Poor timing all round

2014-03-08 00:00

THE Mother-city Mafia have left the stage.

I understand the desire of retiring sportsmen for one last moment in the sun, but one must question the wisdom of Graeme Smith’s decision to announce his retirement towards the end of a Test match that his team were battling to save. It seemed to me that once the news was out, the air went out of his players, who then gave a dispirited and embarrassing performance on the penultimate day of the Newlands match.

Surely Smith, for so long the captain of the South African cricket team, had an obligation to time his announcement when it would do the least damage to the morale of his team? As it was, they were in the process of being outplayed in every session of the match and the last thing they needed was for their skipper and father figure to tell them that he was pulling the plug.

The team gathered themselves on the final day to muster some resistance to the rampant Aussies, but it was a siege-type defence that always looked doomed to fail, notwithstanding the lifeless pitch that gave nothing to the Australian bowlers. The tactic, which saved the day two years ago in Adelaide against an attack that was short of a bowler, did not succeed against the full hand held by Michael Clarke.

In the end, it was a close-run thing, but in truth the Proteas were outplayed from the moment the toss was lost and were never in the match. For the second successive match, Smith lost a bowler early in the piece and his team suffered the humiliation of losing a Test in which their opponents had declared twice. It was painful to see the number-one team in the world with all the fielders on the boundary during Australia’s second innings. The only thing missing was a white flag.

I am sure that Smith would have liked to leave behind him a team that deserved the title of the best team in the world, but for the immediate future the Proteas will be champions only in name. The Mother-city Mafia that ran this team has departed the scene in a flurry, emptying it of its leadership and much of its skill and experience. It was this tight group of four strong personalities and brilliant cricketers that established within the Proteas a set of standards and insisted upon a rigorous adherence to those standards. The loss in a short time, of Mark Boucher, Gary Kirsten, Jacques Kallis and now Smith, has delivered a blow from which no quick recovery should be expected. Too much class has disappeared in too short a time.

It should also be expected that those who were comforted by the presence of these four should now find the going much more difficult. Prominent among these will be the coach, Russell Domingo, who was given his post despite having played no cricket of any substance himself. This has not been a good series for him. With his fondness for statistics, I feel certain he was behind the poor decision to send Australia in to bat at Centurion and I cannot understand why Hashim Amla was asked to bat at number four in the final Test.

Amla has been a world-class performer at number three, which is arguably the most important position in the batting order. Time and again he has gone in at the early fall of a wicket, whereupon he has been able to keep his wicket intact and the scoreboard moving. At Newlands, Dean Elgar failed to do either and the batting of the team was unable to recover its poise.

There have been very few coaches of modern international teams who have not played the game at the highest level. Some of them, like Graham Ford and Mickey Arthur, have had moderate success, but none has lasted long. The authority of a coach depends on the respect he has within the dressing room. It certainly does him no harm to have his coaching abilities backed up by solid playing credentials. In Domingo’s case, I fear that his lack of playing experience will come to be a problem for him and his team when the going gets rough, as it will.

Sad to say, but the Proteas were beaten by a better team who took their chances. That they were able to do so was due to the performances of David Warner and Mitchell Johnson, who were backed up by superb catching. Warner went after Smith’s bowlers and scored his runs so quickly that time was never an issue for the Aussies. The South Africans had no comparable success with the bat. Smith’s final series was the worst of his career and contributed, no doubt, to his surprising decision to pack it in.

The Proteas had some golden moments in Port Elizabeth when Dale Steyn was on song, but none of the other bowlers threatened the Aussies on pitches that were not ideal for their brand of bowling. It remains a mystery why the Aussies were given pitches so suited to their batting when everyone knows how much they struggle when the ball moves sideways.

Defeat has a way of exposing weaknesses in a team and the retirements of Kallis and Smith have revealed a worrying lack of depth. An inventory of playing resources does not make pretty reading. A harsh view would be that the national team is now short of the following: one, if not two, opening batsman; a reliable middle-order batsman; a proven Test-class wicketkeeper if, as expected, A.B. de Villiers becomes captain, a genuine spin bowler and a quality all-rounder.

Testing times lie ahead for those associated with the Proteas. The most powerful lesson of Smith’s career is that he demanded players in his team who were cricketers of character. He wanted men, not boys. This may be his most important legacy as the axis of the team shifts north.

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