The South African presence

2014-06-28 00:00

I SPENT last Saturday at Lord’s cricket ground where Eton played Harrow in their annual match. This is the oldest cricket match in the world. It was first played in 1829 and has been played every year ever since then. For many years it was a two-innings fixture — the first day of which was long one of the highlights of the London season. Dress for the spectators was formal and horse-drawn carriages were drawn up alongside the boundaries of the playing surface.

The modern affair has succumbed to the pressures of a different era. It is now a 55-over game with every match ending in a result. No draws are permitted and Chelsea tractors, the four-by-fours of the chattering class, are not allowed to park any­where near Lord’s, let alone on the hallowed turf of the home of cricket.

This year’s fixture was one of the events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the MCC itself and all the playing participants were given medals commemorating the occasion. Given the nature of the post-match celebrations and the fact that all the players were teenagers, one wonders just how many of these medals survived the day in the possession of the recipients.

My presence was commanded by the fact that my eldest grandson was captain of the Eton eleven. The day did not end well for his team, but he himself had a respectable day in which he took a couple of wickets in 11 economical overs and made the day’s top score of 73 when he batted.

A South African presence was also visible in the Harrow team for whom Matt Elworthy delivered a tidy spell of fast bowling. Matt is the son of Steve Elworthy, who played with distinction for the Proteas in the ill-fated 1999 world cup semi-final as well as in several Test matches. Steve now runs the events programmes of the English Cricket Board for whom he works on a full-time basis.

More telling, perhaps, on the day was the influence of Harrow’s South African coach, Stephen Jones, formerly a prominent cricketer in the Eastern Cape. The most notable difference between the two elevens was the running between wickets and fielding of the Harrow boys. Stephen argues that these are the two disciplines over which he has most control and his training of the team encompasses a zero tolerance attitude towards both of them. The hard work put in by Harrow paid off for the team in this match.

In contrast the Eton fielding was sloppy at times and their prolific opening batsman was run out early on in a mix-up of the kind common in prep school cricket. The South African influence in the English game is obvious now at all levels even though that presence is not quite so distinctive in the Test team following the departures of Jonathan Trott and The Unmentionable One.

When I started playing cricket all those years ago, the English influence in South African cricket was immense. Coaches from the mother country dominated school cricket and many clubs were only too eager to get their hands on one of the many county cricketers that wanted to spend their northern winters playing and coaching cricket in South Africa.

Now it would seem that the tide has turned in the other direction. County cricket is full of South Africans both past and present. Just this week both Ashwell Prince and Jacques Rudolph made big hundreds for their respective counties.

Schoolboy teams in the south of England have a liberal sprink­ling of boys born to South African parents. It can only be a matter of time before some of these boys make their presences felt in the England team.

It is astonishing that this exodus of talent, both playing and administrative, has been met with such complacency in the beloved country. When Ali Bacher made his infamous “so be it” utterance to the United Cricket Board on the possibility of the loss of talent to other countries it was met with a round of applause from the late Percy Sonn and his cronies.

I venture to suggest that Bacher and the current board of CSA have no idea how much stronger our cricket would be if the doors of opportunity had not been shut in the faces of so many of our young cricketers as well as experienced administrators.

Meanwhile, a largely inexperienced Sri Lankan team made a nonsense of the mini series that they were given by the ECB. They batted with determination to save the Lord’s Test and then put their hosts to the sword in a thrilling finish at Headingley. Admittedly this is an English team who are struggling to regain its composure following the disastrous Ashes in Australia and the subsequent ejection of The Dark One whose presence lurks over his former team-mates from the boxes of B list celebrities.

Back home these Sri Lankans will stretch Hashim Amla’s team more than we might have anticipated. If the two giants of Sri Lankan cricket, Kumar Sangakarra and Mahela Jaywardene, are still in the team for the series against the Proteas, this could be a difficult tour for Amla and his men.

Along with Amla and AB de Villiers these four are probably the best batsmen in the world, but in their own country the two Sri Lankans have often provided an almost insurmountable obstacle for opposition bowlers. Their world record partnership of 624 is still seared into the minds of those South African bowlers who toiled for two full days without success.

The Sri Lankans will have gained confidence from their success in England. They fought hard with the same intelligence that has always characterised their cricket. Whereas the Proteas will be rusty from an extended vacation the Sri Lankans will return home confident and battle hardened.

Amla and Russell Domingo should harbour no illusions that the Sri Lankans will offer a gentle introduction to their fledgling regime.

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