Goodbye and good luck
Makhaya Ntini’s omission from the starting XI for the third Test against England was a stark reminder to everyone—in and out of the team—that the Proteas are not an exclusive club.
Captains and coaches around the world all yearn and strive for a ‘settled team” and there is no doubt that cricketers who are not playing for their places can respond with performances that reflect their true ability rather than a grim determination to survive.
The downside to players having a guaranteed place, however, is twofold: complacency is one, but just as worrying can be the feeling of pointlessness and demotivation that spreads among the ranks of those with the motivation and dream of playing international cricket.
Ntini believed that he was worthy of another chance at Newlands but, after a return of 2-233 in the first two Tests, with no claim to have been unlucky in any way, it was clearly time for a change.
‘It was a horrible decision to have to make because Makhaya is an iconic cricketer and tremendously popular inside the team and outside. Everybody was desperate for him to be successful in the first two Tests but, ultimately, the team comes first,” said coach Mickey Arthur.
‘The brand of cricket we decided to play two-and-a-half years ago revolves around playing three fast bowlers operating at 140+ kilometres an hour, with Jacques Kallis and Paul Harris doing a ‘holding job’ at the other end if necessary. It just didn’t look like Makkie could fill that role in the first two Tests,” Arthur said.
When news broke from London that Ntini had signed a “heads of agreement” contract with Middlesex to finish his career as a Kolpak player in the county championship, it seemed that his international career was over.
Kolpak players are not eligible to play for their countries.
‘I don’t know about that,” Arthur said. ‘Makhaya was naturally very upset when he was left out but he had the air of a man determined to fight back rather than walk away. How his career finishes is up to him. I certainly wouldn’t write him off, quite the opposite. I’d love to have him in the Test team bowling at his best. Losing 100 caps and 390 wickets worth of experience is a huge, huge blow.”
Ferocious and skilful fast bowling from Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, allied to contrasting yet equally brilliant centuries from Kallis and Graeme Smith, put the Proteas well on their way to a victory that would, as all victories do, turn the spotlight of attention away from selection.
But Ntini’s fate must serve as a reminder to everyone (OK, except Smith and Kallis, perhaps) that places in the XI cannot be taken for granted after a significant period of failure.
As far as the future is concerned, Alviro Petersen is rightly the next batsman in line, assuming that there will be no return to the class and experience of Neil McKenzie in the event that the top order needs a reshuffle.
But Dean Elgar has virtually kicked the selection door off its hinges. The Eagles left-hander is a run-making machine and, with four SuperSport Series centuries and four 50s, with an aggregate of 892 runs and an average of 68,61, it will soon become downright irresponsible for the national selection panel to ignore his claims for full international recognition.
The only other young batsman scoring runs consistently is his teammate, Riley Rossouw, who has a pair of centuries in his total of 683 runs. He would have attracted even more attention had Elgar’s record not shone so brightly.
Steyn and Morkel are fixtures in the XI at the moment, but Ntini’s place must still be earned by Friedel de Wet, whose pace and accuracy are fine attributes, although he may struggle for international wickets with the lack of deviation from the pitch, or through the air, which characterised his bowling at Newlands.
Dolphins opening bowler Quinton Friend tops the first-class averages, with 36 wickets at an average of just 16, and, though he has been around for many seasons, he is still just 27 years old, two years younger than De Wet.
The Cobras duo of Vernon Philander and Rory Kleinveldt still have their admirers and they both bat, too, but in terms of pace and raw potential it may well be their younger teammate, Francois Plaatjies, who breaks through first as a genuine match-winner in the pace department.
For now, though, those under pressure—Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy with the bat and Paul Harris with the ball—it is time for support and encouragement. They are all class players with proven track records.
In the case of Harris, he has no choice but to regain top form for the sake of the team because, now that his Titans teammate Imran Tahir has been relegated to the amateur team, there are no viable alternative spinners anywhere near the selection door, let alone kicking it down.