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'Difficult for South Africa to be a long-term No. 1'

Geoff Boycott on the challenges ahead for South Africa, England v New Zealand, and why ground fielding has improved over the years (14:03)

Producer: Siddhartha Talya

February 28, 2013


Bowl at Boycs

'Difficult for South Africa to be a long-term No. 1'

February 28, 2013

Graeme Smith embraces Jacques Kallis after his sharp catch, England v South Africa, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 2nd day, August 17, 2012
South Africa will find it difficult to sustain their dominance once Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith retire © AFP

Siddhartha Talya: Welcome to another show of Bowl at Boycs. I'm Siddhartha Talya and speaking to me today from Lake Taupo in New Zealand is Geoffrey Boycott. Geoffrey, we've just seen Australia being beaten quite comprehensively in the first Test, in Chennai. Was the result along expected lines, given they were batting on a turning track?

Geoffrey Boycott: I didn't expect India to win so comfortably. I thought they were a slightly better side than Australia at home. There have been quite a few changes in recent times in both teams. I always felt the Australian batting is a bit wobbly. It's not that good compared with the past. I think the Australian spin department is quite weak. I did feel Australia had an advantage in seam bowling. But when it came to spin bowling, turning pitches, in their own country, you've got to put your hand up and say India.

From a long way away, MS Dhoni's innings of 200-odd must have been outstanding. That must have been a real Man-of-the-Match performance because it swayed the contest by a long way.

ST: It was some double-century, and he got the runs in quick time as well, to change the match completely.

GB: You know my view. I've said it before: I think he is a fantastic character. I don't know him, I hardly ever speak to him, but I'm looking at it professionally. I like his spirit, his attitude, his character. There is something about his batting that is very effective. There are plenty of players that are more aesthetic-looking than him, but it's his effectiveness. It's no good having somebody who looks good in the nets but can't produce it in the middle. It's what you do in the middle and what you do under pressure in the middle, what you do in tight and difficult situations for the team, like his World Cup performance in the final. That's what makes an extraordinary cricketer. It's not just how you look. He seems to deliver when it matters.

Another thing I've said about him: he carries the pressure and the difficulties of captaining India so well. You think of the weight of expectation by people and the difficulty of handling the Indian media when the team doesn't do well. My God, any weak man would just fail under the pressure of it. But he's not [weak], he's a very strong personality. Being captain of India, especially when they don't do well in any matches, it's like doing a job with a sack of coal on your back. It's just going to weigh you down, but he seems to have the character, the heart, the temperament and mind to just take it all in his stride. Good luck to him.

ST: Coming to the questions, the first one is from Ashton in England about the series going on in New Zealand. He says: England's new-ball attack has impressed in the one-day series and Joe Root has looked superb as a batsman. England start favourites in the Tests but are there any areas in which you think New Zealand can pose a challenge?

GB: No. Man for man, England are far superior. If New Zealand are to shock England and win, I believe they have to play out of their skin, or they have to look at the weather conditions that affect the pitch and give New Zealand a big advantage, or England have to get complacent and bat very badly.

I watched New Zealand recently in South Africa. During the Test matches I was surprised by their poor batting technique against, let it be said, high-quality South African seam bowling.

England have quality bowlers. James Anderson is a superb craftsman, and Steven Finn, off a new, shorter, run, is very accurate, with great height and a tall, high action. He's been getting the ball at pace at an awkward height at the batsmen in the one-dayers. If he gets pitches with any bit of help in terms of pace and bounce, it's going to cause enormous problems for them. If they pick a slow and low type of pitch that we keep playing on, then the bounce, or the lack of bounce, will help the New Zealand batsmen contend with him. But if there is any bounce or pace, England can clean them up.

