Proteas’ strength points to a few good men

2009-09-26 00:00

WHILE leaving the media centre after Thursday’s clash between South Africa and the Kiwis, I witnessed an interesting game of backyard cricket.

“I’m Dale Steyn,” the bowler piped out.

“Well, I am AB (de Villiers),” his counterpart offered. When the third youngster plumped for the role of Albie Morkel, the last chap sulked away.

“Who am I supposed to be? You have taken everyone already,” he said. The razor-sharp “Steyn”, eager to get things going, then produced a gem of a response.

“Hey, you can be AB the fielder!”

They don’t do half measures in Pretoria. Their steaks are gigantic, their rugby heroes are man mountains; and now their cricket icons are having a super-sized effect on the fortunes of the Proteas.

The Titans crew in the national set-up has grown steadily over the last few seasons, and its influence has also gathered momentum.

Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers, the Morkel brothers and the bustling Roelof van der Merwe have all added a new dimension to Graeme Smith’s side.

Steyn, widely regarded as the finest exponent of speed and swing in the modern game, now thrives in his role of chief destroyer. He doesn’t even engage in the time-honoured tradition of sledging. Instead, his occasional bouncers and yorkers make a big enough statement to opposing batsmen.

The Morkel brothers, Albie and Morne — a reserve for the Champions Trophy — are still growing into their roles, though Albie is already a long way down to being the first adequate replacement for Lance Klusener.

Albie’s bowling has also improved steadily in the last 18 months. At one stage, he was just a bludgeoner who could be tossed the ball as an afterthought. Now he is one of Smith’s “middle-over grafters”, adding slower balls and swing to his repertoire.

The rise and rise of De Villiers has been so well documented that it almost requires no further mention.

Well, almost.

Simply put, the multi-talented De Villiers has now become South Africa’s most important player. No other member of the side personifies the difference between talent and the relentless pursuit of excellence. The turning point was the now infamous “silly shot” at Lord’s last year during the Test series.

His response to the subsequent criticism has been nothing short of spectacular. Australians know his bat maker very well, as he piled on the runs with dreamy driving Down Under.

In the IPL, he was one of the leading lights, scoring over 400 runs and averaging over 50. His quality is best illustrated by the fact that he doesn’t look out of place in any form of the game. He can change gears even in Test cricket —a certain Bryce McGain can attest to this — and he has fully justified his insistence on putting his keeping gloves aside and concentrating on becoming the best player in the world.

And he is not that far off. He is insatiable. Indeed, by the time Abraham de Villiers is done, he will stand alongside immortals such as Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock as South Africans who were not only the best of their country, but also some of the finest batsmen that ever strode to the crease.

He really is that great a player, and all this at the tender age of 25. And he is more than worth the hype.

Perhaps the most fascinating story from the Titans is that of Van der Merwe. A prospect from school, he made the SA under-19 squad and looked set for an immediate leap into the paid ranks.

But, in his own words, he took his eye off the ball and acted like a typical school leaver, revelling in his freedom and selling himself short.

The main weapon in his game is sheer tenacity, and it is rubbing off on his team-mates. Smith said as much after Van der Merwe’s wonderful spell against New Zealand.

“No one is as competitive as Roelof. I went to watch him in a recent Twenty20 match against a Schools XI, and I think he lost more skin in that game than he did for us. He is a very fierce, competitive guy, and that is great to see.”

Every ball matters to the left-armer, and he has found encouraging purchase in the early season tracks the Champions Trophy is being contested on. Indeed, he has been the Proteas’ best bowler so far, mixing aggression with a miserly line and length.

His catching and general fielding have also been sound, which makes him an even more useful addition to the side.

Like the rest of the Titans battalion in the South African camp, he has youth on his side and a strong will to win.

The impressionable Centurion youngsters may not yet be impersonating Van der Merwe in their backyard games, but it is only a matter of time before that changes.

They don’t do half measures in this part of the world. The roar of approval when one of their own enters the cauldron is a notch higher than for other players.

Pretorians are fiercely proud of their national players, and rightly so.

De Villiers cites Gladiator as his favourite film. It seems the Proteas have acquired several of their own warriors, all dead set on etching their names in history.

Are you not entertained?

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