March 9, 2011

South Africa's new bogeymen

Are England bowlers. While on paper, the South Africans look better, in the pivotal moments it is England who have prevailed

Easy like Sunday morning, eh? Not likely Lionel, my dear old thing. Not if you were rubbing the sleep from your eyes in deepest Sussex, it wasn't. Not if you gave a hoot about what was happening in Chennai. And certainly not if your idea of easy is a bump-free ride with Handy Andy and his Mighty Erratics.

Some wildly extravagant claims were made on behalf of the previous Sunday's improbable 676-run Anglo-Indian all-squarer (how improbable can readily be gleaned, not so much from the fact that, of the 47 previous tied ODIs, just one had yielded more runs - 680 by New Zealand and England in Napier three years ago - but that the next highest aggregate had been 540). Inasmuch as England had two wickets intact as the penultimate ball was propelled, leaving all three results possible, it was tempting, admittedly, to rush headlong to such lavish conclusions, but this should have been resisted.

Sporting encounters require at least a vestige of balance to secure their own folder on one's inner hard drive, and cricket purists are arguably the hardest to please. Not only do we want both protagonists to have a chance of victory, we also want variety, which means batsmen and bowlers - and, ideally, seamers and spinners - must be on a reasonably level footing. And notwithstanding one magnificent late spell by Tim Bresnan and a similarly swift burst of equal magnitude by Zaheer Khan, which together accounted for roughly five of the 100 overs, that Bangalore bash was a clear knockout for the flat-track bullies, as is the way with far too many ODIs. Fortunately, courtesy of an unexpectedly chirpy Chennai strip, we witnessed something rather beautiful, something bearing a welcome resemblance to a proper game of cricket.

And about time too. Since the last World Cup, the spirit of adventure, stirred by Twenty20 and sweetened by the advent of the batting Powerplay, has seen the pendulum swing to an intolerable degree. Consider the following exhibits. From January 1971 until shortly before the 2006 Champions Trophy, the average ODI total was 209; over the past two years that mean has surged to just south of 253. Of the 51 scores of 350 or more in the 3122 ODIs played up to midnight on Monday, more than 60%, 33, had been slammed and slugged in 626 games since February 1, 2007, along with more than half, eight, of the 15 highest successful all-time chases. And while South Africa boast the highest overall run-rate with 4.93 per over, and 4.86 up to the start of the 2009 Champions Trophy, the first major event to deploy the batting Powerplay, all eight senior nations have exceeded 4.96 since then, seven of them 5.13 or better. A question, assuredly, of extreme imbalance.

That's why Chennai was such a vital and timely tonic for this tournament, not to say the flagging viability of the 50-over flog. In India, the batsmen had been gorging - unstoppably, nauseatingly; how many times in one day do you need to see fielders gazing forlornly into the distance? But now, glory be, came a banquet for the bowlers. Did the pendulum swing too far the other way? Not if drama and suspense are your bag. Forty-four percent of the one-wicket wins in ODIs (20 out of 45 as of Monday night) have involved targets of under 220; just over half of the one-run victories (13 out of 25) had seen the victors defend fewer than 230. Need we remind ourselves that the greatest World Cup match of all, the 1999 semi-final between Australia and South Africa, finished in a 213-213 tie? Gluttony does not necessarily beget nourishment.

Amid the rabid clamour for exotic strokeplay and DLF Maximums it is all too easy to confuse bowlers with waiters and busboys. That's why Chennai cheered the soul. Just over an hour elapsed between the last ball of the 32nd over, when Jimmy Anderson's McGrathian outswinger did for AB de Villiers, and the fourth ball of the 48th, when Morne Morkel wafted Stuart Broad to Matt Prior, sealing the outcome. Such was the tension, so uncertain the tide amid that don't-leave-your-seat, don't-blink passage, with fielders clustering the bat, boundaries a fanciful dream and swashers buckling, here was the climactic fifth day of a Test in all but name and kit. Cricket, in any language, at its best.

Yet at the risk of sounding ungrateful, something still nagged. We have a batting Powerplay, but why not a bowling one? OK, we do have one, but in name only: all the fielding side are actually permitted to do is invite the opposition to rack up even more runs on the cheap. Why not offer a five-over option during which the fielding captain can toss the ball to whomever he sees fit, even if they have already completed their allocation? Every major regulation change in recent memory has been devised to benefit batsmen; isn't about time some crumbs were thrown to the bowlers?

THE MOST INTRIGUING aspect of that Chennai cheerer was the way it continued a remarkable and unexpected trend. In their last 18 meetings with South Africa in all formats, beginning with the 2008 Oval Test in 2008, England, having failed to win even one of the nations' 10 previous duels, have prevailed three times as often as they've lost (12 to four). In ODIs alone, the score is 8-1 - again, no small feat given that they'd lost the previous five. Of South Africa's other 80 international fixtures during that span, 55 have been won and 21 lost. Prima facie evidence, you would imagine, of a budding hoodoo. But to what can we attribute this extraordinary shift?

For the first 15 years after South Africa returned from isolation their bogeymen were scions of Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. Now they hail from Burnley, Nottingham, Northampton and Gateshead. I can think of more unlikely regime changes, but not many

For the first 15 years after South Africa returned from isolation their bogeymen were scions of Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. Now they hail from Burnley, Nottingham, Northampton and Gateshead. I can think of more unlikely regime changes, but not many.

Man for man, nevertheless, it doesn't really stack up. Not on paper, anyway. South Africa have been able to call on the more muscular, more urgent top five, the more lethal new-ball duo and the most productive allrounder in the history of international cricket; only in spin have England held a discernible edge, and few pitches have suited that particular suit. And while those 18 games have seen them edge the 50-plus scores (35 to 32), four of the six highest run-aggregators are South Africa's. The wickets column clarifies the picture to a degree - Broad (42), Anderson (36) and Graeme Swann (28) have all struck more often than the opposition's best (Morkel, 27) - but even then, England have only collected 184 to South Africa's 160: an advantage of 1.33 per game. Not what a mathematician would call a terribly significant stat, and certainly not one capable of explaining England's supremacy. At 117 to 103, the catch count is barely more illuminating.

Timing, as ever, is everything, and England have been demonstrably superior in the pivotal moments. Think Graham Onions staving off seemingly certain defeat in Centurion and Newlands; Broad, Swann and Mike Yardy whisking out the first five for 53 in the World Twenty20 in Barbados; Anderson confining De Villiers and Albie Morkel to singles in the final over of last year's one-run sneak in Johannesburg; Broad flinging down the gauntlet to Smith during the 2009 Champions Trophy and inducing a top edge; Swann choking de Villiers and Anderson unearthing those gems for de Villiers and JP Duminy on Sunday, and Broad docking the tail with such ruthless efficiency. All these games might easily have been lost; none was. In all five of the teams' closest limited-overs debates, no less revealingly, South Africa have stumbled chasing. And that Chennai choke, having been 124 for 3 and 160 for 7 pursuing 172, should be comfortably the most numbing. All of which suggests that while they are ahead in the paper game, they are losing the mind one by some considerable distance.

But why? This comparatively barren sequence began immediately after Smith had personally ended another, a wonderful unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston having secured his country's first Test series victory in England in more than four decades. Was the joy and relief so immense that he convinced himself the opposition were unworthy and failed to re-instill the requisite steel? Possibly, but surely that sense of superiority has now expired. That the England order has tended to include a few blokes who could have been batting for the opposition may have been more telling, not least since, for the last dozen encounters, they've been led by a bloke born in Smith's own hometown.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments