Development is the only solution
The executive board of the International Cricket Council is preparing to meet in Delhi in the next few days, and one of the key items on their agenda will be the Test status of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, two Test nations whose performances continue to lag far behind the pack.
If there was any doubt about how critical the question has become, then the shenanigans of the past week will have served to sharpen everyone's focus. South Africa wrapped up their two-match series against Zimbabwe in less time than most teams take for one Test, and the most damning indictment of their opposition is that they barely broke sweat for full sessions at a time.
Happily, today was not one of those days for coasting. After a limp first-day performance that was, frankly, insulting to the game, South Africa's intensity was back for the final phase of this game. They batted with purpose, declared with intent, and bowled with menace, and though the cynic would suggest that their primary motivation was the chance for a lie-in tomorrow and an afternoon of golf, there were at least a handful of South Africans who were treating the match as more than just a glorified net session.
Shortly after the close of play, South Africa unveiled both its list of contracted players for the 2005-06 season, from which Monde Zondeki had been removed, and their squad for the tour of the West Indies, to which he had been added, quite possibly at the last minute. You can't read much into an alphabetical list in which Zondeki naturally appears at the bottom, but given that he had just produced a matchwinning spell of 6 for 39, the juxtaposition seems significant.
Zondeki's performance gave renewed significance to this fixture, and was the most refreshing sight of the series. He bowled like a man with a point to prove - with pace, accuracy and penetration - and in doing so, he also conferred some hard-earned dignity on Hamilton Masakadza, whose skillful 47 can only have enhanced his confidence for future engagements. Masakadza now knows he's been in a Test match, and that is more than can be said for several of the participants.
Development is the only use for such one-sided matches as these, for Zondeki and Masakadza were not the only players to make strides. Ashwell Prince, for example, came into this match as the only top-seven South African without a Test century, which was a stigma in its own right. But, he also had the grim memory of his embarrassments against Bangladesh in 2002-03, when his contribution to a pair of innings victories had been scores of 0 and 2. With that sort of mental baggage, try telling him that yesterday's innings was not significant.
On the other hand, it is impossible to see what on earth Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs and Jacques Kallis gained from this series. For such proven performers, it was a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't scenario. Smith and Gibbs went to one extreme - throwing their wickets away with grotesque shots that reeked of disinterest - while Kallis went to the other, jeopardising his hip injury to snaffle six cheap wickets for 53 runs. It's hard to say which was the more cynical attitude. As Charles Colvile commented during Sky Sports' coverage: "Kallis is an occasional bowler. By that, I mean he occasionally wants to bowl ..."
Who knows what Dale Steyn would have made of Kallis's candy-swiping. Steyn is precisely the type of eager young thruster who could make a contest out of these games. He endured a torrid baptism against England this season, but was in full cry for the Titans in their last round of SuperSport matches and like Zondeki, he would have relished the opportunity to impress the selectors and gatecrash the Caribbean party.
These are thoughts that the ICC might like to consider when they meet in Delhi. Test cricket is 99% a mental challenge, but that challenge is cheapened if the players involved give anything less than 100% commitment to their cause. Zimbabwe learned more from the challenge posed by Prince and Zondeki than from the posing provided by South Africa's hotshots. Everyone's a winner if the incentives are in place.