South Africa must seize their chance to shine
South Africa have not played a match since that fateful evening on March 25th when a canny Kiwi outfit score enough runs and played enough astute cricket to awaken the ghosts that haunt their quarter-final opponents. It was a painful day that began well and deteriorated inexorably. Defeat was inevitable long before the last wicket fell. As much could be gleaned from the faces of the players; pain was paramount. Alas, they had done it again, fallen short in the critical hour. It is a demon in need of death.
South Africa have achieved an enormous amount in the last 17 years. That the limited-overs team is now led by a young man from Affies, in partnership with an Indian lad from Durban, boggles the mind. That their middle-order comrades include a giant of the game and two coloureds from the Eastern Cape is no less inspiring. It is so easy and so tempting to lose sight of that picture; the bloodless revolution is now taken for granted, but at the time of its occurrence was much dreaded, much feared. Not the least beauty, and importance, of sport is its ability to reach across the divide. Cricket especially (a veritable maelstrom) ought to talk of little else.
Doubtless South Africa will be relieved to get back to work. Their season begins on Thursday with a Twenty20 match against the Aussies. Another of the same ilk follows a few days later, then come three ODIs, and finally two Tests, a ridiculous number considering the stature of the contestants. Had the compressed versions been reduced or fewer rest days awarded, a third Test could easily have been arranged. Next the Sri Lankans will play four Tests over the summer holidays. It's a full programme and ought to give the game a lift. Cricket has a chance to make its mark. Over the weekend Bafana Bafana and the Boks were eliminated from prestigious tournaments without scoring a try or a goal between them. The ball-kickers grizzled about the rules of the competition and the muddied oafs groaned about the ref, but salvation lay in their own hands.
As far as cricket is concerned, the team is in better hands, perhaps the best since the return. Gary Kirsten was the right choice as coach. He is firm, tends to use his eyes and ears more than his mouth, understands struggle, respects hard work, and knows the game, ancient and modern. That he is a past Test player and a local helps, but the main thing was to get the best man for the job. CSA did that. By the look of things Kirsten also has an acute sense of timing. India flourished on his watch but have hardly won a game since he left. Kirsten's first task will be to slay the demon. Most likely he will go about his work in a quiet and methodical way, with the psychology hidden. He was criticised in some quarters for letting the top Indian players please themselves at practice and so forth. But the strong don't need to flex muscles. It's about performance not power.
AB de Villiers was the right choice to lead the one-day side and the only regret is that he was not also put in charge of the Test team. His partnership with Kirsten will work because of the contrast in their characters and the mutual respect between them. Graeme Smith seemed to regard his coaches with the affection Greeks reserve for tax men.
de Villiers is ready to take over the Test side but presumably officials wanted to give him a little time to play himself in. Captaincy does change a fellow's life. Apparently only the arrival of a baby has as much impact, and in that case the male is playing a secondary role. Happily de Villiers has bags of energy. He is also a brilliant and combative batsman and an athletic fielder. His main weakness is that he has little experience of captaincy. Like Michael Clarke, though, he is intuitive and has a desire to lead.
Hashim Amla is perfectly suited to the vice-captaincy as well, and can step in to take over the leadership whenever the boss is injured, as is currently the case. Amla will be a superb deputy because he is discreet, humble and does not aspire to the main job. He is also an accomplished batsman. Patronised in his early days, he has tightened his technique and appears well balanced, calm and well placed to score runs against all sorts of bowling on all sorts of pitches in all forms of the game.
Accordingly the team is in good and constant hands. Apart from Smith, who is still at the helm as Test captain, the same group can be in charge for the next five years. Moreover they have at their disposal a side with an impressive batting order, the sharpest new-ball attack in the country, and for the first time in decades, an attacking spinner in Imran Tahir.
Dale Steyn is the best speedster around because he is fast, moves the ball late, and likes batsmen about as much as the Tea Party likes liberals. His merits have long been recognised. Morne Morkel took longer to develop. For an eternity he seemed to lollop to the crease, roll over an arm and deliver sweet nothings. He had the makings of a great fast bowler but did not understand the mechanics. Long limbs require more organisation than their curtailed counterparts.
