December 28, 1999

South Africa's selection crisis

South Africa's national cricket selectors found themselves in a crisis situation at Kingsmead yesterday as their decision to drop Jonty Rhodes came back to haunt them, England taking full control of the third Test as they forced the home side to follow on.

It is the first time in 73 Tests, dating back to the 1966/67 home series against Australia, that South Africa have suffered the ignominy of having to follow on. Most criticism has centered on the omission of Rhodes - the world's best fielder, a great competitor and a man who scored 50 and 57 not out in two pressure situations in the last Test, lifting his average in his last 17 Tests to 48.80.

But Rhodes' value goes beyond his mere statistics.

His ever-cheerful presence and brilliance at backward point has inspired his team-mates to such an extent that South Africa have been rated the best fielding side in world cricket for several years. Their flat showing in the field during this Test - four catches being missed as England batted for two days and scored 366 for nine - has been attributed to his absence.

As one of the grittiest of middle-order batsmen, Rhodes has also been central to several of South Africa's most impressive wins since their return from isolation and he would have thrived in yesterday's pressure situation that saw South Africa slump to 57 for four and then 84 for eight in search of the follow-on target of 167.

The national selectors present at Kingsmead yesterday, convenor Rushdie Magiet, Mike Procter, Clive Rice and Kepler Wessels, were locked in a crisis meeting in mid-afternoon yesterday with their "unanimous decision" to drop Rhodes responsible for most of the flak flying their way.

As one former Test cricketer close to the South African team remarked: "I just can't understand how people like Procter, Rice and Wessels, who were all class players, can't see they're getting it wrong."

Both captain Hansie Cronje and coach Graham Ford have publicly disassociated themselves from Rhodes' omission, saying it was "the unanimous decision of the selectors" and word from the camp is that the team were very surprised the veteran of 48 Tests had been dropped.

Ford said Rhodes was determined to bounce back. "He's handled it very well and has been in for batting practice early each morning. He's not doing the 12th-man duties because he has permission from the convenor of selectors to spend some time away with his wife."

Rhodes has already declared himself unavailable for the tour to India in February/March as he wants to be with his better half when their first child is born in that period and talk in the right circles has been that the selectors are engineering their "revenge" through the shock axing.

The English, of course, are delighted that they don't have to contend with the chirpy Rhodes, who surprisingly wins few popularity contests amongst the tourists. Darren Maddy was heard speaking into the stump microphone between overs, saying "How're you enjoying this at home on TV, hey Jonty? Are you enjoying watching it on TV?"

The axing of Rhodes has firmly focused the spotlight on the selectors, who may now also have to carry the can for their other disruptions to a winning side - their blundering efforts to motivate Cronje by initially appointing him captain for only a limited period and the dropping of Daryll Cullinan for the limited-overs quadrangular in Kenya. Their decision to play Paul Adams ahead of David Terbrugge on the seaming Wanderers pitch in the first Test against England and then leaving him out of the Port Elizabeth game have also been raised as examples of their ineptitude.