October 5, 2009

South Africa's strength is their weakness

Why the ability to formulate a plan and stick to it may be at the root of South Africa's failures in multi-team tournaments

After their failed chase against England that dumped them out of the Champions Trophy, Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur, South Africa's captain and coach, were asked if they had considered sending in a pinch-hitter to get them going in the early overs. Yes, they said, the idea had been considered, and abandoned.

South Africa were chasing 324, and Herschelle Gibbs fell in the seventh over with the score at 42. Jacques Kallis then batted until the 12th, and during his stay South Africa scored at 4.55 per over. JP Duminy came out to bat when AB de Villers got out at 142, with South Africa needing to score 7.5 an over; and when Duminy left in the 37th over, having scored 24 off 33 balls, the asking-rate had climbed to over 9.

Could South Africa have done it differently? Could Roelof van der Merwe, who has acquired a reputation for his golf-style clubbing, have been sent up the order with a licence to hit? Van der Merwe ended up batting at No. 9, would you believe, behind Johan Botha, at a time when South Africa needed more than 12 an over. He was yorked for zero. Or could Albie Morkel, South Africa's modern-day Lance Klusener, have been sent up?

But that would not have been the South African way. That would have meant deviating from The Plan. And The Plan, Smith explained, had always been for Morkel to bat in the batting Powerplay, to be taken around the 42nd over.

The plan had been similar with Klusener is his glory days. Let the specialists, and whichever other allrounder was in the side do the job till almost the end, and then unleash Klusener in the last few overs. And how well it worked. Except, of course, when it really mattered. The memory of that last-over run-out in the 1999 World Cup semi-final often obscures the bigger blooper. Why on earth was Klusener, who ended up with a 16-ball 31, left to do so much so late? Why was he held back until the 45th over, and not sent in in the 41st, when Jonty Rhodes fell? Of course, that would have been against The Plan.

No, "choke" is not the word for what happened against England a week or so ago. That happened in a Champions Trophy game in a different year. From 192 for 1 in 37 overs chasing 261, South Africa fell 11 runs short with four wickets still standing. Against England it was the bowlers who cost South Africa the match. But we will never know if a more radical approach to the chase would have made a difference, because the South Africans would rather die wondering than depart from the familiar.

It would be wrong to say that nothing has changed. This is not a team of prototypes. In Duminy and Hashim Amla they have two batsmen of flair and wristiness, in de Villiers they have a middle-order adventurer. Their pace attack is more varied now, and they even have a spinner who sometimes bowls to take wickets. But while the skills have changed, the method remains the same.

There is a compelling case for sticking to the method, of course. After all, it has brought enormous success. Since their re-induction in 1992, South Africa have been a formidable team in all forms of the game, and particularly in one-day cricket. Through the 1990s they had the best success-rate in ODIs, and in this decade, with a win-loss ration of 1.83, they have been second only to the Australians. Why tamper with a successful formula and risk failure and perhaps ridicule?

So it's Kallis at No. 3, five overs each for the opening bowlers, no spinners in the bowling Powerplays, and Morkel to be relied on to send the ball over the ropes in the batting Powerplay (to be taken in the last 10 overs). Through the course of his last press conference, Smith almost admitted that South Africa were trying to set up the game for Morkel. It was an astounding admission.

Presumably this is a strategy based on two match-winning innings from Morkel in Australia earlier this year. On both occasions, he batted at No. 8 and during the batting Powerplay, while South Africa were chasing. In Melbourne he blasted an 18-ball 40 when South Africa required 51 off 36 balls. He repeated the performance a few days later in Sydney, producing a 22-ball 40 in similar circumstances.

South Africa have been good in identifying certain patterns for success, now they must find a pattern in their failures

Morkel hasn't repeated his heroics since. His highest score in his last 10 matches has been a 32-ball 29. Yet South Africa continue to rely on their No. 8 batsman to deliver them. Chasing 320, would you rather get ahead of the game by the 40th over or leave it to your final hope?

This is perhaps harsh on Smith, who has taken South African cricket forward in many ways. And it is perhaps too much to expect him to break free of his environment. South Africa remains a largely conformist and risk-averse society. Over the last week I have spoken to a number of South Africans - former cricketers, administrators, writers and academicians - and they have all spoken about the structure and rigidity of South African society, and the respect for order and the old ways. Most leading cricketers, at least those who have been in a position to make decisions, are products of the public-school system, where considerable emphasis is laid on the traditional values.

There are exceptions, of course, but South Africa has not by and large been a land of free-thinkers or inventors. Even the liberal party sat in Parliament during the apartheid years. And the South African life by and large falls mostly into familiar patterns.

Sportsmen too are shaped by their society. When asked why the Pakistani cricket team was so unpredictable, Younis Khan, an endearingly sincere man, gave a simple yet profound response: when our nation is so volatile, how can our cricket team be any different? For years Indian cricketers carried a soft and nearly reverential approach to their opponents, England and Australia in particular - a reflection of national diffidence.

Sticking to a method isn't unique to the South African cricket team. The Springboks have remained pre-eminent in rugby by playing a physical and robust style shorn of flair and creativity, and as long as they continue to succeed, there will be little reason to change.

South African cricketers, however, face an interesting challenge. In many ways they have modelled their game on the tough and athletic brand of cricket played by the Australians, and have found a huge amount of success with it. But yet, on crucial occasions, particularly in world tournaments where they have had to deal with multiple teams, they have been brought down by their inflexibility and inability to go outside the box and think on their feet.

Their success in bilateral contests and repeated failure in multi-team contests cannot be wished away as incidental. They have been good in identifying certain patterns for success; now they must find a pattern in their failures. They can begin by asking themselves if their strength isn't occasionally their weakness.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments