Proteas, Aussies in need of a revival

2008-09-05 00:00

By rights, South Africa and Australia ought to be girding their loins for two terrific tussles this summer. Instead, both seem to be stumbling around like novices in a three-legged race. Victory in the home and away series will go to the team that best recovers from its disturbances. Unless another lucrative 20-over series is organised in the meantime, hostilities will commence in November and a ceasefire will be declared on African soil in autumn. As far as cricket is concerned, nothing can any longer be taken for granted. Already the Perth Test had been shifted once to accommodate a 20-over caper. Actually, it’s been moved to allow players to make even more money. There was a time not so long ago when the game was run by disinterested parties.

Australia had a strangely dislocated summer in 2007/08. The bitterness that emerged during and after the Sydney Test match was not so much the cause of the turbulence as a product of it. Even now, it is hard to understand how an experienced cricket team allowed one idiotic remark from a footling opponent to cause so many complications. Even now, the dust has not settled.

By the end of the campaign, Brad Hogg had retired from Test cricket and gone back to his studies. Everyone assumed that he had been offered a deal by IPL or ICL or ICC or BHP or one of these other abbreviations, but it was not so. He’d simply had enough. It has been a long time since an accredited Australian cricketer walked so blithely away.

Shaun Tait was also lost to the game for a while. Fast bowlers are commonly cast as muscle-bound simpletons. When it suits them they play up to the image, but mostly they grizzle about it. Tait emerged as a sensitive man wounded by exposure and expectation. Confidence deserted him and he withdrew, the better to take stock of his life. Cricket can be a miserable, isolating game. His action reinforced the view that all was not quite well. Perhaps it was the captain or the new coach, or the departure of so many proven champions in a short period. Or, more likely, a combination of these factors. Evidently, the Australians had shed an old skin and had not yet grown a new one.

Now Andrew Symonds has been sent home for going fishing when he was supposed to be at a team meeting. Apparently he sent his boat up to Darwin — to cast worms in his spare time. It was his way of protesting about a variety of matters, not least a game that allows Bangladesh to play Test cricket. Bangladesh does seem to bring out his wayward streak. By his own lights, he is a man of principle.

Observers suggest that Symonds is still angry about the Harbhajan episode. Another view is that he thinks the issue was blown up out of all proportion, an opinion he himself expressed last autumn. Symonds is a funny, private, insecure, stubborn and sensitive man with powerful emotions. When he is angry he can blast stunning hundreds, as he did in Johannesburg when Shane Warne went home, or go into his shell. His influence in the team is strong and must be positive.

But the list of grievances grows.

Brett Lee’s personal problems and Ricky Ponting’s injury add to the impression that the Australians are ripe for the plucking. Unfortunately, the same seems to apply to South Africa.

Despite winning the Test series, Graeme Smith’s side seems to be in disarray. Since the series was settled, the bowling has been woeful, the fielding leaden and the batting has lacked conviction. All momentum has been lost. At such times every niggle is felt, every minor resentment or little inconvenience rears its head. Suddenly the coach seems more like an indulgent uncle than a hard-headed director of operations. Suddenly the old hands seem to be on their last legs. Suddenly the newcomers seem pedestrian. Suddenly the centre cannot hold.

Of course, both camps still have time to sort themselves out. Australia’s fortune lies in the hands of the new group of senior players who took charge last summer. South Africa’s problems are deeper rooted and harder to resolve. Strange as it may seem, England seem to be the most focused team in world cricket right now. If nothing else, that ought to shake the southern teams from their lethargy.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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