True warrior's last stand - Father Time catching up with great fighter Symcox (3 January 1999)

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3 January 1999

True warrior's last stand - Father Time catching up with great fighter Symcox

COLIN BRYDEN

This time, surely, it really is the end for Pat Symcox as a Test cricketer. His contributions always were greater in spirit than in the scorebook. Facts and figures eventually counted against him.

The team from which Symcox departed after the series-clinching triumph at Kingsmead is the better for having had the benefit of his influence.

There never was a battle Symcox did not believe he could win, nor an opponent who could cow him into silence. South Africa's dominance against the West Indies is due in no small measure to Symcox's willingness to confront their physical challenge. Once there was a collective will to stand toe-to-toe with Ambrose and Walsh, however, Symcox had to be judged on runs and, more importantly, wickets.

Jonty Rhodes confessed to being "embarrassed" after a loose shot in the first Test when he saw the resolution with which Symcox and Allan Donald defied the West Indian fast bowlers. Rhodes' crucially important innings at St George's Park and Kingsmead owe something to the warrior Symcox.

There is hardly a player in the side who has not been inspired, amused or infuriated by his theatrical aggression. The newest recruit, David Terbrugge, in his first Test innings, was bemused by Symcox's incessant chatter in Afrikaans, but did not need an interpreter to understand his partner's commitment as the pair squeezed out a first innings lead at the Wanderers.

For someone who had already retired from first-class cricket before the change of fortunes which made him an international cricketer, age was always an enemy. At 38, equal measures of willpower and hard training were necessary simply to keep up with the speed and agility of youthful, supremely athletic teammates.

His other great problem was that his offspin bowling, his primary reason for being in the side, never was quite as good as it needed to be. Offspin bowling at Test level is generally a thankless task, especially on unhelpful pitches. Symcox was competitive and could gain sharp turn and bounce, but did not have the extra skill possessed by Saqlain Mushtaq or Muttiah Muralitharan.

On the rare occasions when conditions favoured him, such as at Sydney a year ago, he was unable consistently to bowl the ball in the right place. In that match he took two for 103; Shane Warne, a legspinner, had match figures of 11 for 109. Symcox will be remembered for heroic batting performances, especially his two half-centuries in the series-deciding match against Pakistan in Faisalabad when most other batsmen were floundering, and his remarkable century, batting at number 10, against the same opponents in Johannesburg four months later.

He was in the squad but left out of the eleven for the next match of that series and his career then seemed over, on the grounds that a man cannot be picked for his batting ability at number nine or 10 and that the logic of political necessity, youth and ability to spin from the wrist gave an irresistible advantage to Paul Adams. Symcox did not give up and when Adams lost form, Symcox fitted ideally into the sort of attack that was needed against the West Indies, one in which Symcox and Terbrugge were picked for their ability to maintain pressure while Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock provided penetration.

For a man who had previously played in only two Test matches in his own country, the three against the West Indies were a fitting last hurrah, with the crowds making obvious their admiration and affection for a rare battler.

Time and tactics move on, however, and with the series won, South Africa sought a more lasting solution to their spin bowling needs. Adams has been with the national squad for all three Tests and has been working on his consistency.

Adams, almost 17 years younger than Symcox, has taken 59 wickets in 19 Tests, Symcox 37 in 20. When pure spin bowling became a greater priority than intangible fighting spirit, Adams became the right choice.

Convener of selectors Peter Pollock indicated that Symcox would remain a contender for a place in the one-day team. Realistically, however, Father Time might yet strike another cruel blow before the World Cup, which will be played shortly after his 39th birthday. Symcox will not easily withstand the challenge of younger men like Nicky Boje and Derek Crookes. Without Symcox, the Test series goes on, with the South African team and the selectors having managed, against some odds, to maintain their focus on playing and picking a team to win, despite meddlesome politicians and a curious ambivalence on the part of observers who seem at least as concerned about the problems of the West Indians as they are delighted by South Africa's fine form. In any other country, wiping the floor with the West Indies would be regarded as a reason for joyous celebration.

England, having twice, in successive series in the 1980s, taken 5-0 thrashings, would be delighted to be winning and would waste little time on being anxious about the woes or weaknesses of the opposition. Certainly in Australia, as the South Africans know only too well, a man or a team down is primarily a target for putting the boot in. The West Indies themselves did not hold back when they were obliterating all opponents.

Perhaps it is yet another perverse legacy of apartheid. During the rebel era, it was necessary first to establish the credentials of the opposition. It led to a sort of sporting schizophrenia. If the visitors were too weak, victories were devalued; if South Africa lost, it was a humiliation against an unofficial side. As for the politicians, they would be well advised to heed the words of Imtiaz Patel, the United Cricket Board of South Africa's director of professional cricket and the main facilitator of the transformation charter that will be unveiled at Newlands today: "Cricket is a microcosm of society. It is sad to see these guys shooting us down when they should be recognising cricket's efforts as a model for society."

Hansie Cronje and his men must somehow continue to ignore extraneous influences and keep playing the sort of cricket that gained them victory in the first three Tests. If the sequence stretches to four by Wednesday, a toast to the absent Pat Symcox would not be out of place.

FINAL STRETCH: even the never-say-die spirit of Pat Symcox may not be sufficient to reclaim his Test place in the face of cold statistics and advancing years

Source::Sunday Times (www.suntimes.co.za)

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