I haven't seen anything in the New Zealand bowling to concern England. I'm quite aware that New Zealand, at the moment, have one high-quality cricketer in Brendon McCullum, the captain. I think he is a very top-class cricketer. They are lucky to have Ross Taylor back - he is a good batsman. But having said that, New Zealand are going through a period without any high-end players. In the past they have had players like Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe, who made a difference in the side. This set of players is very good, hard-working; they are decent cricketers. But for a country - I always say this - of five million people, they are doing splendid. But just at this moment, they are a more average side. They work hard, they'll compete hard, they are very good competitors, they'll field very well. But really, in terms of ability and technique, I would expect England to win.

ST: Coming to South Africa now, who've beaten Pakistan 3-0 in the Test series. The question is from Nilesh in India. He says: South Africa seem ruthless at home, and they have won away as well, though not as ruthlessly as they have done in home conditions. The subcontinent remains a challenge but is this team set for a long haul as the best Test side in the world?

GB: South Africa are the best Test side in the world. They have superb seamers and many different types of quality batsmen. In South Africa, they are always going to be difficult to beat, because their pitches don't favour spinners. Seam-up is the key, and good technical batting, because some of their pitches, like Johannesburg in particular… Pretoria as well, and sometimes you can get pace and bounce in the first innings in Cape Town and Durban. That suits the make-up of their team, with strong seam bowling - Morkel has got bounce, Steyn is the best seam bowler in the world, Philander has been a revelation, and they've got one or two guys who can slip in and help them out when anybody's injured.

"In the short term, South Africa have all the attributes to stay at the top in Test matches. They are a very good fielding side, determined, but spin is always going to be a problem. It's about the pitches in South Africa. Who wants to bowl spinners on unreceptive pitches?"

Spin has always been a problem for South Africa and it is a problem now. They struggle to be as dominant in the subcontinent because of their lack of quality spinners. The balance of their team has been held for the best part of 20 years by the outstanding talent of Jacques Kallis. When Kallis plays, you have a quality, excellent seam bowler as well as an unbelievably top batsman. A good catcher in the slips as well. At the moment he is getting older, his bowling stints are shorter, he doesn't bowl as much, doesn't bowl as quick, but he is still giving them a bit of balance, a bit of extra seam, and picking up the odd wicket. But the crux is going to come when Kallis goes, Graeme Smith, the captain, goes, who bats up front. In maybe two years' time you're going to see one or both disappear. It will affect them a great deal.

So a long haul? No. In the short term, they have all the attributes to stay at the top in Test matches. They are a very good fielding side, determined, but spin is always going to be a problem. It's about the pitches in South Africa. Who wants to bowl spinners on unreceptive pitches? The kids in South Africa will learn it's a waste of effort, waste of time, so they revert to bowling seam-up. If they want more spinners, they'll have to give some encouragement to young kids. But in the short term I'm not sure a lack of spin is going to hurt them, except when they go to Sri Lanka and India, that's possible. They are so good with the seam-up and so good with the batting, they can perhaps get away with it a lot of the time.

ST: The unfortunate thing, Geoffrey, is that South Africa don't play Tests for a while now - not until November when they take on Pakistan in the UAE.

Coming to a technical question now, it's from Kiran in Australia. Kiran says: Geoffrey, I'm a pace bowler and I need your advice. My coach said when I release the ball, I bowl it out of the back of the hand instead of cocking my wrist. How should I fix it?

GB: How can you be a pace bowler with the ball coming out of the back of your hand? That's what I want to ask. I haven't seen you, I am just reading the words. Legspinners bowl it out of the back of the hand. So your coach is right.

First of all, the grip is vital. The first two fingers of your bowling hand, one either side of the seam, the thumb underneath resting a little to the side of the seam. Hold it in those three digits, lightly but firmly. Lightly but firmly, I repeat that. Do not keep it too tight or you will not be able to release it [properly]. And, as you bowl, the key to it is try to keep the wrist firm-ish, so that you propel the ball to the batsman with the whole of the palm of the hand facing the batsman. I repeat that: propel the ball with a firm-ish wrist, but the palm of the hand has to be facing the batsman. Practise it without a batsman. You don't want the discomfort [of thinking] that the batsman is going to whack the ball for four in the nets. You just need to practice it without him. And do it at medium pace. Don't try to bowl too quick. It will feel funny at first because you've not been doing it right. But back of the hand, won't work.

