Stephen Gelb January 1, 2009

How South Africa became Australia

Fast scoring in the first three innings now means there’s lots of time left in the game for the chase

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!