For a game which takes five days to play, Test cricket has a funny habit of moving incredibly quickly. Just a couple of weeks ago the Proteas were within touching distance of becoming the undisputed Test champions of the world. Now they are looking at the possibility of slipping to third place behind India with no chance of remedying the situation until the end of the year when England arrive.
Even worse, however, is the disintegrating morale within the squad. Chief executive Gerald Majola and coach Mickey Arthur have done all they can to paper over the cracks and accept responsibility for the performance of the team, and of course they have to maintain a strong public face, but anybody with a pair of eyes, or ears, will know that all is not well.
Central to the philosophy of Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur’s running of the national team has been the theme of loyalty and faith – an eradication of the ‘fear of failure’ and an enhancing of the principal of ‘team before individual’. It’s an honourable policy, but only when the team is winning. When it loses three Test matches in a row then the pressure to make changes can overwhelm those outside the team.
The selectors are supposed to stand aside from the players – there is no point in them simply rubber-stamping a squad decided upon by the captain and coach. But if they insist on making changes, then the captain and the coach should at least be consulted about the least damaging way of wielding the axe. If the selectors give the impression that they will undertake a cull as and when they see fit, even the strongest of the survivors will lose confidence in the ability of the captain and coach to fight their cause.
Several years ago the national team was beset by a culture of ‘survivalism’ in which players were motivated first and foremost by what they needed to do in order to keep their place in the XI. Batsmen would make a string of 40s and bowlers concentrate on bowling ‘tight’ overs rather than taking wickets. That made it hard to be dropped. And before anybody thinks that was selfish, think again. It was normal and natural. How many millions of office workers around the world play Solitaire on their desktops between the assignments handed down by the boss?
The problem, however, is that the selectors not only brandished their axe without consultation but did so on the back of changing another policy which has been in place for the best part of 15 years – the one which stated that an injured player (rather than one who loses form) will keep their place when they are fit again.
Ashwell Prince, therefore, should have kept his place. Which is not to say that the aggressive and confrontational approach he has adopted was in either his, or the team’s, best interests. Burning bridges have, unfortunately, been a regular part of Prince’s career landscape and they do not engender sympathetic treatment – even when it is merited.
So the team will take to the field at Newlands without their captain and with a replacement who is probably least suited to the task. And with a brand new, untested opening partnership – one of whom will not be on speaking terms with the majority of the rest of the team.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the tourists, bound together by a fresh and invigorating sense of excitement about the future, will complete a 3-0 series sweep. But adversity and controversy doesn’t always create confusion and mayhem. Usually, but not always. If Prince’s stubborn streak leads him to perform as he did for the Warriors last weekend, and the ‘others’ raise their game to ‘spite’ him, South Africa might yet overturn overwhelming odds and gain a consolation victory. But it seems highly unlikely.
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