Preparing for an Indian summer

Sometimes there just isn’t a “catch” or a solution. Sometimes things are just what they are. The Proteas picked two spinners, scored a mountain of runs and then failed to bowl Pakistan out on a pitch unfit for Test cricket. Or too fit, perhaps.

The cricket pitch ranks among the dullest topics of conversation in sport, but supporters of the game and its players wouldn’t bother if it wasn’t so important to the result.

The playing surface is vital to every sport but it only ever merits a mention when something goes wrong. That’s because in most other sports the surface is artificial and therefore constant.

Even when the surface is natural, like rugby, football and lawn tennis, the contest lasts for a couple of hours and the surface rarely deteriorates.

In Test cricket, however, the contest lasts five days—and deterioration is required. When it doesn’t happen, the game doesn’t progress as we’d like. Paul Harris and Johan Botha are good spinners, not great ones. No catch. Dale Steyn is a great fast bowler and Morné Morkel is one in the making, but they, too, require a surface to offer something to bowlers as well as batsmen.

It was a good, hard-fought couple of Tests and everybody will be better off for the work they put in ahead of the three-match India series which begins at Centurion on December 16.

Preparation for that contest will be vital. With Gary Kirsten bringing the senior majority of the Indian squad to Cape Town early for a 10-day camp while the juniors finish off a one-day series against New Zealand, it is imperative that the Proteas do not leave their gathering until just two or three days before the match.

Distractions need to be put to one side and strategy needs to be crystal clear. Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Wayne Parnell or even Ryan McLaren will take the place of Botha in the XI and scant thought will be given to playing an all-seam attack. If it is, then it should be to include an extra batsman rather than a fifth seamer.

India always attract media and “personality” attention, but Kirsten will have stripped them of all that at his academy in Constantia.

His clever psychological campaign started two weeks ago when, in a rare interview, he said that the current Indian team could be regarded as the best if they won in South Africa, a hitherto insurmountable task for the four previous teams to these shores.

Somehow, Kirsten has found a way to work with the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s administrators when all others, Indian and foreign, had endured far more conflict than cooperation. His “secret” is very simple and an old strategy. He sells his best ideas to the “big men” in the boardroom as being theirs and then allows them to take the credit when they succeed.

Perhaps the messy scenes behind the stage of South African cricket will have been cleaned up by the time the series starts. Standard Bank’s sad withdrawal from sports sponsorships was treated with a “don’t forget to clear your desk on the way out” air of disdain by some CSA officials.

Apparently, there is “a host” of interested parties waiting to take their place. If there are, they may think twice while the financial murk currently clouding the cricket horizon still lingers. The recent internal inquiry into “irregularities”—undeclared bonus payments and disputed travel expenses—resulted in that most South African of results for chief executive Gerald Majola: a “formal caution”, a request to pay back the money he wasn’t entitled to spend — and a “not guilty” verdict on all charges.

Unsurprisingly, the three financial heavyweights who were all voted off the board at the last AGM—Colin Beggs, former chairman of CSA’s audit committee, Paul Harris, former chairman of the remuneration committee, and Hentie van Wyk, former chairman of CSA’s finance committee—found the results less than satisfying. In a joint statement at the beginning of the week they made it clear that they were still legally accountable for what happened “on their watch” and that they still wanted a forensic audit to take place.

Harris, whose committee first detected the lack of disclosure of the unauthorised bonuses, fears that a “straightforward matter of procedure and disclosure which adversely affects the game now and may do far more damage in the future” is turning into “a personal issue”.

“The chief executive is a good cricket man, he has the game at heart, but if sponsors and other stakeholders in the game lose faith in the integrity of the organisation then there will be serious ramifications in the future,” Harris told the Mail & Guardian.

“All the necessary structures, procedures, committees and checks and balances were in place. But they weren’t followed or used. Now it’s time to clear up the ambiguity properly and professionally, for the good of the game.”

Preferably before the Proteas begin battle with India.

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