Shaken, but also Steyned

2007-12-22 00:00

IF the West Indies gained any satisfaction from the abbreviated T20 match last Sunday, it was not only mistaken but is destined also to be short lived. Their fast bowling certainly surprised a South African top order who were asked to bat first on a lively pitch at an hour well past the bedtime of all of them, bar Hershelle Gibbs, who was the unlucky victim of a stunning catch. It was a South African top order, however, that consisted of just two batsmen who will face them in the Test matches.

The rest of the batsmen would be unlikely to find a place in any team picked by reasonably sober readers of this newspaper, even for a T20 slog-out such as took place in Port Elizabeth. It is only our national selectors who could possibly have picked a side that included Goolam Bodi, Vernon Philander, Albie Morkel and Shaun Pollock in the top half of the order with any expectation of success. Talk about sending troops into battle without proper equipment!

The rest of us dumb souls might have preferred to choose a batting line-up that included the likes of Neil McKenzie, Boeta Dippenaar and Jacques Rudolph. These fellows have actually scored runs in all sorts of conditions against a variety of opponents and would have welcomed a nod from the selectors that they are still worthy of consideration. Bodi on the other hand is little more than a slogger of poor bowling whereas poor Philander does not even merit that lowly accolade at this stage of his career.

Just what the selectors see in Philander is difficult to fathom. His performances in the world cup T20 varied from abysmal to embarrassing whether he was batting, bowling or fielding. At best Philander is an ordinary cricketer who has been carried from junior teams to the national team on a wave of misplaced ideology. He may yet make something of himself as a cricketer, but not unless he comes to understand that an enormous amount of hard work stands between him and a reasonable amount of success.

I like the look of JP Duminy, but his chances are rapidly mounting up without any visible signs of payback. Duminy is another who should be saying to himself that he needs to be seen to be scoring more runs than any of his rivals for a spot in the national team. That cold logic means outscoring McKenzie and Dippenaar in all forms of the game and not just doing a little bit better than his darker shade of pale rivals.

The 12 runs for six wickets scoreboard that embarrassed us all last Sunday night should serve as a wake up call to the selectors that whatever the nature of the match the national team deserves to be chosen with the sort of consideration that not only contemplates success, but is also sensitive to the message its selection is sending to its immediate constituents. The selection of the T20 team was something of an insult to our visitors, the paying public and commercial stakeholders who deserve nothing less than to be confronted with our best available team.

The West Indies administered a suitable rebuke to the ill-chosen squad, but not without receiving a telling reminder of what awaits them in the imminent Test matches. Their top order was blown away by Dale Steyn in one of the finest three-over spells ever seen from a bowler in South African colours. The lights at St Georges Park have always been below the standard expected of international cricket grounds, but as far as the Windies’ top batsmen were concerned, they might just as well have been turned off when Steyn was bowling.

I cannot recall seeing four top-order international batsmen having their stumps shattered in such short order — 10 balls to be precise. Steyn’s control of pace, length and swing was remarkable. One always felt that if he retained his ability to bowl outswingers at genuine pace, Steyn would find out most batsmen at all levels of the game. This he has done so far in addition to developing admirable control and an excellent slower ball with the result that he is reaping a rich crop of wickets.

Steyn has been a coming force for a few years now, but he has worked hard on both his physique and his bowling. He took himself off to play county cricket, which remains the game’s best finishing school and, like Allan Donald before him, he has come back a much better bowler. Steyn’s impact on the game this year has been greater even than that of Donald in his early years. It is little wonder that cricket’s cognoscenti, like Peter Roebuck, see in Steyn a weapon that could pose a challenge to Australia’s hegemony.

He will not be able to do it alone. He will need good support from the other end and right now that support has not been forthcoming. Makhaya Ntini has been so good for so long that one has taken him for granted but concern is now mounting that his best days are in the past. His pace has been well down this season and it has been his ability to keep coming at the batsmen that has kept him so successful. If batsmen begin to feel comfortable facing him, Ntini will find wickets hard to come by.

This will be an important series for Ntini. If he cannot recover his pace and struggles against this West Indies team, he is unlikely to be successful in the more difficult battles that lie ahead against India, England and Australia. With Pollock sliding out of the picture, a benign Ntini would leave the national team searching for someone to partner Steyn. Morne Morkel is being touted as the answer to this problem but in spite of his promise he does not have a record of consistent success even when he has been fit.

The man who has been taking wickets regularly in domestic cricket is Monde Zondeki. After a spell in the national team four years ago, Zondeki has been working hard to improve his action and has been well rewarded this season. At a time when the iconic Ntini is struggling, it may be a propitious moment for the selectors to have another look at Zondeki. He has been playing in the A team match against the West Indies and his performance in this match is an indication of just how much progress he has made in recent years.

For the West Indies, the Test matches this summer will be yet another marker of how far their cricket has declined since the glory years. I am sitting at Plettenberg Bay gazing at the expanse of water where once the Look Out beach sat supreme among South African beaches. The lost beach is a reminder that nothing in this world is permanent and that those things that are gone are sometimes never recovered. So one fears it will be with West Indies cricket that enchanted the cricket world for half a century and ruled it with blistering pace and aggressive batting for nearly 20 years.

Every year, cricket lovers hope that the Caribbean, the source of so many players of such startling class, will throw up a fresh generation of brilliant calypso cricketers. For 10 years all we have seen is a bunch of so-so cricketers with all the arrogant insouciance of the glory years and little of its class. The current team is no better than any of its immediate predecessors. We will enjoy the brutal batting of Chris Gayle, the deft touches of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the all round endeavour of Dwayne Bravo and the pace bowling of Taylor, Powell and Edwards, but six players are not enough to make a decent Test match team. With Steyn in rampant form, Smith’s team will be too strong for the islanders.

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