Rarely does a successful team have 11 players that pull an equal weight. Even if runs and wickets are shared amongst the appropriate players, there are players who bear a far greater responsibility than others. Their problem, often, is that their contribution to the team is unquantifiable.
Many cricketers over the years have been labelled with the unkind sobriquet of ‘team mascot’. Some have even become team captain despite their meagre contribution to the scorebook, with bat or ball. It is well documented that Mike Brearley captained England during their most successful post-war period despite averaging 19 with the bat.
South Africa’s own version of Brearley was Clive van Ryneveld who played in 19 Test matches averaging 26 with the bat and taking 17 wickets at 39 a piece.
The modern international game, of course, provides for less and less opportunity for the journeyman to make a living – all bowlers are expected to be able to bat and all batsmen expected to field anywhere. And it’s difficult to pick an international captain from the last 10 years who wasn’t worth his place in the team notwithstanding normal but temporary losses of form.
But that’s not to say that certain players aren’t inked into national teams despite records that are not extraordinary. And the reasons for that are difficult for most of us to comprehend because we only see and hear from a distance. For those in the team, however, there are certain players who make the difference between winning and losing with the wisdom of their words and the power of their personality.
They are the men who invariably have – and share – a sense of perspective on life most professional sportsmen find impossible to maintain in moments of crisis or pressure, if at all. They break ice, ease tensions and make people smile. They do daft things when appropriate but they always do and say sensible things when common sense is required. They are the unofficial leaders of successful teams, and more often than not they are the senior players. As long as they can add a steady (ish) supply of wickets and runs to maintain respectability, they will average 50 in the ‘X factor’ department.
When Jonty Rhodes was going through his leanest period in Tests, averaging a little over 25 for the best part of 15 months, his team mates begged the selectors not to drop him. Every time they tried to explain why he was still worth his place, they struggled. Every reason they pinpointed – including his fielding – sounded feeble by itself. But add the package together and some players would rather have dropped themselves than Jonty, the ultimate team man.
So when people ask themselves what has gone wrong with the current team, they will do well to remember that the ‘X factor’ has been very, very thin on the ground for two or three years. The five most senior players provide little leadership in support of Graeme Smith. And it is NOT their fault. You can only be what you can be, and you have to be true to yourself. There’s no point trying to be who you are not.
Mark Boucher has been the hard man of the team. Tough, uncompromising and ruthless with a tongue that has occasionally cut his own team mates to pieces as well as the opposition. His armour-plating is both brilliant protection and impenetrable shell. Jacques Kallis can appear to live life in a bubble as well as play the game in one while the only place Herschelle Gibbs is likely to lead people is down the garden path. Shaun Pollock is wise and sympathetic but he has become understandably weary under the weight of expectation upon his performance. Makhaya Ntini is a leader only by example.
Not one of those observations is intended as a criticism. But in future, when the next generation of players is selected, a close study of South Africa’s most successful teams will reveal that they all had four or five leaders and a strong captain able to stand aside from his players when the time was right, however close they might have been as friends.
Kepler Wessels was supported by Craig Matthews, Fanie de Villiers and Allan Donald in 1993. Two years later Andrew Hudson, Brian McMillan, Rhodes and Donald were part of the leadership team while the brilliant Dave Richardson provided the calming influence that came to symbolise South African teams in tight, tense situations.
Gary Kirsten took over for much of the next eight years with Pat Symcox always a powerful influence able to adapt between militant extremism and sympathetic shoulder-to-cry-on. The closest South Africa has come to a natural leader and senior player – on and off the field – in the last five years is Neil McKenzie but, sadly, he let himself down at the most crucial times and was understandably discarded after the New Zealand tour earlier this year.
All of South Africa’s senior players have been the best in their positions and thoroughly justified in their selections for much of the last five years. They have done nothing wrong and have been fine ambassadors. Unfortunately, however, the personality chemistry they have inadvertently produced has created more room for team ‘drift’ than team focus.
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