One small voice: Proteas must be bold and ruthless — like Oz

2008-07-25 00:00

Goodness knows, nobody wants South Africa to become like Australia. This planet doesn’t need another culturally redundant, morally bankrupt, genetically impoverished cul-de-sac of a country.

However, in one respect — and only one respect — South Africans could do much worse than to look east and imitate the ragbag descendants of misfits, criminals and exiles.

Their national cricket side has developed an enviable killer instinct. Year in, year out, the team in baggy green caps perform with brutal purpose, conviction and aggression. From the Ian Chappell era in the 1970s, through the captaincies of Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh and on to the current Ricky Ponting era, they have habitually grabbed opposing teams by the throat and ruthlessly refused to let go.

When they bat, they typically score at more than four runs an over. When they bowl, they hunt wickets and are very rarely content just to contain. When they indulge in their trademark “mental disintegration”, they stop at nothing to disturb, unsettle and clinically destroy anyone who poses a threat.

They are the Spartans of world sport.

In contrast, SA cricket teams have appeared historically cautious. They may have usually been able to seize some kind of initiative when playing at home, but successive SA touring sides have too often seemed to base their strategy on the Biblical promise that, one day, the meek will inherit the earth.

Through so many sepia decades, when only England, Australia and New Zealand rotated on the pure-white international touring calendar (because the land of apartheid declined to visit black or brown opponents — not that the invitations were exactly flooding in), SA cricket teams were overly careful and conservative, performing as if an honourable defeat, let alone a draw, was the limit of their ambition.

Eddie Barlow almost single-handedly changed the attitude during the mid-1960s, figuratively and literally getting on the front foot from Lord’s to the MCG. Feisty, irrepressible and unashamedly competitive, he inspired a revolution that yielded the glorious 4-0 series annihilation of Australia in 1970.

The curtains of sporting isolation were pulled soon afterwards but, since readmission, a series of gifted and powerful SA cricket teams have too often reverted to type, appearing somehow unwilling to stamp their authority on the opposition, somehow unable to seize the jugular and go for the kill.

No fewer than three times in the past 14 years, SA have taken a 1-0 lead on tour in England and then been consumed by caution, ultimately failing to close the deal and win the series.

This frustrating trend seemed to be continuing in the recent first Test at Lord’s when Graeme Smith won the toss and, taking the defensive option, asked England to bat; the initiative was lost.

It may have been a tough call, and Michael Vaughan would apparently have done the same, but it was easy to imagine how, in a similar position, Ponting would have attacked, backed his batsmen and put 500 on the board.

Immediately on the back foot, South Africa should have lost the Test, and would have done so but for the wonderfully resilient batting of Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla through the fourth and fifth days.

The following week in the drunken, yobbish bear pit of a cricket ground known as Headingley, Smith again put the home side in to bat first and this time his decision was vindicated by a combination of improved SA bowling and pitiably irresponsible English batting. Prince and AB de Villiers pressed home the advantage with wonderful judgement and discipline and, once again, SA lead 1-0 in England.

What now?

Will Smith’s team be content to contain and control? Will they play the percentages and adopt a no-risk approach under the modern guise of being “professional”? Will they try to drop a dead bat on the contest and score at two runs per over? Will they seek a cautious line just back of a length? Will they hope to secure the series victory with leaden draws at Edgbaston and the Oval?

Or will they demonstrate the bold ambition their undisputed ability deserves. Will they be brave?

Will they play their strokes and attack? Will they go for the kill? Will they play like Australians?

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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