What’s happened to us?

2014-02-22 00:00

WHETHER you were at Supersport Park or watched on television, it was obvious that there is a gulf between Australia and South Africa that is unlikely to be breached in what is left of the two remaining Test matches. It is not just the Johnson factor, as formidable as it is, that separates the teams. The difference could be seen in all aspects of the game from captaincy to fielding. Only AB de Villiers of the South Africans was not outplayed by his opposite number.

In the week before the Centurion Test match, both teams had an outing at the Wanderers under simulated match conditions. The Proteas took on a scratch 11 made up of a rough collection of the next best whereas the Aussies played amongst themselves.

I went to have a look at these preparations. The difference between the two teams was stark. The South African Test side, who were in the field, went about their business with the intensity of an end of season league match. Fielders strolled after the ball. The bowlers were down on pace amidst an air bordering on uninterest. Smith stood at first slip, silent and detached. The batsmen, Quinton de Kock and Stian van Zyl, were untroubled.

In contrast, the Aussies went at it hammer and tongs in their shorter version the following Sunday. The bowlers were flat out, the fielders were lively and thoroughly hooked on the proceedings. Clarke directed matters like a man completely in charge. His own batsmen looked anything but comfortable.

There is an old saying in sport that one should practise with the same intensity that one intends to play. If one had taken anything from the preparations of the teams at the Wanderers it would have been that only the Aussies were ready for the fight and raring to go.

As we now know, Smith made a catastrophic decision to put the Aussies in to bat and his team were outplayed from start to finish. The subsequent defeat was the biggest suffered by South Africa since the halcyon days of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.

The performance of the Proteas in the field on the Friday of the first Test was as bad as anything since readmission. The team appeared demoralised and incompetent. Worse, it seemed that they had given up. It was no surprise to see them fold so tamely on the Saturday albeit in the face of fierce bowling from Johnson and some extraordinary fielding by the Australians. Afterwards, one left the ground with the feeling that it would take something supernatural to turn this series round.

The potential casualty list from the first Test is serious. Alviro Pietersen went into the match without any form and came out of it bereft of fight. His place in the team hangs by a thread. Somewhere during the course of this season, Amla has lost both his footwork and judgment. He battled gamely in the second innings and survived Johnson only to fall to a loose shot outside the off stump that spoke of a man who had not set his mind to bat for a day and a half.

Faf collected two brutes from Johnson that would have done for anybody, including the much missed Kallis. The verdict is out on him except to suggest that he bats at six so that AB has someone other than tailenders to keep him company.

Duminy is another who has tried the patience of the selectors to breaking point. I have a feeling that he should be given one last chance at four where his batting would not normally be prescribed by what has gone before. His shot to get out in the first innings was criminally reckless in the circumstances, which dictated that he should have preserved his wicket for the sake of AB, who looked throughout as though he was playing in a different and simpler match.

Maclaren will play no further part in this series courtesy of Mr Johnson. Without the protection of his helmet he could have been carried off the field in a body bag. Philander is clearly not as fit as he was a year ago and was played with ease once the shine was off the ball. Morkel took just one wicket in contrast to Johnson’s 12 and people are beginning to ask if he will ever come to the party with a raft of wickets.

As it turned out neither of the Petersens (given some spelling licence) were chosen to play in the second Test albeit for different reasons. Alviro P’s replacement, Dean Elgar, batted with great determination and intelligence to make 83 and has probably secured his place for the Cape Town Test, notwithstanding CSA’s astonishingly timed announcement on the eve of the Test that his contract would not be renewed.

Robbie P’s curious replacement, Quinton de Kock, played a shot befitting his schoolboy looks and must have left the selectors wondering how much immaturity is left in the young man. If they want a seventh batsman surely they should look for reliability rather than a dasher. De Kock needs a big second innings if he wants to play at Newlands.

Nothing happened on the first day in Port Elizabeth to suggest that these Proteas are capable of turning this series around or that the post-Kallis era will be anything other than difficult. The balance of the team is out of kilter and the increased responsibility on the shoulders of all the batsmen appears to sit lightly only on the shoulders of AB de Villiers.

To be fair to the Proteas, these are early days for this different-looking team and the Aussies themselves were being written off less than six months ago. These things can sometimes be turned around surprisingly quickly if there are no unnecessary roadblocks in the way. That there are such obstacles in this country is a matter for regret.

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