Sport

Small is beautiful for international game

Neil Manthorp

Not everyone believes that returning international cricket to the smaller unions is a good idea but then they don't live in the Boland.

At last, something for Cricket South Africa (CSA) to celebrate. Not everyone believes that returning international cricket to the smaller unions is a good idea but then they almost certainly don’t live in the Boland or the Eastern Cape.

For the first time in almost a decade, the locals in one of the country’s most passionate cricketing regions had a game they could call their own and one they could travel easily to see without having to go to Cape Town and hunt for a ticket at Newlands. In that sense, it was an even greater and more popular success than the team’s overwhelming victory by 258 runs against the touring Sri Lankans.

Given the number of cricketers who learned their trade in the Boland and have subsequently forged careers at richer (and more northerly) provinces, not to mention playing for South Africa, having a regular taste of international cricket is the least the Bolanders deserve.

“There were reasons we were taken off the international roster, most notably the pitch and the outfield, which were not up to standard,” said Omar Henry, the chief executive of the Boland Cricket Board for the past three years. “But we resolved to tackle the situation and make sure all the other logistics were in place.

“When we got it right, I sent a message to CSA and told it how important it was to come back here. And I sent another message straight after the game saying it mustn’t be another nine years before they come back. It was a packed house. The people of the Boland love their cricket and they want to support it,” Henry said.

The next stop is East London for a day game on Saturday. The Eastern Cape is every bit as much of a breeding ground as the Boland for aspiring cricketers, but it is even more important for developing a cricket culture in the black communities. According to many observers, the game has been “bleeding” in the region because of its isolation. It’s fair to say that East London is a good deal further from the Warriors headquarters in Port Elizabeth than Paarl is from the Cape Cobras’ base in Cape Town.

The third and fourth matches take in both of the Chevrolet Knights’ bases, Bloemfontein and Kimberley. It is fair to say that the excitement and anticipation levels aren’t far behind those in Paarl and East London, but are diluted with a splash of caution that CSA’s gesture is nothing more than a fire-dousing attempt to garner support from the minor unions in troubled times.

On the field, there was much to cheer. It is a long time until the 2015 World Cup but coach Gary Kirsten believes that Jacques Kallis’s dream of a sixth appearance (and maybe a winner’s medal) is attainable with careful management of his workload. His form in recent weeks suggests it is not a pipe dream. (“I played the 1992 World Cup at 40. Of course he can do it. He will only be 39,” said Henry).

Hashim Amla’s century was sublime, too, and AB de Villiers somehow contrived to make a 36-ball half-century look responsible in his debut as national ODI captain.

Graeme Smith at a crossroads in his career                     
But his predecessor, Graeme Smith, is rapidly reaching a crossroads. It has been 14 innings since his last 50. He remains a Test-playing legend and clearly remains in love with the ultimate challenge. He may need to rediscover his affection for the shorter format and remind himself of its physical requirements, or get rid of the mistress and concentrate on the wife—metaphorically speaking!

Morné Morkel was unplayable. The yearning of his teammates and supporters for him to repeat, in matches, the devastating spells he produces in nets were frustratingly unrequited in the Test series, but 4-10 pretty much did the trick in Paarl. Ouch!

But the best story of the day on Wednesday was that of his older brother. Albie has played some devastating innings for his country in a frustratingly stop-start career and was instrumental in South Africa achieving a record ODI run chase at the SCG during the historic 4-1 series triumph against Australia three years ago.

Part of the reason for his subsequent omission from the side and from the World Cup last year was a belief that his “attitude” wasn’t right. He is not a chest-beater. When the going gets tough, he remains calm. He does not yell and grit his teeth. This was (wrongly) interpreted as lacking the temperament for the big occasion. At such times, statistics can be manipulated to provide evidence for any argument and his lack of 50s counted against him.

But ask MS Dhoni to pick a match-winning all-rounder and he would nominate Albie Morkel. At the Chennai Superkings in the Indian Premier League, they recognised a common spirit, one that allowed them to strain every muscle to win, but walk away with an undiluted perspective on the world if they did not—which is just the way Kirsten likes it.

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