Players laid low by strain of cabin fever

Club sandwiches, personal DVD players and the gym will play a vital role in deciding who wins the Cricket World Cup. Power-plays, death bowling and use of spin will be important, too, but what happens off the field has become relevant to what happens on it now that the tournament has evolved into a two-month behemoth.

The past edition in the Caribbean was so long that even journalists couldn’t face another rum punch (while the players were turning to them) towards the end of it. The International Cricket Council (ICC) accepted that it was too long and has consequently shaved five days off the tournament, which will have as much effect as asking Arjuna Ranatunga to eat one less samoosa at the opening ceremony.

By the time the teams have assembled at home, travelled to Asia, arrived, played their two or three warm-up games and acclimatised, most will already have been on tour for a fortnight. Then they face the prospect of up to six days between their six group matches during the qualifying stage of the tournament, which sees the 14 starters reduced to eight quarterfinalists. That’s when the tournament really starts—by which point players will have exhausted the “safe” options on hotel room-service menus across the subcontinent and will have started to develop sport’s version of the old Canadian logger’s syndrome—cabin fever. While the symptoms—long hours spent watching Sylvester Stallone movies, Fashion TV (for the lingerie sections) and the Discovery channel—may seem harmless enough, they are not.

Existing tensions within teams escalate and cliques develop because of a lack of communication. Every squad has one or two natural room dwellers, but the more players who are allowed to bury their heads and emotions in a blur of meaningless image and sound the less likely a team is to function together as a unit on the field, especially under pressure.

Hours of down time
Something very similar happened to the South African squad in the Caribbean four years ago and the appointment of Henning Gericke as travelling psychologist is an attempt to address the many hours of down time and its potentially detrimental effect. The appointment of an entertainment officer might be just as useful.

Wednesday’s comprehensive victory over India in the first of five one-dayers will do plenty for the confidence of Graeme Smith’s side, provided they can follow it up with a series win. But the key questions about tactics and personnel went unanswered and will remain so until they arrive and start playing in Asian conditions. Can Colin Ingram and David Miller make light of their inexperience and succeed in unfamiliar and intimidating surrounds? Will Imran Tahir take to international cricket immediately and make the sort of profound impact on the team that so many of his supporters seem to expect of him?

There was one clear pointer to a change in strategic direction. Whereas South Africa’s traditional strength has always been its all-rounders, Wednesday’s thumping 135-run victory was achieved with just six specialist batsmen and five frontline bowlers. A belief that the national team could not prosper consistently without batting insurance in the lower order and that five specialist bowlers was a luxury meant the focal point of selection was always on the balance that all-rounders could provide.

Andrew Hudson, the convener of selectors, appears to have decided that such a policy may have been prudent while players like Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock and Nicky Boje were around but that today’s crop—notably Albie Morkel and Ryan McLaren—aren’t of that ilk. So instead of choosing all-rounders out of habit, he would rather select men at the top of the game in their preferred discipline.

Hard decisions
It may not be the way it works out in every game at the World Cup, or even in the majority of them, but by doing so in the first game of the series he has once again shown that he is prepared to make hard decisions and to take the odd gamble. After all, if AB de Villiers and JP Duminy had been separated early and had added 31 for the fourth wicket instead of 131, the Proteas might have been bowled out for 200 and lost the game.

Perhaps a gamble is what is required to give South Africa a chance this time. The meticulously prepared and planned squads of 1999, 2003 and 2007 have all fallen short. On a slow and awkward pitch in India, Hudson might even call on his fellow selectors to endorse a policy of five specialist bowlers, including a rip-snorting, wicket-taking leg spinner. Imagine that!

If all the players can be encouraged to be adventurous off the field too, or even just inquisitive, then Smith, coach Corrie van Zyl and Hudson may yet rewrite our miserable history in the tournament.

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