Caught by surprise

Hollywood has ‘accidental heroes”, not sportsmen. Not usually, anyway. Yet South Africa’s one-day team begins the defence of its world number one ranking still a little perplexed at how they reached the top — and certainly the speed at which they got there.

‘It snuck up on us, to be absolutely honest. In September last year I believed it would be an 18-month process to get to number one. It caught all of us a little bit by surprise that we did so well against Australia,” said coach Mickey Arthur before the first of the five-match series at Kingsmead on Friday.

‘The challenge now is to maintain that ranking — and the best way of doing that is to forget about it completely. Graeme [Smith] and I set ourselves targets after the one-dayers in England and we must simply stick to them,” Arthur said.

‘We wanted to identify key players for certain roles within the squad and, just because we have the number one ranking, that doesn’t mean to say we have all the answers. We are anything but the finished article.”

If the team’s progress has been rapid since they were thumped 4-0 by England last year, it is nothing compared to the rise of Warriors all-rounder Wayne Parnell, who was awarded a national contract this week at the tender age of just 19.

The decision was announced with a good deal of fanfare by Cricket South Africa — but not received with quite as much by many people within the game.

The message from players around the country, including both former and aspiring internationals, was similar: ‘You won’t find a single player who doubts his talent and potential, but national contracts are supposed to be earned, not handed out based on what you might achieve in the future,” said one former national squad member. ‘It doesn’t send the right message out to those in the franchises whose ambition is to earn a national contract based on their performances in domestic cricket.”

Arthur, too, acknowledges an element of ‘risk” in raising Parnell’s profile and status but describes him as ‘— a really, really serious cricketer whose talent must be recognised”.

Former Proteas player Boeta Dippenaar is all too aware of the dangers of rapid promotion, having been elevated into the national team far too prematurely and then jettisoned just as he was coming to terms with his game.

‘I must admit my heart missed a beat when I heard the news about Wayne’s contract,” says Dippenaar.

‘Before I say anything else, let me say that I think he’s one of the most talented young bowlers I have ever seen. He bowled a spell against us [Eagles] during the SuperSport Series in Bloemfontein that could have been a young Wasim Akram,
it was that good,” said Dippenaar.

‘But he is 19 years old. He hasn’t even played one full season of domestic cricket, let alone three or four. He hasn’t even lost form for his franchise yet, never mind been dropped. How will he cope when that does, inevitably, happen? How well can he really know his game? Surely he needs to be left alone for a couple of years to develop, improve and learn, not just as a cricketer but as a person, too.

‘There are certain things in life that can be learned only through experience and, in my view, it’s easier to learn those things in the relative privacy of your domestic team rather than in the full glare of international cricket,” Dippenaar said. ‘I would love him to prove me wrong. Maybe he will cope much better than I did. I sincerely hope he does. But the history of cricket suggests that he will have many lows as well as highs at this stage of his career and an awful lot to cope with. Exposing him to international cricket and making such a huge statement as awarding him a contract on top of all that will not be easy for him,” says Dippenaar.

It is a delicious irony that Roelof van der Merwe will sit alongside Parnell in the change room. The 24-year-old Titans all rounder took a couple of years ‘off” after a shining junior career that included South Africa under-19 representation.

Disappearing off the cricketing radar was exactly what he needed to do: ‘But there comes a time when you realise that life can’t just be one big party, a time when you realise that you have to put your head down and earn a living,” he said this week.

An arm around the shoulder and a real-life chat with Parnell would go a very long way to helping the teenager see life from a different perspective.

South African cricket is full of unfulfilled, burnt-out talent that was ruined in the stampede for youth.

But as Dippenaar so wryly and rightly notes: ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”

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