Proteas’ puzzling absentee

2013-03-30 00:00

NOTHING better illustrates the dependence of many sports teams on a few individuals than the indifferent performance of England’s cricket team in their recent series in New Zealand.

With Swann and Pietersen, England were unable to defeat the ordinary home team and came close to losing the series. As a consequence, England have drifted further away from the number one ranking held by the Proteas.

This will be a source of some comfort to the South Africans, who concluded a good but not fautless summer by winning the one-day series against a surprisingly competitive Pakistani team. The most encouraging feature of this ODI series was the return to batting form of AB de Villiers, who appears to be coming to terms with his leading role as captain, keeper and most punishing batsman.

South Africa were also able to do without Jacques Kallis for the entire ODI series. Kallis was given a leave of absence in order for him to recharge his batteries for the more important battles that lie ahead. One might presume that these do not include his assignments in the Indian Premier League, which is about to start its engines for yet another edition of the tournament that is steadily corrupting the heart of cricket.

One would presume wrong, however.

Kallis will be in full attendance for the six weeks of this ghastly circus. For his labours on the subcontinent he will trouser another hefty load of the folding stuff, which no one will begrudge him, but some will wonder why he has spent such a quiet summer in the colours of his country.

According to my calculations, Kallis has padded up for the Proteas no more than 13 times since the tour of England. I do not include any warm-up games in this tally because these fixtures no longer deserve to be included in the first-class records of the game so puerile have they become as contests.

This is a remarkably light load for the best cricketer in the country being a tad over two innings a month.

One imagines that Kallis would have wanted to play more than that if only as a batsman. Battling, after all, is one of the fun parts of the game for most cricketers, particularly if one bats as well as Kallis does.

Yet Kallis probably spent more of the summer playing golf than batting for his country. This has been a curious use of his talents. I understand that the aim is to preserve the balance of his career for Test match cricket, but this doesn’t square with his desire to give it a full go for the next six weeks in the least important form of the game.

He will, of course, be expected to play a leading role in the Champions Trophy, which takes place in England in June. Given South Africa’s lack of success in any ICC competition since 1996, it is odd that its leading cricketer will have played no ODI cricket for over a year.

All this has meant that an opportunity has been created for others to step into the vacancies created by the absences of Kallis and the injured JP Duminy.

The upside is obvious, but, sadly, no one is any wiser as to who the best of the rest is. Behardien, Du Plessis, Ingram and Miller have had their moments without any of them being very convincing.

Ironically, the most promising of the whole lot, Quinton de Kock, had no success at all. If he is to succeed in the game, he clearly has much hard work ahead, but he is young and has time and talent on his side.

Similarly, there does not seem to be a convincing reason for the continued absence of Vernon Philander from the ODI team. Under certain circumstances, such as in India, one again understands a reluctance to expose Philander to a situation where the odds are loaded against him. There is a mystique about his bowling that is clearly wise to preserve as long as possible.

Since Philander’s sensational introduction to Test cricket, the ODI rules have been changed in his favour in that two new balls are used at the start of every innings. He is arguably the best new ball bowler in the world.

He would now have the sole use of his own new ball for as long as he wanted to bowl. This is a tremendous advantage in England, for example, where the new ball moves about much longer than it does in some other countries.

Accordingly, batsmen are much more circumspect at the start of an ODI innings in England than they are, say, in India.

Surely Philander would back himself, and should be backed by the selectors, to do well in these circumstances?

His batting has also improved considerably under the tuition of Gary Kirsten. I do not believe the case for leaving Philander out of the Champion’s Trophy squad as any merit.

On the contrary, his inclusion could be a risk-free master stroke that leads to a much needed success in an ICC event.

I have always felt that all things being equal, the best cricketers are more likely to do a job for you than a team of ODI specialists, and that the closer your team is the Test team the better they will perform under the pressure of the big events.

With Kallis and Philander restored to the ODI squad, most of the Test eleven would be available to play in the Champions Trophy.

I would be surprised if such a team did not come close to bringing home the bacon.

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