January 1, 2009

Stephen Gelb

How South Africa became Australia

Stephen Gelb



It’s been an incredible couple of weeks and I had my little gloat after Day 3, Duminy Day, in Melbourne. Some more serious reflection is in order.

But before that, let me clarify. In saying that South Africa is the new Australia, I wasn’t arguing that SA are the new number one (though they may be in a few days). I was simply enjoying the role reversal which has been especially surprising and enjoyable over here on the Indian Ocean’s west. For South Africa to be organised, skilful and confident while the other lot were chaotic, disunited, choking, and generally blowing it – that was really a change. Usually it’s us who carry the latter labels. (As always, I’m talking about more than cricket only - see Olympics, football - or even only sport - see electricity, crime-fighting, AIDS, Zimbabwe…. ) For years, Australia have been organised, machine-like, and confident to the point of arrogance. But suddenly, we’ve swapped hats and black is the new white.

Anyway, serious point one. After closing out the Perth run-chase, AB de Villiers said he never doubted SA would make it. His faith may be religion-based, but it’s also true that large totals don’t carry the intimidation they used to. As if to prove this, Bangladesh made 413 today chasing 521 against Sri Lanka, slotting in at 11 on the all-time highest 4th innings scores. If we look at the top 20 on that list (excluding the 654/5 in the Timeless Test), seven were in the past 18 months, and another three since 2002. This has something to do with ODIs, but in fact its cause is the incredible leap in overall run-rates in Tests. This is the lasting legacy of the now-ended Taylor/Waugh/Ponting Mark I era of Aussie dominance. ODIs had been played for more than two decades before Test run-rates went up, after all (and run-rates rose before T20s were on the scene). One of the keys to successful chases in Chennai and Perth was the lack of time pressure so that batsmen could play ‘normal cricket’. Fast scoring in the first three innings now means there’s lots of time left in the game for the chase. Of course, the pace of Sehwag, and to a lesser extent Smith, made it easier for those following, but isn’t their approach itself founded on the Taylor-and-after Aussies? Wasn’t Michael Slater the pioneer here?

Serious point two: the English contribution to SA’s victory. As far as I can tell, only one journalist has noted this - well done, Simon Briggs in the Telegraph. Briggs focussed on Jeremy Snape, SA team psychologist and Professor of the Dark Art of transference of choking to the other team. Even more important in my guesstimation has been Duncan Fletcher, Strategist of the Year 2005 and the only person in SA’s dressing room who had actually been there and done that when it came to beating Australia. When Jacques Kallis batted so much better in Perth to emerge from a slump of Dravidian proportions, I suspected Fletcher’s hand at work. Especially when Kallis and AB smashed 48 off 64 balls on the evening of Day 4, which for me was the key passage of the chase. And when Graeme Smith suddenly became a brilliant tactician in the field at Melbourne, I had no doubt at all that the ideas originated behind Fletcher’s permanently attached Raybans. I know Fletcher isn’t English, but he is an English coach, and it’s nice to get something back from the English after all the players we’ve given them over the years.

But serious point three: credit where credit is due. I am not a big admirer of Smith’s tactical nous, and I agree fully with Samir about Mickey Arthur’s. But one cannot doubt Smith’s leadership abilities and his courage. And one must respect Arthur for bringing Fletcher and Snape - people with greater expertise than his own - into his management team. It’s the mark of a good leader to take advice from experts, and to bring in someone like Fletcher who could conceivably take your job needs courage and a sense of security. In fact, Arthur and Smith’s main achievement may have been to create a climate in which SA cricket has overcome its collective insecurities, something which not even the late and great Bob Woolmer was able to do.

Now if the Cricinfo blogmeister will indulge me with a few hundred words more, I’d like to pose the question as to who is now No. 1 in the world - India or South Africa? Of course they drew their last series back in April, but both have gotten better since then. I’d compare the teams as follows. Opening batsmen – pretty much even between Sehwag and Smith, and between Gambhir and McKenzie, perhaps Gambhir by a nose after McKenzie’s mini-slump in Australia. In the middle order, the two rocks – Kallis and Dravid – cancel each other out, even to their matching slumps. On the left-handers, I’d give it to Prince/Duminy over Yuvraj (or late-career Ganguly for that matter), but de Villiers and Amla can’t be expected to match Tendulkar and Laxman, not at this stage of their respective careers (though 10 or 12 years from now it could be a pretty tight contest). The wicketkeepers are also pretty even, Dhoni the better batsman but Boucher the far more experienced gloveman. The tail must be a toss-up, given Harbahjan’s consistency with the bat and SA’s recent heroics. Turning to the attack, South Africa surely have the better overall pace attack: for all the excellence of Zaheer and Sharma, India’s third seamer is either absent or much weaker, whereas Steyn and Ntini are followed by Morkel and the bonus of Kallis. But it’s no contest in the spin department, though Harris remains highly underrated. So far, India has a slight advantage due to Tendulkar and Laxman. But notwithstanding my comments above on Smith and Arthur, I think India’s leadership – Dhoni and Kirsten – clinches it for them. What a pity these two rising powers aren’t scheduled to play each other until February 2010!

