Almost exactly a year ago the South African team were in India preparing to play two Test matches without a recognised spinner. It was a scenario that Graeme Smith hated but one that the eccentric Ray Jennings appeared to thrive on.
Jennings addressed his first full media conference in Jaipur and told 20 or so Indian journalists that part-timers like Ontong and Smith could do the job. The look of bewilderment on their faces was quite a sight. Fortunately, they preferred to believe that he was indulging in one of his famous games of reverse psychology than actually believe him at face value.
The result, of course, was that the one specialist spinner in the quad – Robin Peterson – took 1-90 in the first Test in Kanpur and didn’t play in the second.
Ontong, a specialist batsman who had given up any notion of being a serious spinner even back then, batted at number nine in the second Test in Kolkata and took 1-123 in the match, conceding over 4.5 runs an over in the process.
Perhaps Jennings had no choice than to ‘talk up’ his spinning options and try to make his amateur tweakers beleive they could be match-winners but the result is that Smith is now a confirmed spin-sceptic.
Speaking in Durban before the penultimate one-dayer against New Zealand, the captain said he was a firm believer that a team should pick its best bowlers for every match, regardless of whether they were spinners or seamers and of what could be expected of the conditions.
He knew, of course, that Mickey Arthur wanted to take Johan Botha on tour but he stopped clearly short of suggesting that another spinner should make the trip. But selection convenor Haroon Lorgat is a strong man and, while listening respectfully to the captain’s thoughts and desires, was unlikely to bow down to them if he didn’t agree. One man’s job is to captain, another’s is to select a squad.
Having disagreed on the composition of the 15, the key to possible success in India now lies in Smith overcoming his scepticism and doubt about the ability of the slow men in the team and giving them a proper chance.
The worst case scenario might see South Africa take the field in Hyderabad with one spinner who is quickly thrashed to the boundary and taken off with figures of 0-23 in three overs.
The strong-minded skipper might take this as proof of all his preconceptions and adopt a “I told you so” attitude for the rest of the match (maybe even series) and make do with his seamers.
But here’s the rub. A quick look at the scorecards of the India-Sri Lanka series will reveal that even Murali and Harbhajan are risks. Both have taken some fearful hidings at various points in the series but both have persevered with the blessing and backing of their captains. Why? Because they are more likely to make something good happen than a madium paced trundler on a flat, grassless, pavement of a pitch.
The new ‘power-play’ rules have changed the face of one-day cricket in India more than anywhere else in the world with the result that a total of 300 is expected. And that’s still not guaranteed to win the game!
Professional cricket’s new overseer, Vince van der Bijl, is committed to helping the current generation of South African spinners and even building a new one in the years ahead. Spin bowling is not like yo-yoes and cherry Coke, it is here to stay. A match-winning art – albeit a rare one – that has much to do with the power of positive thought as it has with the number of revolutions on the ball.
So if Robbie Peterson and Johan Botha can concede less than six an over, they should be encouraged and even congratulated. And, with confidence and support, they might even pick up a wicket. Or two.
Ontong has extraordinary talent, able to bowl off-spinners and leggies with equal confidence in the nets. But he is ‘gatvol’ of spinning and should be ragarded as the reserve, specialist batsman.
If he rediscovers his appetite for the hardest job in the game, then so be it. But he is the Lions’ third spinner and it is ludicrous to expect him to do the job in the front-line for his country.
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