June 21, 2013

Get South Africa a think tank

With the next World Cup less than two years away, it's important to look at what's causing their one-day cricket dysfunction

Incoming South Africa coach Russell Domingo could do a whole lot worse than suggest a major think tank on where the national team's limited-overs game is going. It has been drifting uncertainly for some time, almost at the mercy of the tides. Will it eventually end up on Treasure Island or simply stuck in quicksand at some murky estuary?

The situation is little changed following South Africa's depressingly comprehensive semi-final exit from the Champions Trophy at the hands of England on a muggy Jimmy Anderson heaven Wednesday at The Oval.

Should we be shocked, surprised, angered even?

Take your pick, but in the final analysis I suggest South Africa did no more, no less, than deliver a par performance on current reputation, sneaking into the last four and then going no further - entirely in line with their world ODI ranking of a humdrum fourth.

Why, a generous argument might even be that AB de Villiers' up-and-down outfit did pretty well to get to where they did, given the not exactly trivial absence of such broad-shouldered figures as Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and, for the inconvenient bulk of the tournament, senior strike-bowling factors Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.

Yet the burning question remains: how come our one-day sides (for what it is worth, South Africa are ranked sixth in the T20 format) seem so glaringly less able to take the big step up to global supremacy in the manner in which the Test team so stirringly has?

Perhaps, then, the answer is best sought by bringing together a collection of the brightest and most high-powered cricketing minds in the country to not only take stock of the present inertia but also strategise on a way ahead, taking into account such things as existing and potential new personnel, exactly which stalwart players are genuinely hungry to extend their one-day careers (an important, hot-potato topic, with another World Cup well less than two years away) and which series or tournaments to prioritise in a sardine-can calendar landscape that doesn't mean you can go hell-for-leather all the time.

Coaches (ideally including the now-departed Gary Kirsten, who never had enough time in his curtailed tenure to truly get to grips with the rather painstakingly evolving one-day side), senior players, ex-players, selectors, commentators, some administrators and stakeholders... widespread counsel might well be very beneficial.

In certain respects a changing of the coaching guard brings automatic new hope, although as Domingo is a disciple of Kirsten's and has already said he does not plan to shake the bag to too radical an extent - something that probably comes as a relief in Test terms - there are no guarantees of a quick Midas touch as far as the "instant" game is concerned.

The big problem at the Champions Trophy was that too many clearly proven South Africa players performed moderately rather than sublimely. Absenteeism of normally core customers simply cannot be pooh-poohed

Let's get one thing out of the way: contrary to Kirsten's reportedly generous, self-incriminating and overly humble post-match view that they did, South Africa didn't choke, I would firmly counter, at The Oval.

By definition choking generally means in sport that you frittered away a promising position - and from a swiftly back-foot 4 for 2 and then quite disastrous 80 for 8 after being ordered to the crease in initially challenging but hardly unplayable conditions, South Africa, if anything, only clawed their way back into the contest to some extent after a more serious humiliation had stared them uncomfortably in the face.

If you are going to join the popular, inevitable and eternally fashionable "they choked" lobby, then perhaps you should try slapping the accusation first on the foreheads of such characters as David Miller and the oft-maligned Rory Kleinveldt, who did exceptionally well to post 95 runs for the ninth wicket in 16 overs to greatly delay the crashing sound of the guillotine.

Of course, there can be no denying that the supposed cream of the Proteas batsmen committed indigestible mass suicide on the day, with de Villiers getting out to a particularly wretched choice of stroke given the adverse situation so fast swelling around him. But we also know that he is an undisputed class act, across all formats - there are plenty like him in the current team, which just makes a day like Wednesday so very hard to fathom.

Sweeping changes? That will be the vociferous call by many, you can be sure, but as much as such an unforgiving approach is understandable in the immediate aftermath of another ICC tournament bomb-out by South Africa, you also require cool heads to have their still-important say.

The big problem at the Champions Trophy, really, was that too many clearly proven South Africa players performed moderately rather than sublimely, while absenteeism of normally core customers simply cannot be pooh-poohed as a factor in the elimination.

One source of hope is that no single nation presently dominates the ODI landscape to a clearly identifiable degree, and that sometimes perseverance and patience suddenly pay off in this particular arena with the agreeable snap of two fingers.

In a sea of relative ordinariness, South Africa actually aren't too far from getting it all right.

Some random immediate personal thoughts are that by not playing in the latest tournament, the selection credentials of batsmen like Farhaan Behardien, Alviro Petersen and Quinton de Kock may only have been enhanced, while the name "Vernon Philander" is sure to at least go back under the ODI microscope from a bowling point of view.

South Africa next travel to Sri Lanka, not always their happiest of hunting grounds, for five tricky ODIs and three T20s in late July. Whether it's a major pow-wow or simply another ordinary selection meeting, expect the boardroom doors to be closed for some time ahead of the trip.

Robert Houwing is chief writer for Sport24.co.za in South Africa