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After their magical 2008, South Africa were brought rudely back down to earth last year
January 10, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
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