Expect more one-day pain

Perhaps it’s no bad thing that two of South Africa’s three worst one-day performances for five years came in successive matches in England. At least it gave us a taste of things to come and, perhaps, sufficiently lowered expectations to lessen the pain of the next year or so. (The other diabolical disappointment was, of course, the World Cup semi-final against Australia.)

Actually, the reality is that the next two series will be played at home against Kenya and Bangladesh so there will be plenty of victories to ‘celebrate’ – but if those series were against almost any other nation on the ICC’s ODI log, then defeat would be more likely than victory. Other than Ireland and Zimbabwe, of course.

The key to South Africa’s dramatic collapse in the one-day game is the sudden drought of its greatest strength – all-rounders.
Historically, Australia has always opted for the ‘specialist’ approach – which is fine for them when they have bowlers of the calibre of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath and batsmen like Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. But South Africa’s approach to one-day cricket during much of the last 15 years has been based on building the team around all-rounders.

Bob Woolmer’s ‘dream team’, identified around 1998, contained “nine batsmen and seven bowlers,” a combination which required five all-rounders. And there was no shortage to choose from.

The success of the approach, of course, depended on the key men being ‘genuine’ all-rounders rather than ‘bits and pieces’ cricketers with which England, for example, started packing their team in an effort to emulate South Africa.

Ten years ago Woolmer achieved his ambition and with men like Hansie Cronje, Dave Callaghan, Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Nicky Boje and even Steve Elworthy, he had batting down to number 10 and seven good bowlers to choose from. At one point the only ‘specialists’ in the starting XI were Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Jonty Rhodes and Allan Donald. Gibbs and Rhodes, of course, were all-rounders in a different sense.

Woolmer pioneered the South African ‘way’ of playing one-day cricket and it was continued into the next generation with players like Andrew Hall, Johan van der Wath and Justin Kemp.

Now, of all those men, only Kallis remains. And he is out of form. More than half a dozen of South Africa’s best all-rounders have made themselves unavailable by joining the ICL or signing county ‘Kolpak’ contracts. And now that the impact of the ‘post-Pollock’ era is really hitting home, it is clear just how bare the all-rounder cupboard is.

So who would be Ryan McLaren right now? The Eagles all-rounder should have been selected to play for his country three years ago but his talent and ambition went ignored in the hype of success and no thought was given to the future.

Now the national team is screaming for his inclusion but he has pledged his future to Kent on a Kolpak contract where his ability is appreciated and very well rewarded financially. Cricket South Africa know they can appeal to his patriotism, and that he will be tempted, but common sense would tell him to stay put and play his way towards financial security.

If McLaren does say ‘yes’ to his country’s call, then it will set a critical precedent. Paul Harris turned his back on a Kolpak contract to play Test cricket but, with the greatest respect, it was neither a lucrative nor long-term contract and he is not a ‘glamour’ cricketer. If McLaren says ‘yes’ then we can all breath a deep sigh of relief – future players of his calibre will know that county contracts do not necessarily mean the end of international ambition.

Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur (provided he, too, doesn’t sign for a county) have 18 months to rebuild the one-day team before the final build-up to the 2011 World Cup. As with all rebuilds, it will be a painful process involving more losing than South African fans care to tolerate. So if you are a dummy-spitter and team ‘trasher’, prepare yourself for a busy time in the year ahead.

However, if you care to look at the big picture and regard yourself as a serious supporter, then you may prefer to regard the immediate future as an ‘interesting’ time during which, amongst other goals, the aim will be to rebuild the one-day side in the absence of Pollock, one of the greatest cricketers of all time.

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