The old guard: who will replace them?

2008-02-23 00:00

THE only evidence that suggests South Africa might retain their place among the top cricket teams in the world is the imminent decline in the quality of those teams. Australia continues to retain their number one rankings in both forms of the game, but are finding the going much tougher without McGrath and Warne. Gilchrist is in the midst of his long goodbye and will soon be gone. Hayden is close to handing his cards in, which will leave Ponting as the last of the great players who joined the Australian team in the 1990s.

Clearly there are still some fine cricketers in the Australian team, but they no longer have that aura of omnipotence that won half the battle before any match began. For the first time in 15 years the Aussies do not possess a world class spinner to make life simple for them on wearing pitches. Bowling teams out twice has become, for the Aussies, the hard work it is for all other teams.

The England team managed one brief successful assault to the summit of cricket in 2005, but scarcely had time to celebrate before falling off the edge. The quartet of fine fast bowlers that took England to the top are highly unlikely to play together again. Without Trescothick, the batting has lost the ability to dominate at the front of an innings. His future in the game remains uncertain, despite renewed talk of a comeback.

Although one suspects that the best of Pietersen and Bell is yet to come, England’s batting has an ordinary look about it. The big match-winning totals that give bowlers a chance to win games have only been made against teams that make up cricket’s pitifully few numbers. England’s hopes for the future seem to lie with their own generation of Asian players and refugees from countries like South Africa. As with Australia, England rarely field a poor team but, without an all-rounder like Flintoff, seem to lack the inspiration that begets greatness.

The Indians are on the threshold of losing the batsmen that should have led them into a golden era but never did. Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman may have a season or two left, but will soon make way for players not yet known.

Good at home, these four have rarely fired together on foreign pitches, although Laxman has the best record of any batsman in Australia since the great Wally Hammond. Without these four, India’s middle order will be denuded of class for longer than they may think, despite the financial riches that swamp the country’s cricket.

Sri Lanka continues to surprise with its stream of exciting talent, but life will be harder for that country’s team when Murali decides to call time on his career. Fortunately, for Sri Lanka, this moment may be further away than is usual, given the little man’s unending enthusiasm for the game, allied to his desire to take 1 000 Test wickets.

Pakistan, the West Indies and New Zealand are poorer than any of them have been for many years. They each await a fresh generation of players to revitalise their cricket, but such generations may as yet be unborn. The instability of Pakistan and the decrepit infrastructure of the West Indies are not conducive to recapturing glory days for either of these countries. New Zealand’s pool of cricketers is too small to allow it to be anything other than a bit player, save for those rare years when an exceptional group of players grow up together.

Thus, measured against our rivals, South African cricket looks to be in reasonable shape. After all, just under half the team consists of men who are still in their twenties and those in their thirties should have a few years left in their legs. As always, however, the devil is in the detail. We have six “franchise” teams. It is reasonable to suppose that those cricketers who will replace Kallis, Boucher, Ntini and Gibbs are already playing for those franchises. These four, along with Smith and the departed Pollock, have been the spine of our national team, but who can actually name their replacements? Gibbs’s place in the team touring Bangladesh has been taken by Neil McKenzie, who is younger than Gibbs by not much more than a year.

I am delighted for McKenzie that he has been given another chance and that he survived Arendse’s futile effort to remove him from the team, but it does not say much for the younger generation that none of them has been deemed worthy of a trial as an opening batsman in the national team. Arensdse’s other “pick”, Charl Langeveldt, would not have let the team down, but he will be 34 this year.

The six franchises have at least 30 batsmen between them. The best of them are Dippenaar, Rudolph, Watson and Ackerman, none of whom is likely to play for South Africa again. Neither the Lions nor the Titans have any batsmen who suggest that they will ever be good enough to play for the national team. Some people are talking about Dean Elgar, others about Jon-Jon Smuts and Jonathan Vandiar, but my observation is that all three of them have a long way to go.

Henry Davids has scored a lot of runs and in the scheme of things is likely to be the next to get a chance, but I would not like to see him walking out to bat with South Africa at 95 for 4.

I had a look at the SA Schools team of 2004 to see what has become of those schoolboy “stars” of four years ago. Of that entire team, only Vernon Philander has made any impact this season. Three others play “franchise” cricket, but without distinction. The rest seem to have disappeared. This suggests either a sad wastage, or that the affirmative action policy that governed the selection of that team has borne no fruit. That same year, an SA Colts team was chosen and of these only Dean Elgar currently plays for a franchise team.

The loss of talent is the problem that should be exercising the minds of administrators, rather than the lofty policies of transformation. If any of them were to spend some time watching schools’ cricket, where they could talk to boys and parents, they would begin to find some reasons for the disappearance of talent. They would learn of the frustrations caused by selection policies that are blatantly discriminatory; of the void that engulfs young cricketers when they leave school; of the absence of mentors of any kind in the clubs that struggle to attract school leavers to play for them; of the difficulties in combining a tertiary education with a future in cricket.

They would also discover that waterpolo attracts more spectators than does cricket and that both school sports, individually, attract more spectators in a morning than does a first class franchise match over all four days.

They would be alarmed to hear what parents and boys thought of the manner in which they ran cricket and the low regard in which administrators are held by these important stakeholders in the game. The momentum that has sustained cricket in this country is losing pace. The familiarity of this refrain in the new South Africa does not make it less true. The promises of the rainbow nation are giving way to the symptoms of a banana republic. The enervating policies of discrimination are draining ambition and losing talent.

Look at the West Indies, Mr Arendse. That is the sad vision that awaits cricket in this country, unless you can put aside the hurt and grievances of a century and move on.

It is time to acknowledge that your policies are failing the game as surely as did those of the National Party. We cannot afford further years of disharmony and ill feeling.

•Ray White is a former UCB administrator.

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