South Africa in 2009 January 10, 2010

The harsh light of day

After their magical 2008, South Africa were brought rudely back down to earth last year

South Africa must think they spent 2009 stepping through a series of looking glasses, each more distorting than the last.

Now the smoke has cleared and the mirror reflects a sharp-edged image in which almost nothing is as it was barely a year ago. Back then, Graeme Smith's men were surely giddy with the wonder of becoming the first South African team to take a Test series off the Australians. In Australia, no less. That was followed by a one-day series in which the lightweight leadership of Johan Botha and a team bereft of their Henry V - the injured Smith - kept going once more into the breach and returning with the spoils of victory.

As the ICC's top-ranked team in both the Test and one-day formats, could anything go wrong for South Africa? It could. It did. Played six, won one was the sorry saga of their year in Tests. Their sole success was achieved in a dead rubber against Australia, and they were beaten four times.

The one-day picture was not quite as bleak in terms of wins and losses: 11 of the former, seven of the latter. Among them were three victories that were enough to earn the honours in the home one-day series against Australia.

But, for the umpteenth time, South Africa were proven to be paper tigers in ICC events. In the Champions Trophy, England denied them a place in the semi-finals. In the World Twenty20, they couldn't meet the semi-final challenge posed by Pakistan, the eventual champions.

The year ended with a "snotklap" administered by England in the Boxing Day Test in Durban. "Snot" is exactly that. "Klap" is the Afrikaans word for slap. A snotklap is a slap delivered with enough venom to send the victim's snot flying. In the worldview of the stereotypically big, hairy, broad-shouldered South African male, a snotklap is close to the ultimate insult. And yet we don't know if the bottom has been reached. In a game as beguilingly economical with the truth as cricket so often is about those it favours and curses, the distance between zenith and nadir is sometimes less than half the width of a bat, or bigger than the arc between midwicket and cover.

Take the case of Smith. Not long ago he was Oh Captain, My Captain to millions around the world for his failed attempt to stave off a Test defeat, broken thumb and all. Now, for the first time since the early days of his unheralded appointment as captain in 2003, murmurs have arisen over his suitability for the job. He faced his questioners - at least their media representatives - with broad strokes of honesty similar to those he brings to the batting crease.

"I constantly reassess my position, even when things are going well." Smith told a press conference in the aftermath of the Durban debacle. "I'm relaxed and I'm very proud of being able to do the job for a long time and of the success we've had.

"I'm not feeling any extra pressure at the moment, but the pressure never goes away because the expectation of the nation is always there. You've just got to focus on what you enjoy and what you're good at, and that's playing the game of cricket.

"I've had two England captains walk away in my time, but I feel very comfortable with the captaincy at the moment - this still feels very much like my team."

It is too easy to scoff at men like Smith, who admirably but foolishly expect the world to be as upfront with them as they are with us. We'd like to think he could do with a nourishing dose of cynicism, a wake-up call from the realm of cold, hard reality. But the true reality is that Smith has become who and what he is precisely because he believes the world is a wonderful place. When he and his habitually upbeat ilk find enough nastiness out there to change their opinion - and there is, sadly, every chance that will happen - that day will be dark indeed.

Alas, Makhaya Ntini could teach Smith a few things about a world that is not so wonderful. At 32, the stalwart fast bowler is considered past it, his bolt shot, his career a bright but steadily receding light. Yes, the end is in sight for him. As if to rub it in, his replacement is not Wayne Parnell, nor Lonwabo Tsotsobe: genuine prospects in whom Ntini can no doubt see shades of his younger self. Instead, South Africa have turned to one Friedel de Wet. Who?

There can be no arguing with de Wet's debut. He was an emergency replacement when Dale Steyn's dodgy hamstring flared up before play on the first day of the Test series against England. His chief attribute was that he was available, not that he was any great threat to Test batsmen. Five wickets and a gritty 20 was de Wet's contribution to the draw in Centurion. Thanks for coming.

Blow us down if de Wet wasn't an unforced selection for the third Test, at Ntini's expense. De Wet is, by all accounts, a nice kid. But he isn't a Test match bowler.

Actually, he's hardly a kid - he'll be 30 in June. Ntini is just three years older, but that's where the similarities end. At the time of writing, de Wet had taken 193 wickets in 46 first-class matches. Ntini has 624 wickets from his 181 matches. Spot the difference.

New kid on the block
Parnell didn't take long to show the hunger required of an international fast bowler in the one-day format. Now he needs to be given the opportunity to do so on the Test stage.

Fading star
With his lion's heart, his warrior's mind and his superhero's body, Ntini is surely every captain's dream fast bowler. Thing is, some people out there think the dream is over.

High point
Beating the Aussies in one-day series home and away took some of the edge off the abject depression of losing the Test rubber to them so convincingly. But it still hurt like hell.

Low point
The brutal realisation by anyone with a drop of South African blood coursing through their veins that Australia are still their big brothers.

What 2010 holds
In a word, change. South Africa are in dire need of new bowling blood of a quality comparable to that which Ntini has been pumping through their veins since 1998. Ashwell Prince must to be moved back to the middle order. JP Duminy? A couple of fine innings don't make a career, son.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nuxxy on January 11, 2010, 8:08 GMT

    Look at how Parnell takes wickets in ODIs and T20s. He's not the most economical, but he does take them often. And that's what you want from a Test bowler. As to the opening slot, I'd rather see a right-hander as partner for Smith. What I would really love is for someone in the current team to work hard on their technique and step up and say: "I'll put myself on the line to do play in a position the team really needs!"

