One day cricket is all about all rounders. The more you have, theoretically, the more chance you have of winning. It helps if you have batting down to number nine and seven bowling options.
In fact, that was Bob Woolmer’s mantra way back in the mid-90s when he took over as national coach. Having suffered a chastening 6-0 loss in his first series in Pakistan, Woolmer knew South Africa had to capitalise on its natural strength – all rounders. Nine batsmen and seven bowlers became his mantra. And if you look at the composition of the last XI he was in charge of, at the 1999 World Cup, you will see that he actually superseded that number.
These are the leanest days for all rounders since isolation. Whereas the national team used to contain as many as five, it is now struggling to include one genuinely worthy of the title. And the best one in the country is not going to the World Cup. It may well prove to be the cloudiest and most confused piece of selectorial thinking in the last 20 years.
Ryan McLaren didn’t just have a couple of good series, he was the leading ODI wicket taker for 18 months. He received the full backing of the captain and coach and responded with a string of match-winning performances with the ball. He did not produce the kind innings required of a number seven batsman but he did have his moments – like hitting the last ball of the match for six to win an ODI against New Zealand a couple of seasons ago.
Less than six months ago McLaren’s name was amongst those of De Villiers, Amla, Du Plessis, Steyn and Morkel – the first to be inked onto the squad sheet. He was a banker. Gary Kirsten always said that wicket-takers would be more important than run-scorers in the future of ODIs and McLaren was taking more than anyone else. So what happened?
He had one poor series. His high-risk-high reward bowling style was expensive in two matches in Australia in November and he was sluggish with the bat against Mitchell Johnson at the WACA in Perth – as was everyone else except AB de Villiers.
On that basis, the selectors cashed in a two-year investment just a month before it was supposed to payout. And reinvested their faith in the most high-risk gamble yet taken for an ICC tournament.
Player’s personalities do play a role in selection, it’s not just about facts, figures and statistics. A mature team-man will always be selected over an insular, selfish maverick with similar ability. But when two players of similar temperament are competing for the same place, it can only come down to numbers. And nobody else’s come close to McLaren’s.
Just because McLaren wasn’t a Jacques Kallis, a Shaun Pollock or a Lance Klusener, he was tossed out and replaced with a wild hunch. Hopefully, it won’t backfire in Australia and New Zealand next month.
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