ST: Geoffrey's favourite question for this show comes from Gul Laghari in Pakistan. It's about fielding. Gul says: The quality of ground-fielding has improved exceptionally over time. What would you put this down to? Is it better fields to dive on, or more athleticism in the field, generally?

James Anderson at an England training session, West End, June, 14, 2012
"The best athletic fielder I've seen among fast bowlers" © Getty Images

GB: I think it's definite that the quality of ground fielding has improved out of all recognition because of one-day cricket. Let's be clear, I say ground-fielding. Slip catching, close-in catching of any kind, was always of a high standard in my career and, from what I understand, it's been pretty good throughout the game. For a long time, maybe not in the 1890s or the early 1900s, but going through the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, right through it's been pretty good, of a high standard. But for fielding, ground fielding, in the outfield, one-day cricket can take all the credit for the brilliant athleticism that has evolved and improved over the years.

Going back to my playing days, when I started playing cricket, it was frowned upon if you had a grass stain or a dirt mark on your creams. You should always look immaculate, you were told, so nobody dived around, nobody got dirty or got grass stains on. Only by accident. How times have changed.

With fielders trying to save runs, that puts batsmen under pressure. Batsmen try to play a good shot. If a fielder can stop it, [the batsman] is under pressure; he is not scoring in a one-day match. If you save runs on the boundary or anywhere, it can help win matches by a few runs. That has been the norm through one-day cricket. It has just got better and better.

It has now become vital that bowlers have to be as good as batsmen [in the field]. This has been a huge and outstanding improvement in cricket. There is talk, in the 1930s, going through the '40s, Bill Bowes, playing for Yorkshire, he was a fast bowler, 6'6", he used to stop the ball with his boot on the boundary. And then pick it up and throw it in. That's never going to happen now. You've got some brilliant fielders around. James Anderson of England, as a fastish bowler, lively fast-medium, he's not slow, not real out-and-out fast, he's quite sharpish… he is a brilliant fielder anywhere - catching, slip, outfield, dives around. He is the best athletic fielder I have ever seen [among] fast bowlers. It's become a norm now that everybody has to be able to do it. So one-day cricket can take the credit.

ST: There you are Gul. Thanks a lot for that Geoffrey, that's a wrap on today's show. Do keep sending us us your questions using our feedback form and Geoffrey will be back with us in a couple of weeks, from Wellington. Thanks for joining us.

Posted by dandi23 on (March 2, 2013, 4:59 GMT)

I reckon people are overplaying the Kallis retirement and lack of spinner. Yes SA doesn't have a spinner that will run through a batting order like Ajmal but Peterson is a perfectly serviceable spinner who takes his fair share of wickets. He's not just holding up an end like Harris did a couple years back.

Kallis has at least 3 more years and Smith just turned 32. Don't know why Geoff even mentioned Smith really. As for Kallis, the answer is already playing. JP Duminy. He's not Kallis, no one is. But he can do what Kallis does in his current form, except he's a spinner of course. I'm not convinced SA will go tumbling down when Kallis retires as most are.

Posted by armchairjohnny on (March 1, 2013, 12:48 GMT)

I don't understand why people feel the need to belittle South Africa's achievements. Comparing them with sides from earlier eras serves no purpose since the comparison will always be skewed (Batsmen had it tougher in the 70's and 80's, but the converse is also true -- bowlers had it far easier. Bowlers like Holding and Marshall could bowl on worn tracks, were lucky that they got to bowl with batsmen without helmets, and could increase their wickets tally by rasily dismissing rabbits-for-tail-enders who didn't know one end of a bat from the other.) South Africa are the best team in the world today and others would be better off trying to improve their cricket rather than worrying about how long (or short) South Africa's reign at the top will be for. Let's also enjoy Steyn whilst we can, I've no doubt he will be regarded as one of the all time great bowlers when his time is up.

