Yes, we do care about T20 cricket and yes, captain Smith should take the blame for the Proteas’ dismal performance

2010-05-15 00:00

NO excuses can be offered for South Africa’s dismal showing in the Caribbean. Let’s not beat about the bush. They played like witless wonders. Nor is it any consolation that India, another supposedly mighty force, were even worse. The Proteas were outplayed and hardly a man amongst them produced the required gusto. In terms of aggression and adaptability they were far behind England and Australia. With his team needing 17 to win in the last over, Albie Morkel blocked two deliveries. Explain that and much will be revealed.

Nor is it wise to pretend that no one in their right mind cares about the tournament, the line advanced by Geoff Boycott and the cynics. It’s been an entertaining competition played before vibrant crowds on fair pitches and the four most resourceful teams reached the semi-finals. This T20 World Cup has been the best event organised by the ICC this century, excepting only a Champions League notable for the freshness and endeavour displayed by state sides given the chance to break out of the domestic mould.

Far from being a mere heave-ho, the cricket has been well worth watching. Australia relied on outright pace, forceful batting and a tyro leg-spinner, In other words they played the Australian brand of cricket. It took them a few seasons to realise it could be done. England have been intelligent and bold, always asking questions, always making the play. Pakistan were, well Pakistan, a law unto themselves. But they know their way and that’s half the battle. Sri Lanka were burdened with veterans, but sustained by two fine batsmen and the originality that has become a trademark.

The Proteas have nothing to complain about and nowhere to hide. South Africa’s latest failure at an international tournament suggests that the team lacks the ingredients detected in champions, including willpower, an ability to seize the moment, a desire to dictate and an ability to soar at the critical hour. Instead they looked pedestrian, played the percentages, and did not think on their feet.

At no stage did the Proteas look or think like champions. Although mediocre, I had the fortune to share a dressing-room with greatness for 10 years and so could study it at close quarters. No batsman was Viv Richards’ superior on the big occasions. He scored hundreds in cup finals at Lord’s twice, in 1979 and again in 1981. Somerset skittled Nottinghamshire in the ’82 final, whereupon Richards arrived at the crease and asked: “Robey, how am I supposed to score a hundred now?” His ability to reach three figures was not in doubt.

Joel Garner and Ian Botham had that same outlook. Garner was magnificent in finals, combining searing pace and withering accuracy. Botham was fearless, though seldom outrageous. All of them reached deep into themselves in search of that last bit of belief and ability. But only comrades saw those moments. On the field they revealed confidence.

It’s not only cricket. Apparently Jack Nicklaus used to arrive for fourth rounds at majors conveying an air that told the rest they were playing for second place. Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Rod Laver and company surely displayed the same indomitable spirit. For that matter so does the leading darts player of the era. In other words, they think like champions.

Contrastingly, the Proteas seem to stumble, seem to play the last match and not the next, seem not to respond to the vital moment, and seem not to recognise urgency. Their thinking is too predictable. They are slaves to method. Joy is missing from their cricket; they lack spontaneity, do not seem to dare. Harsh? The problem is that, like my dog Copperhead, they are repeat offenders.

Maybe the team is too old, too set in its ways. Other nations have chosen leaders specifically for T20. Australia appointed Michael Clarke and the new man brought fresh ideas to the side, and none of the baggage that accompanies incumbents. England elevated Paul Collingwood and Pakistan promoted Shahid Afridi. Alongside the specialists chosen for T20 matches — in Australia’s case the fastest bowlers in the country are not available for anything else — these new voices ensure that T20 is not merely another match played by an old guard with other priorities, but an eagerly awaited and significant event.

Maybe the time has come for Smith to be given his T20 captaincy cards. He is a coruscating batsman and is used to playing under other leaders in this form of the game. Of late, too, South Africa have played their best one-day cricket under Johan Botha. Significantly, he was the team’s best performer in the Caribbean. Maybe the time has come to let the heavyweights focus on Test matches and 50-over contests. Maybe it’s time for radical thought in South African cricket. It’s time for a new T20 team and captain. It’s time to go for it.

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

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