The old give way to the new

2013-07-02 00:00

THERE were lessons a plenty for South African sport in general, but particularly cricket, in the extraordinary victory of India in the Champions Trophy.

Most revealing was the ability of the Indians to shake off the increasingly mouldy legacy of their 2011 World Cup victory, the triumph for which they had waited so long to be achieved by their cluster of golden players.

The aftermath of those celebrations, however, brought an arrogantly fuelled decline in the performances of the Indian team.

Its senior players, wallowing in self-importance, swollen by riches and the grandeur of their aged reputations, wandered round the field in careless disregard of both their opponents and the game that brought them wealth beyond their dreams.

The consequence of their languid performances was that they were mercilessly creamed by England in successive Test series, and so earned the displeasure of their new coach, Duncan Fletcher, that he resolved to do without a whole bunch of them, save only their iconic captain, M.S. Dhoni, and the ever- humble Sachin Tendulkar.

He brought in fresh talent and gave them new tools, for Indians, with which they could better realise their talents. Fitness and a hard-work ethic, the non-negotiable requirements of any Fletcher regime, rejuvenated the Indian dressing room, and developed in its wake a brilliance and urgency in the field that paid bounteous dividends during the Champions Trophy.

Fletcher could not have achieved such a transformation without his superb eye for the kind of match-winning talent that wins cricket matches.

He unearthed the staggering talent of Dhawan, who had been plying his trade in domestic cricket for years. Dhawan went into the Test team and all but made a double century on his debut only a few months ago. He was the batsman of the Champions Trophy and played with the smile and gusto of a teenager, although he is 28 years old.

Freed from the dark shadows of the legends, the Indian youngsters played with the freedom and spirit that wins trophies. Just to watch them go about their business before, during and after their matches, was to be reminded of the restorative spirit that comes with brilliant talents unburdened by the corners of a team occupied by those whose gifts are growing ever closer to the dread of decay.

Fletcher could not have done it without the support and leadership of his captain, Dhoni, who is probably without peer among all of cricket’s captains. Dhoni gave all his players, at different times, the responsibility of winning matches. No one in his team felt like a bit player and all welcomed the chance to perform under pressure.

This was almost an entirely different team from those who won the World Cup just two years ago and then shed their No 1 Test ranking without a fight.

Winning the Champions Trophy was a feat that the South Africans could not come close to matching, but was achieved with the nous and knowledge of a coach who has long sought, but been thrice denied, the South African post.

Fletcher was very much in the frame when Bob Woolmer was appointed coach of the Proteas in 1996, and then again when Graham Ford replaced Woolmer.

He was also available when Gary Kirsten took over just two years ago. The chance to give him the South African job has probably gone forever, but the lessons of his time with both England and India are pertinent today.

One clear message is that an eye for talent is invaluable. It should be remembered that it was Fletcher who replaced the worthy and reliable, if perhaps somewhat tired, Graham Thorpe with the wildly unpredictable but outrageously talented Kevin Pietersen in 2005, when England eventually regained the Ashes, thanks to K.P.’s great innings at the Oval.

Russell Domingo needs to cast his eye over the younger players in South Africa who are engaged within and outside the franchise teams.

Sometimes talent flowers later than the premature age at which young cricketers are expected to commit themselves to a career in the game. He needs to ensure we are not wasting the gifts of fine young cricketers who make their way to the universities in the search, first, of a higher education.

Domingo must not hang on too long to the legends in his team. South African cricket has always been well-served by its youth when that youth has been given appropriate opportunities. Remember that Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers all made simultaneous debuts in 2005 in a losing team against England at St George’s Park.

He also needs to be aware that young cricketers thrive better under good ­captains. He has inherited the expectation that AB will succeed Graeme Smith but that is a supposition that he must challenge if his own tenure is to be successful.

His will not be an comfortable journey during its early stages but he might want to reflect on the challenges that faced Fletcher.

The fate of Roger Federer at this year’s Wimbledon is a reminder that, in sport, time is not kind to even the greatest of players.

There has been an awful inevitability that some unknown player would knock him out of the early round of a Grand Slam event. One has to admire Federer for continuing to play the game that he loves, despite growing evidence that he has lost a bit of pace about the court, as well as the ability to play his best tennis at the big points in a match.

There is still an enormous pleasure in watching him play, despite the certainty that defeat awaits him in every big tournament. He is unusual in wanting to play in the face of his declining powers, but rather than wish that he would retire before we see him humiliated, we should give thanks that his love of the game is such that he is prepared still to give us glimpses of his genius.

He is now all too fallible. We must expect his defeats and be ready to suffer with him. We neither want to see him lose nor stop playing. That is our dilemma, not his.

He has earned the right to retire only when his enjoyment has gone. He has said he wants to play in the next Olympics. Let us wish him luck in his remaining ambitions, but I fear that 2016 is a few years too far, even for the great Fed.

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