Until recently Morkel could not find the correct combination of length and aggression. Whenever he pitched up, the delivery was powder puff. Confusion caused a crisis in confidence. Now he pitches a fuller length without losing his bite. Australia and Sri Lanka will be wary of him. South Africa's other main task is to help JP Duminy complete his journey from promise to fulfilment. At present he is trapped midway. Amongst young batsmen he is not alone in that, and the reason is clear - T20 has radically changed the way batsmen learn the game. In every country, except perhaps England, young batsmen are concentrating on developing a wide range of shots, many of them improvised. Those rising through the ranks can become millionaires without playing Test cricket for their country.
Duminy's exceptional ability has been recognised. Sages of the game believe that he is cricket's next great batsman. Unmistakably, though, his career has stalled. He has not suddenly lost his gift or fallen into wanton ways. Just that, like so many peers, in the very time previous generations were consolidating, he has been obliged to expand and explore. It has been the fate of modern batsmen to try to walk, run and sprint at the same time. It has been their fate, too, to be feted before the deed has properly been done. Care needs to be taken lest they become celebrities not champions.
That South Africa has three accomplished tweakers to choose between is a rare blessing. Tahir is a much travelled legspinner, prepared to bowl all day and likely to mop up all except the most competent tails. Johan Botha has emerged as a fine leader and steadily improving batsman, and as an offspinner he is enjoying the ever-growing number of left-handers in the game (most of them actually right-handed, but that is a tale for another day). Paul Harris is the most underestimated of the trio. He plays the clown and has an awkward action, so batsmen tend to take him lightly. It is a mistake because he also keeps an immaculate length and varies his pace cleverly.
AS FAR AS THE TEAM IS CONCERNED, South African cricket is working along the right lines. No such confidence can be held about the administration. It has been a winter of discontent. CSA has endured several convulsions, all of them self-inflicted. Bitter disputation has arisen between the chairman and CEO. Interviewed on radio, Mtutuzeli Nyoka called Gerald Majola a liar, whilst the Sunday Times, a highly respected newspaper, said worse, and added that millions of rands had vanished.
Nor has CSA satisfactorily defended its man. To the bemusement of observers prepared to listen to both sides of the story, it denied that any money was missing beyond a small amount mistakenly used for family travel, and at the same time gave Majola a severe reprimand. Apparently the penalty was given because the CEO had on a few occasions broken the Companies Act. Meanwhile the board is preparing for a second vote of no-confidence in its chairman - the first was overturned after Nyoka appealed to the High Court, which also insisted that an outside audit be organised. As far as can be told, Majola is more sinned against than sinning.
Certainly he failed to inform his employers that he had been given a fat bonus by the IPL's organisers. Accordingly CSA likewise awarded large ex gratia payments. CSA points out that the IPL had to be organised at short notice and that on previous occasions bonuses had been awarded and not declared - for example, during the 2003 World Cup. And it was a success. Still, that does not justify double-dipping. They are happy for journalists to examine the KPMG report, yet reluctant to publish it, thereby fostering doubt.
It is a messy affair. Nyoka is as prickly and political as several of his predecessors. Majola has been in his job a long time and it might be time for a fresh start. Regardless, CSA needs to improve its communications. It's not enough to complain about allegations that sit on the record or to call press conferences or to arrange meetings that critics cannot attend. Whether their chairman is right or merely an angry old man with an agenda, CSA's response has been inadequate. Corruption is rife in South Africa, so suspicion is widespread. Accordingly CSA needs to apply the highest standards of accountability and transparency. Not that the past was lily white - except in terms of skin. The notion that corruption began with liberation is fanciful, and easily countered.
It is to be earnestly hoped that these off-field matters are sorted out so that they do not undermine the new leadership. South African cricket has a chance of soaring in the next few years, a chance that cannot be missed. Moreover the team is in good hands and capable of lifting trophies. But the demons have to be confronted - those in the minds of the players and those wearing collars and ties.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It