September 27, 2006

Calling the spin doctors

South Africa's desperate need for a top-class spinner



How appealing: Johan Botha has undergone extensive tests after being reported by Chris Broad in January © Getty Images
South Africa hung onto Australia's coat-tails for the best part of half-a-decade. They even made it to number one in the Test standings for a couple of heady weeks before the Australians finally, through gritted teeth, changed their policy on Zimbabwe and Bangladesh from "support in a non-playing capacity" to "we need the points".

As soon as the fixtures balanced out, South Africa relinquished their falsely acquired status and have been sliding down the rankings ever since. And they will never again challenge for a top place until they find a really good spinner. Not necessarily a match-winning one, but a really good one. Modern history (1970 onwards) tells us that there are two methods of becoming the best in the world. The first is to have a match-winning spinner, or two (or three, briefly, in India's case) or by having four fast bowlers of such class and relentless aggression that that the opposition have no discernible break to refresh and recharge against the 'lesser' bowlers.

The latter method - allied with gutsy but often flawed batsmen but brilliant fielders - was how South Africa managed to challenge Australia, briefly, when Allan Donald was supported by Brett Schultz, Craig Matthews, Fanie de Villiers, Brian McMillan and a young Shaun Pollock. But now, with Makhaya Ntini's best support coming from a bowler - Dale Steyn - with just 30 first-class games to his credit, they need a spinner more desperately than ever before.

In fact, they are so desperate, that the banned Johan Botha will be allowed to play domestic cricket this coming season in a bid to kick-start his international career for a second time. A medium-pacer by trade he has only been bowling off-spinners for three years, but his ability to deliver a passable 'doosra' excited the South African hierarchy so much that they decided he should play Test cricket almost immediately. Unfortunately, that ability also excited the keen eye of unashamed chucker vigilante Chris Broad, the match referee during Botha's debut at the SCG back in January.



'England reached number two in the world the harder way - with a brilliant four man pace attack. But they don't have it any more and Monty Panesar is no Warne or Murali' © Getty Images

The resulting tests at the University of Western Australia confirmed that Broad's eagle eye had been correct and Botha retired to a winter of assiduous training and corrective work with former players, coaches and scientists. He was tested over and over again at the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town with the same equipment used in Perth and, time and time again, he passed.

Hopes were high, then, when he travelled to England to be tested by the ICC. To the horror of his peers and seniors, the testing methods were completely different and employed far less cameras. According to one of the world's leading sports scientists, the method was inferior and flawed. So South Africa's authorities have appealed to the ICC and have, in the meantime, given Botha permission to resume his domestic career with the Warriors.

Whatever it may tell you about loyalty to the player, it tells you more about the desperation levels that exist in South African cricket. A series of training camps were also held during the winter - one for batsmen; one for wicketkeepers; one for fast bowlers but two for spinners (finger spinners and wrist spinners). They were all school-leavers of in their early 20s. If you count all the spinners playing regular first-class cricket in the country, there wouldn't be enough to have a game of cards. And therein lies the problem; no spinning culture, very few spinning pitches and no role models.

A few years ago, when the eccentric Ray Jennings was coach of the national team, he seriously considered a scheme whereby talented but underprivileged kids from the subcontinent with a 'natural' predilection to spin could be offered the chance to relocate - with their families - and qualify for South Africa. It wasn't the worst idea. It's been going on in rugby for years.

England reached number two in the world the harder way - with a brilliant four man pace attack. But they don't have it any more and Monty Panesar is no Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan, which is why they will lose the Ashes and, probably, drift out of the number two spot, just as South Africa did. Which ever way you look at it, certainly from down here in South Africa, the cricket world revolves as much around spin as the one inhabited by people like Max Clifford.

The first step to solving your problem is admitting you have one: "Hello, my name is Graeme Smith and my childhood dream of captaining the best team in the world is never going to come true...unless we can find a spinner."

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency