Graeme Smith walked to the middle for the toss at the start of the match with a smile on his face, and with good reason. The sun was shining on his adopted city of Cape Town, his team was 1-0 up in the series and everything was set fair for another cracking contest with most of his players brimming with form.
It was just a few minutes away from the start and he held the team sheet in his hand. Rahul Dravid was making his way out to the middle, too, team in hand. South Africa's selection chief, Haroon Lorgat, was in the President's Pavilion adjacent to the players' pavilion. He descended the steps with the pace and agility he once showed as a batsman and intercepted his captain on the edge of the square. It took just a few seconds for the conversation to become animated.
Smith uses the word "passion" more than any other sportsman in the country, and one of the mottos of his captaincy has been "truth before diplomacy." So when Lorgat delivered his message, Smith, a young man, felt neither need the desire nor need to hide his feelings.
A minute later he was forced into the unedifying, embarrassing position of kneeling down onto an adjacent pitch the one prepared for the match and, using a pen handed to him by Lorgat, scratching out a name on the team sheet and writing "Andrew Hall" in it's place. The name to be erased was that of Andre Nel, match winner in the previous game with a remarkable analysis of 8-2-13-4.
So what the heck happened? What was going on? With nobody prepared to speak publicly, it was tricky to piece things together. But with a little bit of circumstantial evidence and a pinch of history, here's what might have transpired: Lorgat has long been of the opinion that injured players should not play unless it's vital to the outcome of a series. He's often said over the last three years that he is tired of players "carrying a little niggle, only for it to turn into something much worse when they play."
Lorgat's opinion held sway twice over Smith's during the Champion's Trophy in India in selection of the final XI. Lorgat has long advocated the implementation of a rotation policy, to the players' disgust, and has insisted he will finally do so this season. Smith, like most players, believes that playing through the pain barrier is part and parcel of the job - and has done so many times already in his short international career. Smith believes he should have the final say on which XI players he leads onto the field.
|Lorgat, the chief selector, has long advocated the implementation of a rotation policy, to the players' disgust, and has insisted he will finally do so this season. Smith believes he should have the final say on which XI players he leads onto the field|
So here's a wild guess at what happened: Lorgat heard that Nel had an injured finger. When he enquired, he was told by everybody concerned that Nel was perfectly fit and available to play. Aware that Nel is the kind of cricketer who would declare himself fit to play immediately even after a leg amputation, and that Smith would back any of his players - including himself - to do likewise, Lorgat decided to impose his authority and declare Nel "unavailable for selection".
Lorgat said 12 months ago: "What is the point of selecting 14 or 15 players in a squad if you aren't going to back them to do the job?" Smith, coach Mickey Arthur, team manager Goolam Raja and whoever else was in the changing room, may have thought - and remember this is all wild speculation which is all we can do in the absence of official comment - they could get away with Nel's inclusion before Lorgat stirred the pot. Once the toss has taken place, of course, the team couldn't be changed.
And Smith was just minutes away from doing just that, if this fairytale of a theory is correct. History will record that South Africa went on to record a thunderous 106-run victory and that Hall made an enormous contribution with bat and ball, but unless the channels of communication between Lorgat, Smith and everyone else are opened and flowing freely, performances like these will quickly be undermined.
And if all this hypothesising is hopelessly wrong, I'll be the first to volunteer to eat my keyboard.
South Africa vs India
India tour of South Africa
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency