Graeme Smith on the ropes September 7, 2004

South Africa - a team in freefall

South African cricket followers may well be holding their breath with anxiety more than ever before



Graeme Smith: his drive for 'passion and commitment' has backfired of late © Getty Images

South African cricket followers may well be holding their breath with anxiety more than ever before. There is a profound difference between the tension created by the possibility of victory and glory, and the kind of tension you experience in the doctor's waiting-room minutes away from the results of some important medical tests.

And that's exactly where Graeme Smith's team finds itself at the ICC Champions Trophy - in the doctor's waiting-room.

Just how sick is this team? Ten one-day losses in a row and a freefall down the rankings of both the Test and one-day rankings have left the game more vulnerable than ever before to the sceptics and the political do-gooders, not to mention the plain troublemakers. The national rugby team's amazing resurgence has also given courage and ammunition to the frustrated and angry folk who were previously too scared to speak out. If the Springboks can go from world laughing-stock to Tri-Nations champions, then what on earth is wrong with our feeble-hearted, feeble-minded cricketers?

Frankly, nobody is even confident of victory against Bangladesh this Sunday, not even the team. When you lose five games in a row it causes a serious confidence wobble. South Africa lost five in a row in New Zealand in March, before a three-month break. Then they lost five more to Sri Lanka. The ghastly truth is: they have forgotten what it feels like to win. They have forgotten how to win.

A loss to Bangladesh would almost certainly cost Eric Simons his job as coach. Other heads would surely roll as well, including some senior players like Herschelle Gibbs. Yet victory against Bangladesh and West Indies will give South Africans four days to get excited about a semi-final and time to kid ourselves that we're back among the four best teams in the world.

Since his appointment as captain, Smith has beaten the drum of "passion and commitment", but lately this has manifested itself in a frenzy of anger and disappointment, which resulted in him calling his team "club cricketers" in Sri Lanka. Although many senior players shared his frustration, the likes of Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis may not have appreciated his colourful description. The young captain has also made the mistake of blaming his bowlers more than his batsmen, thereby creating a "them and us" situation and creating unnecessary tension and suspicion.

On arrival in England, they were joined by the man who did so much to inspire their comeback from disaster in England last year, after they had been bowled out for 107 by England in the final of the Natwest Series at Lord's. He hates being called a sports psychologist, but the alternatives all sound far too pretentious for such a straightforward, modest Lancastrian as Mike Finnigan.

Call him a "mental minder" or '"motivational manager" if you prefer, but to the players he is a simple English bloke who makes sense to them and is liked as a result. His single greatest success last year was to teach the players that "positive thinking" is not merely a piece of glib, overused and often misunderstood terminology, but a physical exercise that can be taught and is every bit as beneficial as 10 kilometre run.

But if you want to know what's gone wrong with South Africa, it's all pretty simple. Just about everyone's out of form. The three-month break may have done their bodies the power of good but, on arrival in Sri Lanka their brains did not react to the realities and demands of international cricket, and they simply never had the chance to pull their pants back up. The only positive to come out of the tour was that the players did, despite overwhelming odds, stick together. Largely. But when Smith opened his mouth and sprayed criticism all over the place, he encouraged his players - from the most junior to the most senior - to speak out in return. And they did ...

South Africa need to keep it simple. They would do well to recall the advice of Jonty Rhodes, who played in every one of the ten consecutive games that Kepler Wessels's team lost in the 1993-94 season. "Our sequence ended with a trip to Pakistan where we lost six out of six. We were clueless. And then, six months later, we were one of the best teams in the world and we stayed that way for the next seven or eight years. That's the nature of sport," said Rhodes. "It can change very quickly."

It's just difficult to imagine it happening right now.

Neil Manthorp is the head of the MWP Sport agency in South Africa.

Comments