March 2, 2011

South Africa's unburdened youngsters could do it

The team's World Cup chances are better this time round because many of their players don't carry the baggage their predecessors did. But they will be challenged by an underrated England

After several predictable editions whose twists and turns came in the telling and not the conclusion, this World Cup remains wide open. Nothing happened in the first fortnight to change anyone's mind about the likely outcome. About the only things that could safely be concluded was that two matches should be played every day, some of the Associate teams are weaker than had been hoped, and 50-over cricket is not the basket case pessimists describe it as.

If anything the Australians looked a little stronger than anticipated and England's bowling more vulnerable than had been supposed. However, form in the opening stages is not a foolproof guide. Spain lost an early match in its recent football triumph, while Pakistan came within 10 minutes of elimination before their big cricketing victory on Australian soil.

Over the years this column has avoided putting money on anything except bricks and mortar and companies digging for precious metals (thereby ignoring Mark Twain's sage remark about mining companies consisting of a hole in the ground overlooked by a liar). An early experience cast doubt upon the wisdom of tipsters. Sitting around at a match ages ago I overheard a conversation indicating that a particular horse was destined to win a race that very afternoon. As eager as any other mortal to make an easy dollar I hastened to the local betting house and put a few important pennies on the nag. Upon returning to the match I was no less impressed to join another discussion about another horse also bound to cross the line first that afternoon. It came as a surprise to discover that the horse was competing in the same race as my certainty. Naturally the last remaining coins were put on this mighty beast. Suffice it to say a few shillings were lost and a fortune was saved.

Accordingly it is with due warnings and cautions that the names of South Africa and England are mentioned as possible finalists, with the Proteas tipped to overturn their long-standing custom of falling over on the home straight (as my fellow racing experts put it). A conviction has arisen that it is going to be the year of the choker, with the All Blacks likewise romping to victory in the rugby tournament.

The problem with these teams is that they want to win almost too much, attach an almost unbearable importance to victory. Somerset made that mistake in 1978. Never having won a trophy, the Cidermen arrived at Lord's desperate to secure that first title. As a result the players became anxious not to make any mistakes and so tightened their games. Ian Botham was the only exception. Despite his gusto the team suffered a galling defeat. The lesson was absorbed and thereafter a more relaxed side won its next five finals.

Indeed I had the fortune to end up on the winning side in 11 consecutive showdowns with Somerset and Devon. The combination was always the same, big-match players and a fearless outlook. It was a question of seeking victory, not avoiding defeat; of pressing, not waiting for the other side to make a mistake. Alas, sporting attitudes cannot be bottled, or else the shrinks would be redundant. How many times does a sacked player return to haunt his former employers in the next encounter? If only that excitement, that inner fire, could be rekindled at will. Perhaps champions can produce that extra ingredient in ordinary conflict and not merely on special occasions.

South Africa are surely ready to take the leap. Graeme Smith has under his command a combination of experience and proven talent. Free from the scars of the past the younger players can enjoy the challenge of trying to win the World Cup, a feat already achieved twice by their rugby comrades. Moreover it is not their last stand or an opportunity anticipated for decades by a frustrated sporting nation. As far as the moderns are concerned it's a chance to be grasped not a burden to be borne.

Despite lathi charges, and slow progress, and one-sided contests, this World Cup shows every sign of rising above previous instalments. Not for the first time the crucial and unswerving enthusiasm of the subcontinent is proving infectious

In every respect South Africa are nowadays fielding a mixed team. Of course the diversity of colour counts amongst the triumphs of the period, as it was attained without the anticipated bloodbath. Happy is the nation and the peoples blessed with leaders more concerned about the welfare of their charges than their own. With every passing year the game learns to focus a little less on faith, race, gender and sexuality and a little more on character.

Balance of another sort can be detected in the ranks. Previously inclined to put all its eggs in the pace basket, South Africa fielded three spinners in their opening match, and though the strategy might not be adopted for every game, the fact that spin was used as an attacking weapon revealed a shift in the prevailing mentality. Of course it helped that a handy legspinner from Lahore had settled locally, and that the best three tweakers in the country used contrasting styles.

South Africa's potential has been widely recognised but England have been overlooked. Admittedly their recent display has been abysmal - at any rate until the thrilling contest with India that once again confirmed that 50-over cricket has its strong points - but that can, in part, be put down to a sense of mission accomplished. It'd be unwise to forget about the intelligence, resilience and competence of this side's performances in the Ashes. Certainly the new-ball bowling and the middle-order batting look shaky, but England have found the winning habit and for once might surpass expectations.

Among the rest, India can play magnificent cricket but could falter on the smaller things like running between wickets and fielding. Sri Lanka have prepared superbly but might depend too much on the elders near the top of the order. Australia cannot be discounted and Mike Hussey's possible return would improve their chances considerably. If he is fit so soon then clearly his omission was an error. Mind you it'd be a surprise to find the rules allowing an ailing speedster to be replaced by a spurned batsman.

Of the outsiders, West Indies will rue the loss of Dwayne Bravo but in any case need to stop making elementary mistakes. Not for the first time they seem to be on the verge of playing consistent cricket. Pakistan are playing with the verve so often missing in their cricket but the shadow hangs over them and it's too early to suppose that the sun is ready to shine.

New Zealand lack depth and authority. Probably it's too much to expect, though not to hope, that Bangladesh might survive the quarter-finals. Zimbabwe have cannily emphasised their strengths: namely running between wickets, fielding, fitness, and especially spin. Choosing four or five tweakers is a smart move. A weaker team needs to find an edge and then back it to the hilt. However it is disconcerting to find the side's chairman of selectors also serving as a TV expert. It is a reminder that in some dispensations a fine line exists between serving and owning.

Of course cases can be made for other sides lifting the trophy. Nothing much will be revealed until the knockout stages. Regardless of the outcome, though, and despite lathi charges, and slow progress, and one-sided contests, this World Cup shows every sign of rising above previous installments by providing the game with a worthwhile gathering of the great and mighty as well as the good and meek, and by giving the game a genuine focal point and not just another forgettable tournament. Not for the first time the crucial and unswerving enthusiasm of the subcontinent is proving infectious.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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