Indian teams through the ages have shared a similar problem – they have played as individuals rather than as team. Notwithstanding the 2011 World Cup, they have routinely under-performed as a result.
The most successful period in their history, in both the major forms of the game, was the three years they had under Gary Kirsten. The single, biggest difference Kirsten made was to persuade them to play for each other.
Applauding decent fielding or offering assistance to batsmen in the doldrums was almost an alien concept to some of the players Kirsten started working with when he took over. Even some of the senior, established members of the side felt it was their duty, first and foremost, to ensure their own form was good.
So it should come as no surprise to see the current team finding even more ‘extreme’ ways of putting the team first, ahead of almost all personal interest.
Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers resumed on the third morning of the Wanderers test on 50 and 63 respectively. The total was 207-3, an overall lead of 411. Graeme Smith told them he was looking for a lead of between 450 and 480, and he would like it as quickly as possible. Neither batsman needed matric maths, let alone a degree in the subject, to work out that centuries for both of them weren’t going to be possible.
When De Villiers reached his 15th in tests, Smith immediately declared with the lead on 479. Amla was unbeaten on 74. He has 19 test centuries. When Kirsten scored his 20th in tests, he became just the 21st man – and first South African – to do so. He became a member of one of the most exclusive batting clubs in cricket.
The membership of that club has now grown to 38. They read like a roll of honour. Have a look at the list and see if you can find a batsman not worthy of inclusion amongst the game’s all-time greats. Surely Smith could have given Amla another 30 minutes to try for his membership card? No. By all accounts, he wasn’t interested. Nor, that matter, was De Villiers interested in reaching his century.
“They both knew exactly what the situation was, they both always put the team first and they were both completely happy with the outcome,” said Graeme Smith. “After such a dominant performance on day two I was keen to keep the momentum going and didn’t want the game to drift. We all wanted to keep pressing the advantage home, and that’s what we did.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the hundred at all,” said De Villiers. “I just wanted to play positively and get the lead as quickly as possible. Fortunately I got a few boundaries away early and I was into the 80s pretty quickly, then I was lucky enough to reach three figures.”
But… surely Smith wouldn’t have declared with him in the 90s, just because the required lead had been reached?
“First of all, I wouldn’t have minded if he did. But I’ve known Graeme long enough to know he would have given me the chance to get a few more runs… as long as I got them quickly!”
As for Amla, there is only one thing which has ever mattered to him – winning matches. He was the leading voice in persuading Smith to declare when he was unbeaten on 253 against India years ago because he had seen how flat the pitch was and persuaded the captain that time to win the match was of the essence.
Collectively, Smith and his men have decided that being part of a great team is far more relevant, and a lot more fun, than being a great individual in a team which under-performs.
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