  • Hashwanth on January 11, 2010, 7:12 GMT

    I liked the last line of the article very much. Ashwell Prince definitely needs to be in middle order in place of Duminy, since Duminy is not consistent in Tests after the Australian tour last year. Duminy is hyped so much. Prince is a world class middle order batsman and he shouldn't be dropped after his failure as opener in this series, instead Duminy has to be dropped and bring back Prince to his position. As far as Ntini is concerned, he just needs a break from cricket to re-assess what he's doing wrong and what he needs to improve. He can easily play another one or one and half years.

  • Milkman on January 11, 2010, 7:05 GMT

    Amla is struggling with his technique at the moment (identical lbw dismissals in his last two tests) - having him open will not solve any problems. AB has the potential to be a devestating opener, but will take time to get there.

    "JP Duminy? A couple of fine innings don't make a career, son". I absolutely agree with the author: apart from the century he scored in Australia, as well as some moderate success in ODIs and T20 matches, JP has not really performed for a good few matches. If I'm not mistaken, a stat quoted in a recent column showed that JP has averaged less than 30 in the last year, and he has struggled badly for consistency. Talented, no doubt, but I get a sinking feeling that he will become another Gibbs...

  • mill on January 11, 2010, 3:41 GMT

    "At the time of writing, de Wet had taken 193 wickets in 46 first-class matches. Ntini has 624 wickets from his 181 matches. Spot the difference."

    By my calculations, de Wet is averaging 4.20 wickets per first class match to Ntini's figure of 3.45. The difference is indeed stark, however your point was that de Wet's numbers pale in comparison to Ntini's, which they quite clearly don't. Notwithstanding the fact that many of Ntini's numbers were achieved in the test arena, de Wet still claimed 5 wickets on debut and was hampered by injury in his second match.

    Nevertheless, it is right to point out that Ntini's career is a long and distinguished one when compared to de Wet's, however your use of numbers could perhaps have been a little better thought out.

  • _NEUTRAL_Fan_ on January 11, 2010, 0:19 GMT

    A bit harsh but I guess that's what they need lol! To be honest, SA just tried to change too much too soon and all that whilst playing less cricket. Ntini clearly fading or out of form or both. Over 100 tests as a fast bowler on many flat, lifeless tracts may have had a hand in that. So de Wet? Well if he is in form why on earth not? He has a great FC record and didn't look too shabby. Yea shuffling up the batting order that much just to accomadate JP and Ashwell at the same time..fine but why should Ashwell (a most crucial piece) be thrown to open? :s I agree with some that JP or Amla op and let Kallis bat 3 (like he did forever) or AB (he clearly suggested ambitions to bat higher and I think he's good enough to adjust quickly). They clearly "choke" often, in general...they still play some of the best BALANCED (competitors with both BAT , BALL and gasp..FIELDING) cricket. I say its still too early to suggest that this bunch are in incredible probs. They got enough talent in storage

  • CaptainPedant on January 10, 2010, 20:47 GMT

    "At the time of writing, de Wet had taken 193 wickets in 46 first-class matches. Ntini has 624 wickets from his 181 matches. Spot the difference."

    -- Spotted it! If Ntini took his wickets as fast as de Wet, he'd have over 750 - that means de Wet takes 'em 20% faster..

  • Shash28 on January 10, 2010, 20:07 GMT

    As for Ntini, I believe his time has come... and South Africa should have moved Parnell up the ranks. Given a chilli 1st day morning, a left-armer, Dale Steyn and Morkel can reek havoc on the English outfit... remember England' pacers depend on swing and that' why they've opted more often than not to use day 1 conditions... As for the batting line-up? Pushing AB up the order is a possibility, perhaps even pushing Amla up? He's been opening pretty much... also to note, considering his current form this might not help... but JP opened in England during the tour games when Smith was injured... played a few 50s too... who knows? Sometimes, the best way to get out of form is to face the edge of the spear.

  • mecrazy on January 10, 2010, 18:03 GMT

    No point in forcing De viliers to open. He's been there, and when he fails, again we'll cry from the rooftops "he's not a test opener". I realy think we need to bring a real opener to open the batting with Smith. I say Imran Khan because he was used before but need a better chance. i Cant believe the boys in the seats are still waiting for Gibbs's test form to return, LOL.

  • mecrazy on January 10, 2010, 17:55 GMT

    to add to my earlier comment... Parnell is to cover when we decide to run an all seam attack or, as so often happens, a fast bowler needs to be rested. Imran Khan opened against Australia but had only 1 bite at the cherry cause SA won that dead rubber by an innings +. Two wicket keepers in a team is more than luxury, and if we have to choose between the batting of Bouch and Duminy, I choose Duminy. Between De villiers and Boucher, De viliers gets to play. Simple!

  • mecrazy on January 10, 2010, 17:36 GMT

    Why don't we call a spade "a spade"? Price can be forced to open the batting or else...! Why can't de villiers be forced to keep wicket, get rid of Boucher and problems solved. But no' the king of wicket keepers can neva be dropped,but your most experienced bowler can be dropped after almost the entire team was struggling. shame. This is so easy: Smith, Imran Khan, Amla, Kallis, Prince, De Villiers, Duminy, M Morkel, Harris, Steyn, Ntini, (12th Parnell).

  • No featured comments at the moment.