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Posted by Dames on (January 21, 2009, 11:57 GMT)

To the wally that stated that without Dale we woul not be much of a team. Just a quick note, you have batting and you have bowling, the bowlers take wickets and the batsman scores runs! Did Smith, Amla, Duminy, kallis, AB and to a smaller degree Boucher all play a part to helping us beat Australia, UM yes I think so, so your statement that without Dale we are nothing is rubbish, he is a class act no doubt, but the talent pool within the SA side springs much further than just him. JP Duminy in his debut test serious, against none other than Australia blerw them away, he was a league above wat they had to offer him! Just look at Biff's (Smith) stats this year, the man is a performer, maybe not the most attractive batsman, but stats dont lie, the future of SA cricket has a lot to look foward to! Somer people are so anti South Africa and anti smith, that it is actually hilarious, when the team and Smithy under perform, you guys quick to chirp, but when they perform, its all a fluke! Geta life

Posted by Yash on (January 8, 2009, 17:16 GMT)

I Personally cannot wait for the sa-india test series next year. Altough SA and India have both beaten The Aussies , Sa's victory was achieved in Australia. The thing that is missing from Sa's point of view is a world class spinner (having said that, Harris has been the most consistant Sa spinner in years.) India need a world class 1st change seamer

Posted by SAinOZ on (January 5, 2009, 23:39 GMT)

Let's not get carried away - it only takes a few rash strokes, an ill-judged run, the odd bad decision, and things get turned around very quickly. SA seems set to lose the 3rd test, which is OK, even for me as a South African. It's OK because it will remind all of us, players included, that whoever sits on top of the pile at any given time is only slightly better than those who sit just below. And it's OK because it will remind the Proteas that they can't be complacent when Aus tours SA next month. And of course, it's OK because after all, we won the series, and no-one can take that away from us.

Posted by derrida derider on (January 5, 2009, 4:37 GMT)

Having watched both SA and India beat us (the Aussies), I think SA the better team all round. The gap in fielding standards alone is huge - SA are the only team who match Australian standards of ground fielding.

It's true with the loss of some great players Ausralia is now back to the field and, yes, this is good for world cricket (if painful for us). But our fall from grace has been exaggerated by an horrific injury run along with some strange selections. A little time will correct these. You'd be most unwise to count us out for the Ashes series, for instance.

Posted by Danny on (January 4, 2009, 23:43 GMT)

Its true that Australia have lost a few matches recently that could've, maybe should've, been won. However, when Lee and Clark get back from surgery, and if Lee can revive his form from the 2007/2008 season, the pace attack would consist of the ever-consistent Clark, a hopefully fired-up Lee and a fast-improving Johnson. If Krejza can improve his defensive game, thats not a bad attack at all.

Posted by Allen Johnston on (January 4, 2009, 23:40 GMT)

Are Sri Lanka about to become Australia?

At the moment South Africa and Australia are the teams battling it out for the no. 1 spot in test cricket. There has also been mention of India in this thread. Has everyone been ignoring the real pretender to Australia's throne?

Sri Lanka already have a side with a strong batting line-up, and the best bowler in the world in Murali. Now they also have Ajantha Mendis. In 25 first class matches Mendis has taken 147 wickets at an average of 15! He also has a list A bowling average of 11! These are truely ridiculous, frightening statistics.

With the prospect of Murali and Mendis ripping through battling line-ups together, are Sri Lanka about to become the team to dominate test cricket for the next few years?

Posted by west indian on (January 4, 2009, 22:58 GMT)

i think that australians have to realise that they cannot look back at the days when they had warne and mcgrath because its not like they are going to find bowlers like these anytime soon. just look at the windies they r still struggling to rebuild from their lost of great players.on the upside for the aussies i dont think that their resurrection would take as long as west indies once they do not have imcompetent selectors like us

Posted by AJAX on (January 4, 2009, 17:35 GMT)

How South Africa Became Australia

i) Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath retired ii) Hussey, Hayden and Lee went out of form iii) South Africa stayed professional, Australia didn't

Fixed.

Posted by soham on (January 3, 2009, 18:02 GMT)

I find it a nicely written article. I also think age is on SA' s side, as Dravid and SRT would retire soon. And call me a Sourav fan or whatever, there is no way Prince/JP was ever comparable to Sourav, except for the 2 rear period when he was really pathetic.

Posted by NS on (January 3, 2009, 12:34 GMT)

Without Dale Steyn SA will not be the team which it is today. Morkel has not taken wickets by the bucketful and Nitini, Smith, Kallis etc has been with SA since dinosaurs. Take Dale Steyn out of the equation and SA is not No.1. It is too dependent on him. And mind you SA has beat an over-30 Aussie side with bowlers who would not be a part of any other side. India did beat an Aussie side with Shane Warne, McGrath, Gillespie etc. SA is no.1, not because of their supremacy but because Aussies have come down badly. This SA team will lose if Warne is back. That's the bottomline. They just cannot play quality spin.

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