World bowled over by Steyn

2008-01-05 00:00

The year did not end well for the South African national cricket team in Port Elizabeth. In the current pecking order, the West Indies rank above Bangladesh and Zimbabwe only. Such teams do not expect to beat those above them let alone on foreign turf.

The Windies have now beaten our boys twice in a row and the sound of wheels falling off has been muffled only by the noise of the selectors trying to dig themselves out of a hole by belatedly adding Neil McKenzie to their squad.

It may well be that Smith’s men were underdone after their three-week holiday slap in the middle of the summer. Having lost last year to India after a similar break, one would have thought the “learners” in charge of our cricket might have absorbed the sharp lesson administered then, but that assumes too charitable a view of their ability.

The failure to learn from past mistakes is a sign of stupidity. If Cricket South Africa does not enjoy criticism it should make an effort to stop feeding its critics with such obvious material.

I have little doubt that the thrashing handed to the West Indies by Neil McKenzie’s “A” team infused into the first 11 an arrogance that pitching up in Port Elizabeth would be the hardest part of their task there. It generally serves cricketers to be better than they think they are.

Such an attitude encourages them to focus on playing good cricket throughout their preparation and from ball one.

It is not good cricket to win the toss at St George’s Park on a morning when the westerly wind is blowing and invite your opponents to bat first. Cricketers have long known that this hot, dry wind makes any movement through the air difficult to achieve for bowlers, even with the newest of balls. Asking the Windies to bat smacked of an attitude that implied they could be rolled over quickly irrespective of the conditions.

In any case, winning the toss and batting first in a Test match gives a team its best chance of controlling the match. It is only when the conditions are strongly in favour of the bowlers that a captain who wins the toss should even contemplate fielding first. This comes straight from ABC manual of captaincy for tiny tots and it is only arrogance that allows such a fundamental lesson to be ignored.

No matter how good or indifferent the opposition may be, it is important to respect their ability and to resolve to overcome them by playing good quality, high intensity cricket. That is the Australian way, and one that has served them well down the years. It is a recipe for success that our boys would do well to imitate, however weak the opposition might be.

Make no mistake — this is not a good West Indies team. Their best players did enough last week to make them competitive, but getting bowled out for less than 200 when they were 120 for two in their second innings illustrated just how vulnerable they are, even when in a position of considerable strength.

The Windies’ collapse, which started with a run out, brought South Africa back into a match that they might have won had they batted better as a team.

Jacques Kallis, of course, could not have batted better in the second innings at St George’s Park. He is not only at the summit of his batting prowess, but also in sublime form. For a few hours last Saturday, Kallis raised South Africa hopes of an unlikely victory.

He had found a sturdy partner in AB de Villiers and was batting with such assurance that it seemed unlikely he would make a mistake. An umpteenth Test century seemed inevitable when he was undone by a poor decision from Zimbabwean umpire Russell Tiffin, who has made an unwelcome return to the international game’s elite umpiring panel.

To be fair to the Windies, they had recognised that if Kallis possesses any weakness it may be found in his hooking of short-pitched bowling. They had begun to ply him with bouncers, but such was his command of the situation that their strategy seemed to be born from the want of a better idea than any genuine hope that Kallis might be dismissed. As it was, Tiffin had other plans for Kallis.

Once the master was gone, the innings folded towards its inevitable climax, giving the Windies a welcome and much deserved victory.

The home selectors originally gave themselves little leeway other than the inclusion of Shaun Pollock for the second Test match, an option they yet again declined. If Pollock is not picked for the Durban game, might one assume he has played his last Test match in this country? Their opportunities to introduce another batsman into the mix during a home series were fast disappearing until McKenzie was brought in at the last moment.

Gibbs’s double failure in the first Test made it certain that he would be the one to pay for the defeat in Port Elizabeth. His consistent failure to get his head behind the line of flight makes him too vulnerable to the new ball. His return to the front of the order has not been a success and one fears that the better bowlers have found him out.

Nevertheless, he is our most exciting batsman, and a genuine match winner with the bat apart from his astonishing ability in the field.

I would rather see Gibbs batting lower down. Unfortunately, Gibbs is not alone in battling for form. The captain has had a dreadful run up front, with the result that Amla and Kallis have continually had to rescue the team. No two batsmen can be expected to do so indefinitely, as was proved last weekend.

The present South African batting line-up is no longer a disaster waiting to happen. It has happened and will happen more frequently against the better teams that lie in wait for them in 2008. Given that virtually the same cast is on stage this week, the selectors will be hoping for better things from them. The danger is that is that their hopes are well founded.

If success this week encourages the selectors to stick with the same actors in the same roles, further embarrassment lies down the road as sure as this is a new year.

No matter how good a top-order might be, a Test team is always liable to be reduced to 130 for six. The Australians, with Andrew Symonds at six and Brad Hogg at eight, showed in their current Test against India the ability to recover from such a poor start, admittedly with some help from an umpire (Steve Bucknor) who should have been pensioned off years ago. In a similar situation South Africa would have been hard-pressed to reach 150.

With the openers so problematic, the selectors will have to accept that the team cannot afford a tail that begins at number eight (Paul Harris).

Much as it may be uncomfortable for them, the selectors are going to have to indulge in some fresh thinking.

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