How to lose a game that never was

Steve Waugh used to taunt Hansie Cronje about Australia’s ability to win the ‘big matches’ while losing a few others along the way – and South Africa’s habit of winning absolutely everything except the ‘big matches.

Up to and including the 1997-98 tour of Australia, Cronje demanded maximum effort from everybody and insisted that every game was there to be won. Perhaps his realisation on the subsequent tour of England in 1998 that some games were, and always would be, nothing more than practice matches made it easier to accept bookmakers money.

How far we have travelled. Now, ten years later, the South Africans are playing matches which aren’t even matches. The first one-day ‘contest’ against Western Australia was a net session without nets. Apart from methods of dismissal and run scoring, there were no conventional rules of competition.

Each side would part 50 overs and bowl 50 overs. How could there possibly be a winner or a loser? Mickey Arthur said beforehand that South Africa would be “practising our Test match disciplines.”

In that context, a score of 180-3 represented an excellent Test match foundation with Amla’s sizzling century smartly partnered by a typically crafted, unbeaten 50 from Kallis.

You could only laugh when, the following day, media reports in both countries suggested that South Africa had slumped to an ’embarrassing defeat’ when the home side passed the tourists total batting second. Kallis was criticised for using 100 balls to reach his half-century. The one significant difference between the teams, of course, is that one was preparing for a Test match and the other was, well, providing net bowlers and fielders.

South Africa were at it once again in the two-day game, batting and bowling properly and preparing for a Test series. No sign of that old, fighting determination to ‘win at all costs.’

For the first time since 1993, there have been signs that a South African squad has learned how to focus, without distraction, on specific preparation. Individual skills, personal routines and regimens pertaining to Test cricket. This impression has been created not just by the individual ‘results’ (everybody has scored runs and taken wickets) but by the fact that silly newspaper reports which would have irritated previous generations have raised a smile and even a chuckle. How do you lose a race without a finish line?

There is little doubt that Steve Waugh knows the difference between good preparation and the irrelevant pursuit of victory and psychological Brownie Points. And he will have seen the difference between the attitude of this squad and previous ones.
In cricket, as in most sports, everything can still go wrong even with the best preparation in the world. But the chances are a lot lower.

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