Work, Rest and Fail

South Africa’s miserable collapse to 84 all out is serious enough to warrant an inquiry. Approximately 6000 people paid good money to watch a good day’s cricket and, frankly, they could probably make a case for demanding a refund.
Emotions are running high and until the dust has settled it is probably wise for those at the coal face to keep quiet. Listen, look and learn.

In the meantime, however, there can be no harm in reflecting on some of the reasons for South Africa’s dismal batting performance and considerably below par bowling effort, Shaun Pollock excepted.

Six of the top eight batsmen in the SA XI have played no first-class cricket this season. Two of them, captain Graeme Smith and vice-captain Jacques Kallis, have played no first-class cricket since the end of last season against New Zealand in May. Only Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla have faced a red ball in anger this season. Batting in the nets, as every batsman in the world will tell you, is not the real thing.

The domestic fixture list has not always been a thing of logical or logistical beauty but this year it was planned as carefully as possible to give the national players the chance to fine-tune their games – or just to play.

After the second day’s play coach, Mickey Arthur was suitably chastened and apologised for the fact that the players, both batsmen and bowlers, were “still in one-day mode.” He also said that the decision to rest the captain from the Cobras match in the week before the Test was a collective decision, but only collective between selection convenor Haroon Lorgat and himself. Smith was only told about it once it had been made.

Such decision-making has two effects. Apart from sending the majority of the starting XI into a very important Test match without having played the first-class form of the game for five months, it also sends a pretty devastating message to those on the fringes of national selection.

If Smith and his men need to be rested before they are actually tired, and Lorgat speaks of the need to “manage their workload during a hectic international season,” then the current squad would appear to be guaranteed of their places for the next two or three months.

So what do Justin Ontong, J-P Duminy, Neil McKenzie, Boeta Dippenaar and several other players feel about their recent good form? It’s obviously excellent news for their respective Franchises, but they all remain internationally ambitious cricketers whose efforts would appear to be a complete waste of time because the incumbent members of the squad are so entrenched in their positions that they can be rested from domestic cricket regardless of their form.

The players in the national squad cannot be blamed. Graeme Smith has never shirked hard work and the impression remains that he would have preferred to play for the Cobras last week. In theory, he could have asked for the decision to be reversed, but he had already endured a painful and public disagreement with Lorgat over the composition of the team for the fourth one-day international and must be understood for wanting to avoid further controversy.

His own desire for “continuity of selection” is equally understandable but a balance between selection on merit and continuity of selection must be sought. At the moment the balance is wrong.

Finally, calls for Smith to be replaced in the national team are woefully misplaced. He does not average 49 in Test cricket by accident. What he needs is to play more cricket, not less, and to remember how to transfer his net form into the middle. I have seen him in the nets this season and his claim that he is “hitting the ball well” is true. There is no sign of him playing across the line as he has done so often in the middle this season.

Rather than dropping the skipper, a specially arranged four-hour middle practise involving some quality bowlers could be arranged for Wednesday or Thursday after the Test in order for him and Gibbs to rediscover the habit that made them one of the most prolific opening pairs in Test history.

Administerial mistakes have been made in the last couple of weeks. Now they need to be admitted and addressed. Heads do not need to roll just yet. We have a wretched history of ‘blame culture’ in South Africa sport. Now is the time to change it to a ‘solution culture.’

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