The top a distant post

2012-01-28 00:00

THERE are some discerning people close to the team, but not part of it, who believe that, under the guidance of Gary Kirsten, the Proteas have the potential to dominate world cricket. There is certainly evidence to support the view that the calm, measured approach of Kirsten has brought a freshness and energy to a squad that had begun to look a little weary, but domination looks to be a far distant post for a team that has several weaknesses for which ready solutions are not yet in sight.

Looking at the team through the eyes of England, the number-one Test team in the world and their opponents later this year, the most obvious weakness is that the batting is too dependant on the top six, not all of whom are in the sort of form to carry a large burden. This should be contrasted with the English team that bears the look of the South Africans of a decade ago when the bottom half of the batting regularly contributed valuable runs.

Chief among Kirsten’s concerns must be the patchy form of his captain, Graeme Smith. Against the excellent England attack it is essential that the Proteas get off to the healthy starts that enable the world class trio of Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB De Villiers to play with the freedom and confidence that leads to big totals.

Smith has reached that stage of his career when his hand-eye co-ordination is no longer sharp enough to make up for the obvious deficiencies of his technique, particularly against the new ball. His early vulnerability to nicking the ball either onto his stumps or into the slips stands in the way of the consistent success that has recently eluded him.

Smith, however, remains a formidable batsman and an immense asset to the team once he gets going. His mental strength and determination to get the job done have enabled him to play some of the most successful second innings in the history of South African cricket. One wonders if the time has not come for Kirsten to reach back into the lessons of his own career.

Kirsten was one of the best opening batsmen of his time, but once Smith and Hershelle Gibbs had established themselves as partners he found a role for himself in the middle of the batting. His 130 runs in 2003 at Headingley was made from the middle of the order at a time when his team was in deep trouble. That innings of Kirsten was one of the best of his many performances because it set up a priceless victory.

Perhaps the time has come for Smith’s career to follow a similar route? One of his finest Test innings took place against England at the Wanderers in 2005 when he came in low down in the second innings having been concussed in a warm-up incident earlier in the match. That was the occasion when Matthew Hoggard bowled England to an unlikely victory on the last afternoon. Against medical advice Smith came in when the South African cause was all but lost and he nearly succeeded in saving the match. He not only protected the tail for long periods but also scored runs so quickly that England began to fear defeat. In the end the tail gave in, but Smith gave notice then that he could bat anywhere in the order.

It could be sound thinking to imagine where South Africa’s opponents would least like to see Smith bat. I can see England’s fast bowlers believing that their best chance against Smith is with a new ball on the first morning of a Test match with a bit of life in the pitch. They might not be so amused to see him coming in later. With his nimble footwork Smith has always been a good player of spin bowling and this could be vital against a team that possesses one of the best off-spinners in the game.

The problem is that if Smith is not to open who would partner Petersen, who himself is just finding his way back into Test cricket after an enforced sabbatical? Jacques Rudolph is the obvious choice, but he did not really look the part when given the chance to open earlier this summer.

Looking round the provinces none of the opening batsmen suggest themselves as likely candidates to partner Petersen. The absence of a ready-made opener to take Smith’s place might militate against any change being made this year, but this must be something that should occupy Kirsten’s thoughts as he tries to build a team that can dominate all others.

The issue of Mark Boucher’s replacement is another pressing matter for the coach. Boucher’s lack of runs is a stark difference between himself and the batting of Matt Prior, who is clearly the best number seven batsman in world cricket making valuable runs for England at a cracking pace.

For this reason one would like to have  seen one of Boucher’s potential successors taken on the tour to New Zealand whether it was Thami Tsolikele or Dane Vilas, the two with the most credentials. Boucher himself was taken as a reserve keeper to Australia in 1997/98, but made such an impression that Dave Richardson retired immediately after that tour.

Despite his inexperience Boucher soon found himself managing the intricacies of keeping wicket on gloomy afternoons and making valuable runs in England.

There is much for Kirsten to reflect upon after his first two series as coach, but he may find that pondering on a bit of cricket history may help him find some answers.

On another note, Graham Ford’s appointment to the Sri Lankan job now means that more than half the coaches of the Test nations now come from southern Africa. This may not be a cause for celebration, but it seems to be another indication of the respect for the way cricket is played in this part of the world.

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