South Africa succumbed to a stronger cricketing culture

2009-03-13 00:00

CRITICAL moments offer an insight into a team’s state of mind. One moment stands out in the current Test series. Australia had reached 67/3 on a cloudy first morning in Johannesburg.

Already Phil Hughes had played an errant swish and Marcus North, another unknown, was waiting his turn. Australia’s worst fears had been confirmed. A thousand groats for Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds! And then Ricky Ponting edged to first slip. It was easy meat and his counterpart prepared to gobble it up. Graeme Smith has enormous hands and could catch sunstroke in Norway.

But Smith grassed the ball, Australia escaped, reached a massive total and won by 162 runs. In Durban they took the spoils by an even wider margin, and after declaring. What might have unfolded had Ponting been taken? In 2005, the Australians wondered whether the Ashes might have been retained had Michael Kasprowicz not been given out with three runs needed for devastating victory and a 2/0 lead in Birmingham. Replays suggested that his glove had been withdrawn from the bat before impact.

But critical moments are not critical at all. On the contrary, they offer an accurate assessment of a team’s wellbeing. Rafael Nadal wins the vital points because he is confident and competent.

Their importance is magnified because the weaker competitor must win them or perish. Take the Ponting miss. South Africa could have created another opportunity but did not do so. Smith’s team was not good enough. As could be gleaned from the uncharacteristic lapse, the captain himself was underprepared. It is all very well spending five days in the nets, but it is no substitute for gritty four-day matches. The bowlers were similarly short of a gallop and so could not sustain the pressure.

Contrastingly, Ponting and company did not give their opponents a second chance. Instead they routed them. Ultimately South Africa succumbed not so much to a superior side as to a stronger cricketing culture.

Consider the differences observed over the last few days. Ashwell Prince has rejected the captaincy and refused to open the batting. He has a case, but his conduct smacks of self-indulgence. Meanwhile the Australians are watching and smiling. A lot can be learned from the Australians’ fight-back. At a cricket function a fortnight ago, two senior journalists and a former selector were asked to predict the outcome of this series. None forecast victory for the hosts. None of them suffers from smugness or fervour. The cause of the optimism was simple. The panel sensed that the Australian team had already turned the corner.

Deterioration has been confronted and corrected. Older players have been moved along and opportunities given to a new bunch, including David Warner, Callum Ferguson and a little lad called Phil Hughes. Whether or not these players succeeded was not the point. Far from managing a gradual decline, Ricky Ponting had been given a team to lead and shape. Everyone was excited. Ruthlessness had been restored.

The culture is enduring. Immense pride is taken in the performance of the national team. When Warner was chosen for a T20 match, his mum said if he only played once for Australia she’d die happy. The Siddles abandoned wood-chopping and dashed to India to watch their boy. Mr and Mrs Ferguson were as nervous as kittens on the morning of Callum’s first appearance. The Hugheses left their bananas to support their offspring in Johannesburg. It means as much now as it ever did.

The culture is strong. Consider Brad Haddin’s response to getting stick about his keeping. He said he loved it because it meant standards were high and he must reach them or suffer the consequences. In Durban, Ponting knew that Siddle’s foot was sore and also knew that he’d bowl his heart out every time he was thrown the ball. Visitors are amazed by the ferocity of the cricketing debate in Australia. Perhaps, now they understand a little better. It is not a place for the faint-hearted.

Australian cricket forgot itself in 2008, forgot it was young and confident and aggressive. The selectors started trying to patch up the team, choosing bowlers because they could bat and batsmen because they could bowl. A poorly-balanced side was sent to India. Problems were allowed to fester. Professionalism also took hold. Matthew Hayden lost form and the averages demanded the promotion of proven players in their late 20s or early 30s. Australian cricket had lost its vitality.

Finally the selectors cried “Enough!” Moreover they looked in the right places for new players. Over the years the Australian brand of cricket has been best played by blue-collar characters with quick feet, sharp eyes and muscles built with hard work. It is a land of pace, back-foot play, wrist spin, youth, attack and intelligence.

Ponting’s new team has surpassed itself. Australia are no longer as formidable, but they are Australian. The tide of professionalism and age has been turned back. Nerve has been recovered.

Everyone has remembered that defeat is not such a terrible thing, and that victory must be chased with gusto. Meanwhile the hosts have fallen back. But it will not last. South Africa are neither as lazy as the West Indians nor as soft as England. Smith and his think-tank will learn from this setback and come back stronger. It’s not defeats that matter, but the response to them.

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