Midwinter blues

2013-08-10 00:00

IT seems as though a pall of gloom is about to settle over much of South African sport. Not much that happened last week did anything to dispel my own feeling of unease that we are on the threshold of a prolonged period of under-performance across the spectrum of our on-field activities. I may be quite wrong but the omens are not good.

Perhaps the catalyst for my disquiet was the desperate contest between the Kings and the Lions for a place in the 2014 Super Rugby competition. The stakes were so high that it was impossible not to feel sympathy for the losers for whom next year now promises to be a time in the wilderness for most of the players and all of their home supporters.

It is easy to make a case for both teams, but the ineluctable truth is that neither team looks capable of finishing anywhere other than in the bottom rungs of the Super Rugby competition. The Lions will simply take over the unwanted mantle of being the team that every other team expects to beat. There may be the odd victory, but their supporters will soon tire of travelling to the increasingly unfriendly Coca-Cola stadium to watch a succession of defeats.

Elsewhere in the country, the other rugby franchises are contemplating an exodus of top players in numbers not seen before. It is becoming increasingly difficult for these franchises to hang on to their best players and it may not be long before the Springbok team contains more foreign- than domestic-based players. This, I am assured, is the proper path for a truly professional sport, but it is a depressing prospect for all the supporters of local teams.

It may be that the time is ripe to reverse the process. There is no reason, surely, why South African teams should not cast their recruiting nets over the Pacific Islands where there is an abundance of powerful running backs who would add some glamour and excitement to a sport that needs a diversion from the crash ball rugby that is dulling our senses.

In the middle of this week our cricket team returned from a dismal tour of Sri Lanka. The management of the team, as one would expect, is trying to put a positive spin on the victory in the T20 series, but the ODI performances have left poor Russell Domingo with more questions than answers.

In pole position among his problems is what to do about the captaincy of the ODI team. AB de Villiers has had a relatively short stint in the job, but some will say it has been long enough to see that it is not working either for him or the team. It is all very well to acknowledge this reality but no ready solutions are available. Faf du Plessis, the only obvious successor, has been so short of runs that he is hanging on to his place in the team by a fast wearing thread.

At this early stage in his post as coach of the Proteas, it would take a pair of steely cojones for Domingo to replace his ODI captain. His first wise step was to relieve De Villiers of his wicket-keeping responsibilities in a bid to restore his captain to the kind of batting form that wins matches. Thus far the change has been unsuccessful. AB has yet to recover his best form and although Quinton de Kock kept wicket tidily his batting is too fragile to do a proper job at the top of the order where a good start is an essential building block for success.

This brings one to the mystery of Colin Ingram. In the Champions Trophy, Ingram played the best innings of any of our young batsmen in the match against the Windies. He failed in the semi-final against England in conditions that were extremely conducive to the swing bowling of James Anderson. Ingram was selected for the Sri Lankan tour where he faced, unsuccessfully, just the one ball, which clattered into his stumps.

He has not been seen since. Does this mean that Domingo and the selectors have lost patience with him? Given the repeated displays of ineptitude by other batsmen in the team one would have thought that Ingram was hard done by, particularly as he has a reasonable technique and is one of the more intelligent players in the squad.

Alviro Petersen and Farhaan Behardien have failed often enough in the ODI format to suggest that their chances may have come and gone. Thus, of all the young batsmen on view in Sri Lanka, only Miller has improved his prospects. This is a poor return from any trip and represents a real problem unless Kallis and Graeme Smith can be persuaded to return to service.

At least the bowling improved after the first awful effort, but I cannot understand why Vernon Philander has been consistently ignored by the selectors. He is probably one of the top three bowlers in the world and arguably the best of all new ball bowlers yet he cannot find a place in a form of the game that uses two new balls at the start of an innings.

Fast bowlers should not be a problem for Domingo, but the spinners continue to be unimpressive. They are all too predictable. Without suitable variations in flight and spin, slow bowlers are little more than cannon fodder in the modern game. Until the Proteas can field a couple of spinners who require respect from the opposition, winning ODI matches outside South Africa will be an ongoing difficulty.

Elsewhere, our best tennis player has refused to participate in the Davis Cup play-offs and our golfers seem to have gone into some kind of weird hibernation, playing but not competing. The Rugby Championship is upon us but only blind optimists can foresee anything other than another win for the All Blacks.

All this, too, will pass but it will take time.

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