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14 Feb 2014 00:00
Australia's Shaun Marsh celebrates his century on the first day of the first Test against the Proteas. (AFP)
Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith were the unlikeliest of heroes for Australia on the first day of the first Test at Centurion on Wednesday, ensuring that South Africans have no doubt that, whatever the tourists may lack in star quality, they make up for in determination and spirit.
Marsh was a wild card who arrived in the country only four days before the first Test and was expected merely to provide cover for the top six once all-rounder Shane Watson was ruled out with an injury. A Test average of 27 and a first-class average of just 35 hardly screamed for inclusion, but the coach did so anyway.
Darren Lehmann has imposed his considerable personality on the current Australian team by doing exactly the opposite – not imposing himself.
He unashamedly epitomises old-fashioned Australian values, which result in teammates supporting each other in both good times and bad, while their employers do the same with consistency in selection.
Marsh has the stoic example of his father, Geoff, to follow, a resolute opener who played 50 Tests for his country and gave body and soul for the team without ever rising above "reliable".
Talent can be a fragile sapling, however, and Lehmann – never afraid to celebrate with a beer or two during his own outstanding but largely domestic career – recognises that conventional nurturing isn't always the most effective way to ensure growth.
Smith was ridiculed at the start of his international career as a result of Australia's obsessional desperation to replace Shane Warne.
An unorthodox batsman with a technique only now recognised as "different" rather than "suspect", his occasional leg-spinners caught the selectors' eyes first and he was paraded as the "new Warnie".
Except his captain knew he wasn't. In fact, he barely bowled, and when he did, he was walloped. Batting at number seven led people to ask: "What the hell is he?"
Lehmann doesn't deserve sole credit for the emphatic contributions both men made to the start of the series, but he is far subtler than his nickname ("Boof") and larrikin demeanour would suggest. Gentle persuasion works wonders with 70-year-old selection convenors who dislike the firmer, table-thumping approach.
Lehmann coached Marsh in the Indian Premier League and spent enough time with him to be happy to place his reputation on him coming good.
South Africa endured yet another miserable start to a big Test series, which was not helped by Dale Steyn's last minute gastric problems and an out-of-sorts Vernon Philander.
Morné Morkel and Ryan McLaren both started with immense promise, but faded notably as Marsh and Smith blossomed.
It is easy to forget but, during the journey to number one and in their 18-month residence at the top, the Proteas have suffered many "off" days – and found a way to bounce back from almost all of them.
If there was a difference between those days and the first day in Centurion, it was in the apparent lack of energy. Graeme Smith tried to raise the tempo and there was no problem during the morning when Australia lost three wickets. But thereafter it became harder and harder to find or even inject enthusiasm into a wearying display on the field.
Morale and spirit
Team spirit has been the subject of more discussion among players and coaches than technique or fitness. None have doubted its value, many have questioned the ability to create it, and a significant minority have suggested it is a romantic and spurious commodity that exists only among teammates of like mind – and who are winning. And even then it happens naturally.
The Proteas can point towards the extreme example of their Swiss Alpine adventure before the tour of England almost two years ago as a time when personal bonds were forged more strongly than could have been imagined beforehand.
But Lehmann's bear-hugging, joke-telling and cricket-talking does just as well in a squad with a tenth of the racial and social diversity of South Africa's.
It all adds up to an extremely tough time ahead for the Proteas. They knew it beforehand, but the opening skirmishes have been an emphatic reminder that they will have to be at their very best to affirm their status as the world's best.
Nenzani's dropped ball will rebound on the game – brutally
Cricket South Africa president Chris Nenzani tried hard this week, but unsuccessfully, to justify his decision to cast the decisive vote in favour of handing supreme control of the global game to the three richest nations – India, England and Australia.
Judgment and interpretation aside, most alarming was Nenzani's misunderstanding of the triad's proposal that says a new president will be elected from all Test-playing members to take over from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) dictator, N Srinivasan, in 2016. Control of the executive committee and the financial and commercial affairs committee will remain completely in the triad's control.
Not only did Nenzani state categorically (and incorrectly) that all committees would revert to democratic elections in 2016, but he also suggested that the exco would be "managed" because it reported to the ICC board – the same board that was browbeaten and coerced into approving the coup in the first place.
Nothing will change dramatically in the short term and, indeed, the medium term may look considerably rosier for the Proteas than it does at the moment – certainly from a playing schedule perspective.
Revenue from bilateral tours will begin to ease the pressure on CSA's finances created by the R200-million shortfall from India's curtailed tour this summer and there will be far fewer long gaps in the national team's itinerary.
The irony is that, 10 years ago, the persistent complaint from players was that there was too much cricket being played. Now there is not enough.
Once the revenue from ICC events starts being distributed, however, the international game will begin to crack – and then divide completely. India, England and Australia will quickly pull away from the other seven Test nations.
That's what money does – it divides the rich from the poor, and the greater the cash, the deeper the divide.
Zimbabwe will be almost completely lost to Test cricket. The only reason it remains a full member nation currently is so that the BCCI has another guaranteed vote.
Bangladesh, too, will be marginalised after a handful of placatory tours promised by India and England. And if the all the verbal commitments made by the BCCI and England and Wales Cricket Board are kept, it appears that one of two things will need to happen.
Either the next four calendar years will need to contain 16 months each, or the Indians and English are preparing for a new era in more ways than one – with concurrent series.
Division of skills and rotation of players are now established concepts – the next logical step in the determination of the "big three" to maximise revenue at the cost of all else is to formalise the arrangement allowing them to play in two countries simultaneously. The effect this will have on diluting both the "product" and public interest will not be considered – until it's too late.
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