Why the one-day squad failed
Just over a month ago, the Proteas completed one of their finest post-isolation Test series victories with a 2-1 triumph over England.
Yet “crisis” is in the air and they returned home not as heroes, but almost as objects of ridicule after being not just beaten, but humiliated, during their 4-0 loss in the one-dayers that followed the Tests.
An example of the extremes to which South African sports followers will allow their fickleness to travel? Yes—and no.
As majestic as the Test performances were, the ensuing belting showed all too clearly how paper-thin the national squad’s reserves are. Five changes were made from the Test squad to the one-day squad and, rather than strengthening it, they shredded it.
Stellar performances from key individuals helped paper over the cracks, and when they lost form, the team was hideously exposed.
Graeme Smith, Morne Morkel, Mark Boucher, Hashim Amla along with Neil McKenzie and Ashwell Prince made critical contributions when they were most needed and, lest we forget, although Jacques Kallis suffered his worst batting series for a decade, he showed his all-round class by finishing top of the bowling averages, on either side.
McKenzie and Prince contributed stability and crucial runs to the first three Test matches, but were jettisoned along with Paul Harris and the “reserves”—Robin Peterson and Monde Zondeki—for the one-dayers. It would been a good idea to have kept at least one of them, and many people said as much at the time, not just with the benefit of hindsight.
At the end of any hard, physical challenge it is the mental strength of the participants that is tested more than their bodies and, sadly but inevitably, a sense of “each man for himself” can take over. Like dying people cast adrift in a lifeboat, any sign of deterioration in an individual is taken as a boost by the others.
Every one among the 15-man Test squad knew his place, knew his teammates and knew his role. Those who were there as “cover” for certain places accepted and understood that those in the starting XI were happy to perform unglamorous tasks—like McKenzie’s stoic batting that helped produce a world-record 50+ opening stand with Smith in eight successive Tests.
And everyone knew they deserved to be there, too. They knew that for one very simple reason—because the transformation “target” of seven black players was not reached. That meant it really was a “target” and not a quota. It was reached in the one-day squad, however, and the insipidly creeping doubts about merit, which have haunted so many squads in the past, were quick to return.
But there are even more fundamental and practical reasons for the ODI squad’s demise, and they primarily concern the plundering of what is, historically, the country’s greatest cricketing resource—its all-rounders.
Although it may be easy to criticise the country’s administrators for allowing almost a dozen to leave the country in the past 24 months, it is hard to see what they could have done to prevent them leaving. It is, after all, a free world. Or the cricket playing one is at any rate, or most of it.
The South African “way” of playing limited-overs cricket has been with the abundant use of all-rounders, but the team in England contained just two—the out-of-form Kallis and the injured Albie Morkel. Vernon Philander’s credentials are lacking and Mark Boucher was a place too high at number six.
It is hard to believe, let alone digest, but there were 10 cricketers—with international experience playing county cricket in England while the national team was being thrashed—who would have done the Proteas proud had they been available, even if it had been in a stop-gap role: Nicky Boje, Andrew Hall, Tyron Henderson, Lance Klusener, Zander de Bruyn, Alfonso Thomas, Dale Benkenstein, Justin Kemp, Martin van Jaarsveld and Johan van der Wath. Any country in the world would battle to cope with such an exodus of talent.
But the best prospect of all is Ryan McLaren, the 25-year-old Eagles all-rounder who has been comfortably the best all-rounder in domestic cricket for three years and should have been rewarded with a national cap as recognition, never mind the fact that Kallis and Shaun Pollock were part of the furniture.
When a player that good comes along, you find a way to include him. Which is exactly what coach Mickey Arthur and Cricket South Africa chief executive Gerald Majola are trying to do now by offering to buy him out of his two-year contract with Kent.
It’s a good start, but there is a spectacularly huge amount of work to be done between now and the 2011 World Cup on the subcontinent where South Africa will need not one half-decent spinner, but two good ones to have any chance. See how much work?