At the start of the second season of World Series Cricket, the embattled Australian Cricket Board appointed a new young captain in Graeme Yallop. Asked for his prediction of the forthcoming six-Test Ashes series, Yallop blithely predicted a 6-0 victory. A few months later he was left nursing a 5-1 mauling at the hands of Mike Brearley's England, and would go on to publish a bitter account of the series entitled "Lambs to the Slaughter".
There is something of the lamb being led to a similarly grim fate about Jason Holder at this World Cup. Following a horrendous mess of leadership, board and player problems, his parachuting into the captaincy as the WICB's man of choice has risked permanent damage to a fine young man and an allrounder of much potential. Imagine thrusting Steven Smith into Australia's captaincy not this summer but during the 2010-11 Ashes, when he was still more embryo than cricketer, and you will have a fair parallel.
Even AB de Villiers has sympathy for Holder's situation, though he was never likely to show it during a sunny and warm afternoon at the SCG. Smarting from his own reverse in Melbourne at the hands of India, de Villiers tore at West Indies with a ferocity to match that shown at the Wanderers a few weeks ago. He had no qualms about turning his harshest light on Holder himself, utterly destroying his opposite number's fast medium in an assault that left the younger man at his wits' end.
In 2000, at a time when West Indies' decline was becoming apparent, Steve Waugh was asked whether he had any advice for his opposite number Jimmy Adams following a particularly heavy defeat in that year's Boxing Day Test. Waugh did not hesitate with the rejoinder, "oh, have a serious drink tonight", prompting widespread laughter in the room. Pondering Holder's plight, de Villiers resorted to empathy rather than black humour.
"While you're playing it's definitely not something you think about," de Villiers said. "He's actually a really nice guy, so yes, we've all been there, and I think every captain goes through really tough games - it was a tough game for him today but we had a tough game in the last one at Melbourne. I know for sure he's mature enough to handle it, he's got enough teammates and experience to look after him."
Unfortunately for Holder, the conflicts and intrigues of West Indies cricket leave him unable to know for sure who has their mind completely on the job. It also felt more or less inevitable that after his commanding performance against Zimbabwe in Canberra, Chris Gayle would not trouble South Africa for long at the SCG. Likewise Lendl Simmons showed a bizarre lack of awareness when declining to review an LBW decision when he had clearly edged Imran Tahir onto his front pad.
Meanwhile Holder must work to understand his own tactical skills as a captain while at the same time developing and maturing as an allrounder. He may have misstepped in the afternoon by underbowling Gayle and Marlon Samuels on a pitch that later offered up generous spin and bounce for Tahir, and his inability to find a way to contain de Villiers allowed his thinking to veer into quite negative zones - he admitted afterwards that his best ploy towards the end of the innings was to hope he could keep de Villiers off strike.
"He was obviously in full flow and my main thing was just to get him off strike and bowl a few more balls at [Farhaan] Behardien who had just come tot he crease," Holder said. "The dropped chances didn't help. If you take away my last two overs which AB really took me apart, it could have been a different story. We tried to execute some yorkers and we didn't land them, but he created room which most batsmen probably wouldn't have."
It was perhaps a time to note that no less a judge than Rohit Sharma had stated how he rated Dwayne Bravo the most difficult death bowler he has had to face, via a mastery of changes in pace and length that keeps the batsman guessing rather than the bowler. Kieron Pollard has a not dissimilar ability to change his pace, and had scored a fine century on this very ground. Both sit at home at the behest of the WICB.
Walking off with a South African tally of 408 staring them in the face, Holder's men looked beaten, and the early overs of their chase - more of a slump really - proved this beyond doubt. Older spectators in attendance, whether in the SCG's stately Members Pavilion or other, newer quarters of the ground, were left to think back in puzzlement on how this once great collective of island nations had slumped so low, as yet another match between the ICC's Full Members failed to produce the sort of willing contest served up by the supposedly lowlier Associates.
Many of the crowd had already begun to drift out of the SCG in search of an evening drink in Paddington, Surry Hills or Darlinghurst when the night ended on the only note of any positivity for West Indies. The only consolation to be taken from the evening would be that this note would be played by no one other than Holder himself. In an innings of free spirit and ample leverage, he averted the heaviest ODI defeat of all time and performed some sort of salvage job on his team's net run rate. There is fight in Holder, which is one reason why he has been given such an onerous job at such a callow age.
"I'm pretty good with my game at the moment," he said. "If I analyse my bowling today just one player took me out. It happens and I just need to figure what I can do better when things like that happen. My batting, we had nothing to lose but we needed to get some runs to try to help our net run rate, so just tried to be positive and stay out there. I was struggling a bit with cramp and felt I couldn't go off, just had to fight it through and put some runs on the board for the team."
Nevertheless, the question the WICB and more senior players must ask of themselves is whether Holder can be allowed to take on so much of the burden of this team at such a developmental time in his life and career. Were his talent to be lost to a lack of confidence, an emergence of bitterness and a creep of indifference, Holder would not be to blame. It would be those around him and above him guilty of leading a lamb to the slaughter.