Smith’s men are working their way to the top

2008-04-12 00:00

CONCENTRATION is the key to cricket. Taking the eye off the ball even for an instant can be fatal. Any batsman whose mind wonders for an instant is a goner. Any bowler whose brain stops functioning can expect to be taken apart. A fieldsmen as unreliable as the power provided by highly-paid Eskom executives is bound to suffer the consequences. A captain whose thoughts stray loses his grip. A coach who relaxes will presently face the chop. A team that becomes idle is heading for calamity. Focus is everything.

But a common objective must be chosen, or else players and officials will soon be at cross-purposes and then each others’ throats. A single mind is required before progress can be made. Communication is needed. Strong teams hunt as a pack.

South Africans may occasionally feel that their cricket community is not sufficiently single-minded. And it is true. But, then, this country is trying to fulfil conflicting ambitions. To the frustration of elite sportsmen, it wants its teams to reflect a changed society. At the same time it expects its team to win.

Obviously this dichotomy makes it harder to beat nations like Australia that think only about victory. Australia remains the benchmark in cricket because of its strong administration and unwaivering aim. The Aussies might lose, but they rarely beat themselves. Australia knows itself. It is far more complicated in this neck of the woods. All the more reason to praise those involved in South Africa’s recent achievements in rugby and cricket, including the youth teams. Clearly, they managed to attain the required intensity, entering a world where nothing else matters except the next ball or pass. Always there is a look in the eye of the champion.

Of course it helps that cricket is played by such a hotchpotch of countries. In some respects, cricket nations can consider themselves fortunate that organised outfits like Spain, Sweden, Korea, Germany and Denmark put cricket alongside breakfast sausages, Coronation Street, Take That and rhubarb as among England’s more regrettable exports. Instead, it is taken seriously by a small number of turbulent nations. On the other hand, rigorous opposition eliminates slackness and show ponies.

That South Africa is not the only compromised cricket community has been clear from events in India. Between Tests, local players were seen dashing about like swish businessmen with vast corporations to run. Virender Sehwag and company were constantly hopping on to planes, attending T20 team launches, shaking hands with dignitaries and sponsors and then dashing off to other appointments. It is not much of a way to prepare for a Test match. The Indians started abominably in Ahmedabad, and never recovered. Meanwhile, even fringe players were strutting around looking as content as a well-fed labrador.

Everyone has been blaming 20-over cricket for India’s defeat. Buck-passing of that sort must be condemned. The coaches, selectors and captain must carry the can. They must demand higher standards and dedication. It is simple. Send distracted players home. Sack unfit cricketers. Either a team wants to play or it does not. Sport does not permit half-desire. Teams that prepare poorly and hope to get away with it are usually exposed. It takes time to get a side in the right frame of mind. Gary Kirsten must treat his players the same way he treated himself.

Unfortunately, cricket is so badly organised and so dependent on celebrity “culture” that weaknesses are not punished with the requisite severity. Shoaib Akhtar’s career is another example of a cricketer who became unmanageable owing to his arrogance and the support of backslappers. He has been huffing and puffing for years, but produced few spells that were both effective and legal. Yet he is protected and handsomely paid. The main failing of the ICL is that it will allow frauds to flourish. They are milking the game.

South Africa has its problems, but right now the team contains a superb black fast bowler, a gritty coloured batsman, a gifted Indian first drop, a great cricketer, a promising paceman, and a nice blend of youth and experience. Moreover, the fellows work hard and keep their eye on the ball. India is expected to produce a dustbowl in Kanpur, the city of oranges, but that is an escape, not a solution.

As usual, the answer lies within. Sport offers its players the opportunity to soar. But the player must work hard and endure many enlightening setbacks without losing heart. Every sportsman knows it, from the youthful prop forward to the alert right-back. It is an opportunity not to be squandered on trivialities like fame and fortune.

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

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