South Africa's one-day cricket team in England found that life without Shaun Pollock is very hard indeed.
Sport mirrors life in more ways than mere emotion. A winning team provides a wonderfully meaningless reason for a gloomy nation to smile, and a losing team provides an even more absurd excuse for a prosperous one to scowl.
But just as economies face natural upswings and downturns, sports teams are not guaranteed a smooth ride between peaks and troughs. Shit happens. And in the case of South Africa’s one-day cricket team in England, life without Shaun Pollock is hitting home very hard indeed.
“It took a little while to take effect but, if anybody didn’t realise what a great player he was, they do now. For over a decade he gave us control at both ends of the innings, and usually of the game, and that’s before we even consider his power-hitting and the runs he scored,” says coach Mickey Arthur.
No successful team relies on just one man, of course, and this one has been equally affected by the defections of almost a dozen all-rounders in the last couple of seasons: Andrew Hall, Justin Kemp, Nicky Boje and Johan van der Wath all became seasoned international cricketers capable of producing match-winning performances as back-ups to Pollock and Jacques Kallis, but all retired prematurely to pursue the easy cash on offer in county cricket and India’s Twenty20 leagues.
Tyron Henderson, Dale Benkenstein, Zander de Bruyn and Alfonso Thomas could all “do a job” at international level, while any selector guided by performance rather than age or reputation wouldn’t hesitate to include Lance Klusener, who turned 37 this week.
Suddenly, with Pollock gone too, Kallis out of form and the only other all-rounder worthy of the name, Albie Morkel, injured, South Africa were caught with their pants down.
The fact that England were captained by Kevin Pietersen during the series rout turned embarrassment into abject humiliation.
The former KwaZulu-Natalian reckons he knows a thing or two about South Africa’s inability to look ahead and plan for the future and would, no doubt, have been amused by the lack of depth in the Proteas squad.
After all, he might say, he could have been batting in the out-of-form AB de Villiers’s place at number four if selectors and administrators in the land of his birth weren’t so distracted.
On that subject, the premature retirement of Charl Langeveldt created another significant hole in the ODI team. Anybody who harboured the slightest doubts about the former Boland prison warder’s merits need only look at the team’s inability to bowl three good deliveries in succession at the moment to see how valuable he had become as Pollock’s lieutenant at the top and bottom of the innings before he left for Derbyshire.
Almost 40 South Africans played county cricket during this English summer, and the vast majority of them renounced their country to do so. One happily accepted the money a couple of months ago and remained convinced that South African cricket’s health was “okay”.
Now, after 10 weeks in an English change room, his views have changed.
“The Kolpak ruling is killing our cricket. Unless we start getting guys to come back and contribute, we’ll simply feed the English game. I learned so much—we had four or five international guys in the team and we discussed techniques and tactics, how to win games and how to behave as professionals.
“At the franchise last season the conversation was pretty much based around who had the girlfriend with the biggest tits,” said the player, understandably preferring not to be named.
“We recognise the damage that the ruling is doing to our game but it’s only controllable from that end. What can we do to prevent a cricketer from accepting a contract worth three times as much as he can earn here?” asks frustrated South African Cricketers’ Association chief executive Tony Irish.
“The English authorities are putting measures in place to make it more difficult for our players to sign Kolpak contracts by working with the government to make work permits more difficult to obtain but, as I have always said, we are fighting impossible odds to keep the players—financial gravity is impossible to resist,” Irish said.
One man who may yet be persuaded to return is the outstanding Eagles all-rounder, Ryan McLaren, a man who should have been awarded an international cap three years ago as a reward for outstanding domestic performances.
But in some ways sports administrators can be as myopic and selfish as city bankers, obsessed with short-term success to win the next match or hit the financial target so as to make the year-end bonus.
Unlike the long list of all-rounders mentioned above, however, McLaren is still only 25 and may yet prove to be an outstanding investment should Cricket South Africa see fit to buy him out of his recently extended contract with Kent.
Shaun Pollock is irreplaceable and McLaren could do without the burden of a nation expecting him to take 400 ODI wickets and score almost 4 000 runs, but he could be better than anyone else.
South Africa’s woes, however, have detracted from the performances of an England team that has, for the most part, been comically inept at one-day cricket for 15 years. Some say Pietersen’s arrival as captain was purely coincidental, but that would be to misunderstand the situation. His “un-Englishness” is precisely the reason the team is playing so well.
For centuries Englishmen have cared far too deeply about their sport to reach their potential. They have been too distracted by issues of “fair play” and good manners to be effective.
Not so with Pietersen. He couldn’t be bothered with Andrew Flintoff’s statistics this season or whether Steve Harmison deserved to be in the team or not, he just knew Flintoff was his best all-rounder and that Harmison was the best fast bowler and to hell with the consequences.
There was no agonising over what “message” that would send to other, plodding county cricketers who may have thought themselves ahead in the queue for the national team.
Sure, Pietersen is full of self-belief. But it’s also a damn sight easier to be that when you know, in your heart of hearts, that it’s someone else’s team you are captaining. Englishmen have to steel themselves to play and lead without the fear of failure.
The good news is that the economy will be strong again and so will South Africa’s one-day team. The bad news is that, while the cricket team will take a couple of years to come right, the economy may take a lot longer.