under the impression that he had had a successful tour, despite the observations of many pundits that he could not bowl a hoop down a hill. Harris regretted that he had not been given the chance to bowl on a worn fourth innings pitch. His claim that he would have been able to bowl his team to victory on such a pitch was left unchallenged by the docile presenter.

By ignoring criticisms of his action, Harris is in denial that anything stands in the way of him becoming a match-winning spin bowler. He may be accurate enough to bowl economically while the fast men are resting, but one would much rather hear him acknowledge the fact that his action needs a lot of work if he is not to be a weak link in the Protea team, his poor fielding and rickety batting apart.

Mickey Arthur recently appeared on the same programme and endorsed the view that Paul Harris fulfilled the role that had been outlined for him. One appreciates that Arthur should not be seen to rubbish his players but he should not be afraid of acknowledging the shortcomings in his team.

If Arthur was less optimistic, he would recognise that the Proteas had a weakness that needed to be corrected if they had any chance of realising their dream to be the best team in the world. This would either involve getting Harris to improve his cricket or getting rid of him.

It is not as though the spinning cupboard is empty. The Free State has two reasonable spinners that are enjoying some success. A number of commentators feel that Thandi Tshabalala is worth keeping an eye on, but few have mentioned Con de Lange, the left-arm spinner.

De Lange has a good action and bowls with all the variations of a modern spinner. He rarely bowls without taking wickets. He bats well enough to have scored a first class hundred and is a good fielder. He is an improving cricketer, but the preoccupation that the selectors have had with Harris means De Lange has never been considered for higher honours.

I hope that Mike Procter, whose appointment as chief of the selectors is to be welcomed, brings a less blinded approach to the job. It may be too late for him to do much about the team that will travel to Australia, but let us hope that he is pessimistic enough to realise that a team with a long tail and without a good spinner is unlikely to rise to the top of world cricket.

Similarly, I have been surprised that so little adverse comment has accompanied the announcement of the Springbok team for the end-of-year tour. I would have thought that some commentators might have been worried about the absence of a recognised flyhalf, a seasoned tighthead prop and a reliable goal-kicker.

Ruan Pienaar is not yet comfortable in the No. 10 jersey, Earl Rose could not finish the season as flyhalf for the Lions and John Smit has spent his entire career as a hooker.

The absence of a reliable goal-kicker is most worrying. Once a team sniffs that infringements will not be punished with points it has carte blanche to do what it likes to prevent the Springboks scoring tries. The first thing that Jake White did was to get the most reliable goal-kicker he could find into his team and he kept him there until the World Cup was won.

The British Lions are a handful of Test matches away and we have no idea who will occupy three of the most important places in the Springbok team. In 1997, the last time the Lions were here, the absence of a goal-kicker cost the Springboks a series that they should have won with ease.

A good, old fashioned pessimist among the Springbok selectors would not have allowed the world champions to travel abroad with such apparent weaknesses in the squad.

The old Voortrekker mantra of alles sal reg kom, with its hint of divine intervention, no longer applies in the tough world of professional sport just as it brings little comfort amid the current financial gloom. This will be a rough year both on and off the field.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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