In trying to maintain belief in his team and not allow a heavy and potentially debilitating series defeat to undo the undoubted progress the one-day team has made in the past year, AB de Villiers inadvertently sounded churlish to the point of delusion in stating that his was the better team following their 4:1 loss to Australia.
Inevitably, his sentiments were misconstrued. De Villiers is a realist and was not pretending that his team was in any way robbed or that the results were unfair. Instead, he believed they were not a realistic representation of the relative strengths of the teams and that, man for man, they are more than a match for the Australians. On a day of maximum performance, they would prevail.
Unfortunately, they did not perform at their maximum.
“We did not play the big moments as well as they did and we made a lot of mistakes – far too many mistakes,” admitted Allan Donald on the team’s return from Sydney.
“There was a lot of frustration because we are so close to putting it all together. We did it in Zimbabwe a couple of months ago so we know we can beat them.
“AB and everyone else knows we are a lot better than we showed. We can, and will, rectify the mistakes we made. We were playing catch-up cricket too often and that’s not how you win games against the best teams. The captain was simply saying that he backs the team,” Donald said.
Dropped catches plagued the team but the most obvious and disturbing of the “basic mistakes” was one that falls directly in Donald’s arc of responsibility as fast-bowling coach: no balls. There were 10 in total, costing more than 30 runs and a wicket that turned the final match, in Sydney, Australia’s way.
“It was completely unacceptable and there are no excuses. It was uncharacteristic of us to make so many unforced errors and to lack discipline like that,” an exasperated Donald said. “It was addressed in a couple of ‘own up’ sessions towards the end of the tour.”
Former Australian seamer Stuart Clark, watching the series, said: “It all starts in training. If the bowlers are lazy in the nets then bad habits form. The discipline you need in the middle must become a habit before you play. In the old days, bowlers didn’t take much notice of the line, they just bowled. You need to have three stumps and an ‘umpire’ to simulate real conditions as accurately as possible.”
Donald agreed wholeheartedly and confirmed that times have changed.
“It’s nothing like that anymore. We police it very carefully with me standing as the umpire and calling the no balls, if there are any. They rarely happen at practice. There just isn’t a decent explanation,” he said.
“As a professional bowler, you need to be aware of the rhythm of your run-up. You should be able to feel if you are running in quicker than usual. We can be as meticulous as possible when we are working together but, when the time comes for you to bowl in a match, you need to be able look after yourself and take responsibility,” Donald said.
“Every now and then you’ll push one down the leg side and bowl a wide. That’s going to happen. But bowling from behind the line is one of the controllable aspects of the job. There is no reason to overstep. There is an element of mental strength in it, too. Jacques Kallis could bowl from anywhere, from a full run-up to five paces and he wouldn’t overstep because he had the willpower not to,” Donald said.
Practice is the only cure
A former Proteas coach and one of the world’s foremost bowling technicians, Eric Simons, shares Donald’s frustrations and agrees that practice is the only cure.
“It sounds easy but bowlers build up a reference point in nets. A standing umpire can help but it is usually the stumps which are their reference point. If you move the stumps back a few inches without them knowing it, it almost guaranteed that the next delivery will see the foot land the same few inches further back,” Simons said.
“They need to undo bad habits by creating new reference points behind the line. It won’t be solved by bowling a few legal deliveries but by going through an entire net session without even getting close to bowling a no-ball. Only then will it become a habit.”
No-balls, in isolation, may be a small part of the entire one-day international equation but they are also synonymous with an overall desire, and need, to minimise errors and maximise the chances of victory. If a batsman makes a single careless mistake, he is out.
A bowler may have the chance to deliver the next delivery but his single failure to pay attention to detail could have just as much effect on the outcome of a game.
“We’re all in this together. There’s no finger-pointing or singling out of individuals. I take responsibility for the bowlers and they take responsibility for themselves. It was a disappointing aspect of the series, but there were also a hell of a lot of things they did extremely well. The stark reality is that we lost 4:1, but I promise you we weren’t that far away. I believe people will see that against the West Indies and when we get back to Australia early next year,” Donald said.