Nowhere in the world was the intensity of the World Cup felt more keenly than in a house in Bloemfontein on Tuesday when the news came through. It was unexpected and it had a devastating effect.
Having grown up in a family steeped in cricket – with a father, uncle and cousin who played first-class cricket – Ryan McLaren played a thousand games of backyard cricket while dreaming of playing for his country, especially in a World Cup.
At the age of 24, and despite leading the country’s domestic bowling averages for two years and scoring heavily with the bat, McLaren was blocked at national level by a host of other all-rounders such as Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock. So he signed a three-year deal to play county cricket with Kent.
Soon afterwards, the call-up came. His well-defined sense of right and wrong overrode his intense desire to represent his country and his sense of duty. He did the right thing and honoured the contract on which he had placed his signature.
But a year later he was a capped Protea. In and out of the team, he bided his time and did everything that was asked of him, improving in each discipline to such an extent that, by the 2013 season, he was a regular. He won two Man of the Series awards and was the leading wicket-taker in the squad for 18 months.
He was given the backing of the captain and the coach and the role of leading all-rounder when Kallis retired. He even hit the last ball for six to win a one-day international against New Zealand.
Waylaid by injury
Then came the injury in Zimbabwe five months ago: a fractured forearm that sidelined him until the ODI tour of New Zealand and Australia in October and November last year. Still rusty and easing his way back, he endured a modest series – his first in two years.
Farhaan Behardien, a part-time bowler at best and a batsman who had struggled to make an impression at international level, included in the Australia tour party at the last moment in place of the injured JP?Duminy, suddenly produced a few miserly bowling spells and, in the final game, a cameo of 63 from 41 balls. In a losing cause.
And that was that.
At just 31 and in the prime of his career as the country’s top all-rounder, McLaren’s dream was crushed. Just a few months ago he was among the top half-dozen names in everybody’s probable squad.
He will no doubt pick himself up and carry on, rededicating himself to raising the Dolphins back to an appropriate status following his move from Bloemfontein, and there is still the chance of World Cup involvement in the event of injury, but this week will be among the bleakest of his life.
Nobody dared mention his name – it was too raw. But captain AB de Villiers, selection convenor Andrew Hudson and coach Russell Domingo spoke of the “unlucky players” who had “been close but just missed out”. It was only McLaren to whom they referred. Nobody else was “close” or “unlucky”.
One bad series cost him his dream. But he will be back.
“I am broken,” he said on Wednesday.
Temba Bavuma was one of three introductions into the Proteas test team. (Gallo)
Meanwhile, the game goes on and Test captain Hashim Amla was able to reflect on a job well done against the West Indies, especially the contributions of the three new caps: Stiaan van Zyl, Temba Bavuma and Simon Harmer. In fact, there has been new blood in four consecutive Tests after Dane Piedt collected an eight-wicket match haul against Zimbabwe in August.
“What they’ve brought to the team has been amazing. Temba in the last two Tests, Dane when he played in Zimbabwe, Stiaan during this series and Simon as well, at Newlands. They’ve brought a lot of energy, a lot of freshness. It was great for everyone having them. It was important that the senior guys who have been around for a while put in some big performances to take the pressure off them and, fortunately, we were able to do that in all three Tests,” Amla said.
It has been a relatively easy transition period following the retirements of Kallis and Graeme Smith, but Amla is keen to push even harder for success rather than “bed in” and allow the team time to recuperate.
“We lost two or three guys who have played for over 10 years but we are still left with the core of five or six of us who have also been together for a long time – me, Dale [Steyn], AB, JP and Morné [Morkel], also Vernon [Philander] in the last couple of years.
“The team will always change; that’s the beauty of any sport: the game always goes on and is bigger than any individual. With the new faces there may be a new dynamic. That’s healthy,” Amla said.
“We still have a long way to go to find the right team, the right balance. The new guys who have come in have done very well, which is exceptional, but we are nowhere near the finished article.
“We are blessed with three fantastic fast bowlers [Steyn, Morkel and Philander], but they won’t be around forever. KG [Kagiso Rabada], Kyle Abbott – they are the back-up guys and have to wait their turn, but they will be ready.”
Van Zyl’s bowling was an eye-opener for many and, although he’ll never be a genuine all-rounder, Amla sees potential in his medium-pacers.
“Maybe he’s one of those guys with a golden arm; some guys fall into the category. But he can do a job, 10 overs in a Test match … and his accuracy is pretty decent. There has been some talk of him taking his bowling more seriously because he does a job for us and adds some value in that department.
“It’s not about being number one now; it’s about finding a winning team for a long time to come, finding the right players to keep winning for many years to come,” Amla said.
The next Test series is in seven months’ time, against Bangladesh in Dhaka and Chittagong, before the Proteas travel to India and welcome England at the end of the year.
For now, however, the ODI series against the West Indies is the last chance for the World Cup squad to prepare for the tournament in which South Africa has routinely under-performed and disappointed.
Like millions of other South Africans, Ryan McLaren will be watching it on television.