March 8, 2001

Hudson, Donald: different views of Georgetown

For two who were there at Bridgetown in 1992, the first Test against the West Indies which starts in Guyana today will be seen through entirely different eyes: Andrew Hudson will view the match from the perspective of his recent retirement; Allan Donald, on the other hand, might be a trifle less relaxed about it.

Hudson was South Africa's undoubted hero in Barbados nine years ago as the country re-entered Test cricket. In his first Test innings he took 163 off what was then a feared West Indian attack. He batted for 519 minutes and throughout Trevor Quirk and Robin Jackman debated a technical flaw they thought they had spotted: when Hudson prepared to receive, his back foot shifted slightly away towards square leg.

The fact that they were able to talk about it for so long rather undermined their point, but no matter, they too were fresh back to Test cricket.

Hudson never achieved these notable heights again, ending his career with a Test average of 33,45, a figure that suggests a useful player but not quite in the top flight. His willingness to play his strokes and a weakness against the ball that left him were his undoing more often than he would have liked.

But averages and technique tell only part of the story. When Hudson was on song his driving, off front and back feet were exquisite and he had a pull that he seemed to play going forward that was imperious and suggested an arrogance totally lacking in him.

As a person and a cricketer was, and is, a thoroughly decent man in an age when many of the game's finer qualities have been eroded. His faith enabled him to endure more than his fair share of bizarre dismissals and disgraceful decisions, and although he was sometimes too philosophical about his failures for the liking of his team-mates, he felt the setbacks as keenly as any.

What was really shocking about Shane Warne's explosion at the Wanderers in 1994 was the victim he chose. Hudson didn't deserve that kind of treatment, but his only response was a bewildered glance at Warne.

Over this weekend, Hudson's mind will drift back to 1992. No one can take that 163 away from him.

Donald also started his Test career in that Barbados Test match, but while he has lasted longer than Hudson - in itself an achievement for a fast bowler - his return to the Caribbean is clouded with uncertainty of his future as an international player.

Simply put, there are two schools of thought about Donald. The first, which includes one or two notable former fast bowlers and a notorious ex-wicketkeeper, holds that all the signs are there of a man trying to push his body past its natural limits.

The second believes that even though Donald has clearly now lost a yard or two of pace, he is sufficiently lithe, skilled and experienced to continue leading the attack. The chief proponent of this view is Ali Bacher, who maintains that Donald will play in the 2003 World Cup. Well, as executive director of the tournament he would say that, wouldn't he? But there are others, like Craig Matthews who are reluctant to write off Donald.

The fact is that only Donald will really know when it is time to go. He spent far too much time off the field this past summer for his own good and as someone who needs to bowl to find his rhythm when he did play he looked ordinary.

South Africa will play Donald in the first Test (surely they will) in the hope that he will bowl himself back into shape for the later Test matches. The question is, of course, what happens if there is no significant improvement in the first and, perhaps more tellingly, in the second Tests.

He has been a magnificent servant of South African cricket, one of the great fast bowlers of the modern era, but his selection for this tour was made with one or two fingers firmly crossed. What happens to him in the Caribbean is likely to be the most fascinating sub-plot of the entire venture.