Posted by shaolinfist on (March 1, 2013, 11:55 GMT)

Look, West Indies of the late 70s and 80s were a genuinely great team. They played when batsmen didn't have protective armour and restrictive rules to protect them from the bowlers and when they played, all teams, Australia, England, India,Pakistan etc. also had some of their legends of the game. Australia was strong in the 2000s as barring India, other teams were weak. Further, barring Australia, the quality of other teams bowling from 2000-2008 had majorly gone down. India was briefly strong for two years albeit not a typical no.1 because everyone else was rebuilding. South Africa is no.1 now because barring England, everyone else is in transition or rebuilding. South Africa is still a better no.1 than England and India were in recent time and to be frank, there is nothing wrong or missing with the current South African side, but there is nothing exceptional about them either. I personally feel that Cronje's team of late nineties was stronger.

Posted by   on (March 1, 2013, 11:29 GMT)

@Jayzuz. Not only are the current SA bowlers better than anything doing the rounds at the moment but he bowling depth of SA at the moment is way better than anything else on offer from any other team. That is matter of fact. Kleinveldt had his 1st test in Aus and you are breaking him down? Ridiculous!Abbot had his 1st test against Pak and already you are making assumptions? Again, ridiculous! Sounds like you are bitter and envious of the Saffers at present!! Don't worry, many are and should be as well!

Posted by BillyCC on (March 1, 2013, 10:19 GMT)

@jayzuz, if you read the rest of my post, I explained that by saying that South Africa played poorly in the first two tests against Australia. Philander averages 17 but relies on the pitch too much? Fine, I'll take some of that. @smahuta, the fact is, South Africa have only been number 1 for only one year, so please, none of your nonsense that they've dominated for the past four years. Dominance is winning home and away against all oppposition for an extended period of time.

Posted by UK_Chap on (March 1, 2013, 10:10 GMT)

There is no doubt South Africa are a fanatastic side, they have great batsmen and some great bowlers. The play as team very well and that masks any deficiencies they may have. I look froward to see how well they do in a few months time in the UAE.

Posted by Jayzuz on (March 1, 2013, 9:17 GMT)

@billycc, SA has a quality pace attack with depth? You obviously didn't watch the series vs Australia. Steyn is the best. Morkel is very good, but inconsistent - he averages 30 - even Siddle beats that comfortably. Philander relies on the pitch far too much, as we saw clearly in Australia. Kleinvelt is barely test standard, and got humiliated in Australia. As for their new guy, one test on a green wicket vs a subcontinent side is too easy a ride to make any definite conclusions. The other issue with SA is that they are no better than other teams in the other formats, which is why their overall record vs Australua is still poor - 4 wins in the last 12 internationals. If their depth was so great, this would not be the case.

Posted by Jayzuz on (March 1, 2013, 8:01 GMT)

Most of England's players are the wrong side of 30, and they will need to find a whole heap of newbies in the next few years. So expect a period of decline for them beginning in about 2 years time. Australia has mostly youngsters, and they will be coming into their dominant years just as England is going the other way.

Posted by philvic on (March 1, 2013, 7:18 GMT)

West Indies were not tested too much in the 70s and early 80s. England were generally weak and the Aussie batting was nothing special in the 70s and their bowling was weak in the 80s. The Indian bowling was also substandard outside India. The strongest other country at that stage were SA who couldn't play Tests because of apartheid. I am not disputing that WI were a great side but often things look even better with hindsight. Test cricket is probably as strong and competitive now as it ever was; I just wish there was more of it instead of trivial T20 rubbish.

Posted by Smahuta on (March 1, 2013, 7:06 GMT)

The fact of the matter is, SA have not lost a series for 4 years already, another 2 years of dominance is already a long period of time no matter how you look at it. You think the great Aussie side won every test match? no in fact they seemed to have penchant for losing a dead rubber when they were 4 nil up. SA would be an even better side if they played more test cricket. When was the last time they played a 5 match series? I cant remember myself, but with a dull10 match ashes series coming up between to ordinary sides, it makes me wonder what the heck is going on with the administrators these days.

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