When the pressure was on, the Proteas proved, plain and simple, that they’re not good enough

2009-10-03 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s capitulation in the Champion’s Trophy cannot be ignored. Admittedly it is unwise to react too strongly to an early-season setback. Moreover India and Sri Lanka, well fancied sides, did not reach the semi-finals either. Meanwhile the Poms and the Kiwis surpassed themselves.

In short, it’s been an unpredictable event played on moody pitches. Still, the Proteas were a letdown. In the critical hour they resemble scalded cats. Evidently the local muddied oafs have a conviction missing in the flannelled fools. From the moment the cricketers start talking about “huge games”, supporters fear the worst. Graeme Smith and chums seem happier to be cast as challengers than champs.

In the decisive match, England played a bold and zestful game, while South Africa fretted. Andrew Strauss’s side upset the applecart by attacking the home spinners. South Africa had no such unsettling strategy. Instead they flailed around desperately till doomsday came.

Everyone agrees that the campaign was undermined from the outset because the preparation was poor. As that great sage Henry Blofield once observed after long deliberation on the topic, “pressure is a funny old thing”.

Players need to be ready for it and that requires the hardening of mind and body and the tightening of nuts and bolts that intense competition alone can bring. Alas, the Proteas were not ready. In the first match they fielded like drunks and the bowlers were about as economical as Grace Mugabe. In the decisive third match, the bowling was lacklustre and, Smith apart, the batsmen threw their wickets away with reckless back-foot heaves.

But who was responsible for the insipid preparation? Is the horse pulling the cart or the other way around? Naturally the Proteas wanted to take a long break after a draining season. For some extraordinary reason, wives want their husbands to spend some time at home (a view that tends to change once the player retires). As far as the Proteas were concerned, the timing of the Champions Trophy could hardly have been worse because it was held before the domestic season had begun. However, it was in the colander and a team intent on winning an important trophy, an outfit whose cupboard was frustratingly bare, was duty bound to adjust its programme. South Africa did nothing of the sort. Instead they relied on nets and friendlies. Unsurprisingly, it backfired.

Although these things did not help, South Africa cannot blame the pitches, lost tosses, Jacques Kallis’s inability to bowl his allotment against England or an opposing leader acting well within his rights in denying their man a runner. Other teams also endured setbacks, not least the Poms, Kiwis and Aussies, and they managed. In any case, these disadvantages were balanced by the fact that South Africa were the home side.

No excuses can be made. Plain and simple, the Proteas were not good enough. Nor can the selectors escape censure. They were slow to recognise that Wayne Parnell was out of sorts. But then, adequate replacements were thin on the ground. If Makhaya Ntini is not going to play, his place in the squad ought to be taken by a youngster. And the treatment dished out to Charl Langeveldt by previous incumbents at headquarters returned to haunt their successors.

The prison warder’s skill at bowling the last few overs was missed. And it’s a skill made all the more important by the power play, an innovation that gives captains headaches and sometimes nightmares and creates endless debate amongst commentators in the supposedly routine overs in the middle of the innings. Langeveldt objected to being treated like a pawn in someone else’s game. It was an insult to a capable bowler and a dignified man. Get him back.

Nor are these the only changes required after this disappointment. South Africa needs to start building a side for the 2011 World Cup, a tournament to be played in hot conditions in India. To that end the selectors need to bite an especially hard bullet. The time has come to thank Mark Boucher for his unstinting service and to give the gloves to AB de Villiers. As it stands, the team’s batting was shaky and Boucher looked high at six. His place can be taken by an accomplished batsman capable of playing innings of substance. De Villiers is a fine keeper and can follow in the footsteps of Kumar Sangakkara by remaining a specialist batsman in the longer versions of the game.

South Africa needs to confront and correct its weaknesses. Mickey Arthur, Smith and the think-tank have worked wonders, but the time has come to take unpopular decisions. As the rugby boys have shown, South Africa can reach the top. But ruthlessness is required. Precious little was shown in the Champions Trophy.

Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correpondent who is based in the KZN midlands.


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