Winning is a habit, morale matters

2011-01-15 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s Cricket World Cup (CWC) preparations are underway. Over the years winning sides have arrived with a settled line-up and a relaxed state of mind.

It’s the same in football. Spain turned up with an imposing record as well as the strongest line-up.

Graeme Smith’s outfit have the experience and ability needed to succeed and need to focus now on building confidence. Of course it will not be easy.

Sachin Tendulkar has never lifted the trophy and the final will be played in his home city. England are surging, Sri Lanka have been thinking of little else for months and provided the right team is chosen will be hard to beat.

Alas Sanath Jayasuriya is spoiling his good name by using his new position as a member of parliament to try to secure a place in the squad. He’s over the hill and ought to retire gracefully.

Australia’s decline has left the field wide open. In the past rivals have been crushed like a walnut under a wheel. Only the Proteas had a thick enough shell. South Africa have been able to beat anyone, including themselves. Now Ricky Ponting is making his last stand and his side looks as wobbly as jelly.

It’s going to be a long tournament played in three countries and featuring numerous non-Test nations. The 2011 edition starts on the subcontinent in a few weeks and finishes in Mumbai at the beginning of April.

In 2015 the teams will be cut to 10, a reduction that has upset rising nations eager for the chance to prove their worth. Other sports use World Cups as a marketing tool but cricket puts up a closed sign.

Of course television contracts lie behind the change. TV stations pay a mountain of money to cover these events and expect the matches to be as tight as a taxman’s wallet. TV executives are businessmen, not missionaries. Accordingly they don’t like one-sided contests.

Cricket pits man against man and woe betide the player of lesser ability. Whereas a well-organised football team can give anyone a game, a weaker cricket side can be humiliated. Nor is soccer as dependent on facilities or equipment. Capable players can emerge from every continent and any village.

With every passing year the gap between eminent and emerging closes.

Cricket relies on skill, pitches and exposure. Not so long ago a naïve player from the Middle East walked out to face Allan Donald with only a cap on his head. The rest was inevitable. Donald bowls at the pace favoured by our beloved blue light drivers.

And when non-Test teams do produce players the top teams pinch them. Ireland’s best cricketers routinely turn out for England.

However cricket needs to move beyond its origins or else it will be forever confirmed by yesterday’s battles. One day nations will realise that the past is useful only as a means to light the path forwards. Happily the aspiring countries can qualify for the 2015 CWC by beating incumbents in the run up.

The other reason behind the long qualification period is to avoid upsets. Last time around India and Pakistan were knocked out in the league stage and the TV ratings plummeted. Now a single upset will not matter.

Anyhow the forthcoming competition has lots of teams and will last an eternity.

Eventually the top eight teams will advance into the quarter-finals. Mathematicians will not be surprised to hear that news. All the serious contenders will move into the quarters whereupon the World Cup will begin in earnest.

Preparation is important. In 1996 the Sri Lankans went to the CWC with a spring in their step after playing brilliantly in the warm-ups. Belief is not a matter of breast beating. It resides in the chest and emerges whenever the team is in trouble. Arjuna Ranatunga’s merry men juggled their batting order, dared to attack from the first over and bowled lots of spin. They had worked out their patterns of play and arrived at the tournament with clear heads.

Contrastingly the Australians are in disarray. On Sunday they play their final 50-over contest before the squad is announced and the selectors have publicly stated that the match is a trial. Nor are they trying out youngsters. They want to look at Brett Lee, David Hussey and other familiar faces. It’s hard to avoid concluding that the Aussies are confused and poorly placed to lift the cup for a fourth consecutive time.

South Africa need to keep winning. Obviously local pitches are different but that does not matter. Winning is a habit. Moreover inflicting heavy defeats on India might upset their plans. Smith and company ought to take the chance to expose a flashy middle order containing more multi millionaires than proven practitioners. Morale matters.

Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in Pietermaritzburg.

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