Standing tall

2008-03-08 00:00

THERE is little worth reflecting over in South Africa’s massive second Test victory against Bangladesh. After the slight embarrassment of the first Test, the home team was disposed of in a suitable manner with regard to the respective status two participants in an unequal struggle. Graeme Smith looked well pleased with his second double century against the Bangladeshis, but even he must know that this was a cheap score against a less than ordinary attack on a flat wicket.

Neil McKenzie’s innings, however, was, for him and a few others, an innings of much greater significance. Ever since his name has been put forward as a replacement for the increasingly disappointing Herschelle Gibbs, McKenzie has been the number one target of Arendse’s nuclear veto. For a time, it seemed McKenzie would fail to regain the place in the Test team that he should never have lost. Having survived all the shenanigans that preceded the selection of this particular squad together with his failures in the first Test it was vital for McKenzie that he make the most of his remaining opportunity before the team to tour India was chosen.

That he did so in such style will have brought him a great deal of pleasure and a measure of comfort. Fortunately he is a level-headed young man who will know that his respite from the president’s attention will be shortlived unless he does well in India. He will also be aware that stellar performances against Bangladesh were not enough to guarantee Jacques Rudolph and Boeta Dippenaar any security of tenure in the national team.

From the team’s perspective, it is important that McKenzie continues to prosper at the front of the batting order because it is now clear that Gibbs has not been able to revise his technique to enable him to cope with skilled new-ball bowlers who are keenly aware of his technical frailties. There are also disturbing rumours that Gibbs has become gun shy at the prospect of dealing with determined pacemen such as Brett Lee. No other opening batsman in domestic cricket suggests that he is ready for promotion so McKenzie may be the only card left for the selectors.

One wonders what went through Jacque Kallis’s mind as he watched the long partnership between his captain and McKenzie. So often in the recent past he has had to rescue his team from the direst of starts. He may have enjoyed putting his feet up for a time but as the day progressed he must have begun to wonder at the unfairness of the situation. His bowling had saved the team in the first Test but now he had to watch as two lesser batsmen filled their boots. Still it is a team game and Kallis has not always put his team’s interests ahead of his own.

That McKenzie should have done so well was a good break for Mickey Arthur, after his confrontation with Arendse, and for Joubert Strydom, who has borne the interference in selections with a stoic resilience. Ironically, circumstances, having disposed of one problem, have presented the selectors with another. Robin Petersen, who was a late selection for this tour after Paul Harris withdrew, took five wickets in the second innings and did enough to suggest that he might become the second spinner in the squad in preference to Johan Botha. Petersen, of course, has the advantage of race over both Botha and Harris. With Arendse determined to press the transformation button at every opportunity in order to appease his powerbase in parliament, Petersen might find himself visiting destinations that were not on his calendar for 2008.

The prospects for the South African tour to India have received an added piquancy due to the goings-on in Australia where the home team lost to India in the finals of the Commonwealth Bank series. The Australians have dominated world cricket ever since the West Indies vacated the space at the top of the game. An unusual crop of great cricketers, led by a leg-spinner of startling talent, came together in the 1990s to give Australia the answers to any situation that confronted them on the cricket field.

The events in India have confirmed that that hegemony long enjoyed by Australia is now over. A few remnants of the glory days are hanging on in the Australian team, but their overweening confidence has been replaced by the grumpiness of old men. In their pomp, men like Matthew Hayden would have scarcely deigned to give Harbajan Singh a moment’s thought let alone have publicly referred to him as “an obnoxious little weed”. If the “weed” had called any of their own a “monkey”, retribution on the field would have swiftly followed rather than a whingeing complaint to the umpires. Nor would the “weed” have been allowed the last laugh by dismissing both men in both finals of the series just ended. Just ask Darryl Cullinan how the Aussies dealt with his own brand of arrogance.

The Australian team is now an uncomfortable blend of a few that have done it all and those who are trying to fill boots too large for their feet. Ever since team sports began this kind of mix has almost invariably been a deadly combination and is usually manifest first in a deterioration of behaviour. Declining performance soon follows as pressure builds on those who have grown used to being part of an omnipotent machine.

The torrent of runs that lifted Ponting to heights in Australian cricket exceeded only by Bradman has dried up leaving him stranded on an island of desperate form. Without the great talent fore and aft that he long enjoyed, he no longer plays with the confidence and freedom that enabled him to respond with such panache to the fall of an early wicket. Alone among Test captains he had seemed impervious to pressure, but no longer. His team may not yet be a wreck, but it is heading for the same troubled waters occupied by its rivals.

I have just spent a few days golfing with Australian visitors to South Africa. To a man they have grown weary of Australia’s long reign of success. The defeats by India have not evoked the same sense of outrage that failures by our own national teams do in this country. They are looking forward to the challenges facing Australian cricket as it contemplates a future without a galaxy of stars. The next generation of great cricketers is not visible to them. So, while they understand that standards may drop, they relish the prospects of the even contests that lie ahead.

Which is why the coming series against India will be so interesting. It will be a true measure of both South Africa’s standing in world cricket and its readiness to face the Aussies. Teams do not win easily on the sub-continent. Against an Indian team that is flush with confidence, that is bolstered by its country’s powerful position in the game and backed by crowds eager to pay tribute to their heroes, the task facing Smith’s men is greater than that faced by any of their predecessors.

One senses that the Proteas are not quite ready to overcome the Indians on their home turf, particularly when that turf has been laid on the less familiar grounds of an itinerary that does not schedule a Test on any of India’s famous venues. Historically, those pitches favour spin bowling, which remains a critical weakness within the South African team. Failure, however, will not imply that Smith’s team is not ready for the Aussies at the end of the year provided the younger players emerge from this tour better equipped to deal with strange conditions.

Our cricket administrators talk much about their desire to see South Africa ranked number one in both forms of the game. It is possible that that lofty goal is now within reach. Arendse and his cronies would do their part by leaving well alone and giving our very best players the time and space to play their cricket without worrying about the sort of enervating issues that have clouded much of this summer.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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