McKenzie gets Test recall

2007-12-31 00:00

NEIL McKenzie, consistently and confusingly overlooked by the South African cricket selectors in recent times, is to be recalled to the Proteas team for the second Test against the West Indians starting at Newlands on Wednesday.

While there was no official confirmation from Cricket South Africa yesterday, a source close to the Proteas squad said that McKenzie, who last played Test cricket nearly four years ago, would take over from opener Herschelle Gibbs in the team.

The gifted but frustratingly erratic Gibbs was twice dismissed without scoring by the West Indians in the first Test at St George’s Park.

The tourists made history by twice dismissing the limp Proteas cheaply in four days to win a Test match for the first time in South Africa.

Complacency may have contributed to the South Africans’ defeat — though captain Graeme Smith vehemently denies this — but certainly the poor batting of the technically vulnerable top-order was a major factor.

The lack of foot movement of both Smith and Gibbs against the swinging ball suggests that both would be happier in the middle-order, but their limitations have time and again exposed a fragile middle-order — Jacques Kallis apart — to the new ball.

It is a sign of the selectors’ desperation that they have finally returned to McKenzie to solve their batting woes.

McKenzie, who turned 32 last month and last played a Test in New Zealand in 2004, was not even in the 12-man squad named for the first two Tests. It is expected that one-time opener AB de Villiers, who took two half-centuries off the West Indians in Port Elizabeth, will be shunted up to the top of the order with McKenzie adding experience and technique to the middle.

Compounding the South Africans’ batting problems has been the dropping of all-rounder Shaun Pollock, who remains the 12th member of the squad, but has not played Test cricket this season.

His absence has left the South Africans with a lengthy tail and the selectors could further strengthen the batting at Newlands by including him for Andre Nel.

This would, however, involve another about-turn for the selectors, who this season have, with some success, opted for pace and penetration rather than the accuracy of Pollock. And, of course, the pundits would argue that it is wrong to replace an in-form bowler with an all-rounder because the batsmen are not doing their job.

The popular and unassuming McKenzie made his Test and one-day international debut for South Africa back in 2000. He has played in 41 Tests, averaging 33,24 and 59 ODIs (average 38,53). While his Test record is disappointing, he, and Boeta Dippenaar for that matter, have suffered at the hands of an inconsistent selection policy and he spent much of his career fighting to cement a place in the side.

It was a painful weekend for South African coach Mickey Arthur and Smith. A week ago exactly they were talking up the Proteas’ chance of challenging the Australians for the number one spot in the world rankings; today they are trying to find ways of stopping the lowly West Indians from winning their first series on South African soil.

Smith said he was bitterly disappointed at his team’s performance.

“We are all hurting at the moment,” he told Sapa. “We know we’ve played badly in this Test. I’d also like to congratulate the West Indies, who played outstandingly well.”

He dismissed suggestions that resting a number of key players after the series against New Zealand was a key factor in the Proteas’ below par performance.

“We have a very tough season ahead of us — we’re hardly going to have any breaks at all, and this was an opportunity to rest some players,” he said.

“But I don’t think resting players made any difference to the outcome of the match. Our preparations were hampered a bit by all the rain before the Test, but that’s not an excuse.”

It was South Africa’s third successive Test defeat at St George’s Park, and Smith had no explanation for their run of losses. They lost to England in 2004, and to Pakistan in 2006.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “We just don’t seem to play very well there.”

If the St George’s Park defeat results in the resurrection of McKenzie’s international career, some good may still come from what was the blackest of weekends for South African cricket.

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