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02 Sep 2016 00:00
Room for improvement: Despite his bowling success against New Zealand Dale Steyn believes he still has work to do before he is back to his best. (Lee Warren, Gallo Images, Getty Images)
Such is the level and frequency of disappointment in professional sport, for the majority of players, that a degree of self-deception and kidology is not only useful in coping but also necessary.
Cricketers endure more individual failure and disappointment than any other sportspeople.
Some individuals attempt to confront all this heartache head-on and philosophically, especially late in their careers when they have seen it all before. But the majority still instinctively deflect the pain by abdicating responsibility for the performance and blaming the pitch, the umpire, the coach, the sight screen, the hotel bed, their team mates … the list is endless.
It happened to New Zealand’s most senior player on the second day of the Centurion Test this week.
Former captain Ross Taylor clipped a delivery just a couple of metres past Temba Bavuma fielding at short leg and set off for a run.
Bavuma produced a brilliant piece of fielding, chasing down the ball and hitting the stumps with a direct hit after Taylor’s partner, current captain Kane Williamson, had declined the run and sent him back.
But the harsh truth is that even Usain Bolt would not have been capable of completing the run.
Yet word from inside the Black Caps camp was that Taylor was furious with Williamson when he returned to the change room. Those in his company said nothing and avoided eye contact.
The tourists had great hopes before they arrived — expectations even. The washout in Durban meant they had to win the second Test to complete their dream of becoming the first New Zealand team to beat South Africa in a Test series. It had not started well. The bowlers, albeit with a surfeit of misfortune, including a total of 56 “play and miss” shots from the home batsmen, had failed to capitalise on a helpful pitch and South Africa had scored a whopping 481-8.
Taylor knew that he and Williamson, comfortably the best batsmen, would have to score heavily for their team to get evenclose. He was calm and confident as he joined Williamson at the crease with the scoreboard reading a precarious 11-2. He had been there before and succeeded.
The first three balls he received from Dale Steyn were all short and he ducked. But the pitch, damp on the first day and consequently “bruised” and indented by the ball during 90 overs, had become unpredictable. The bounce was uneven. All three deliveries crashed into Taylor’s body.
He showed no obvious signs of pain, but moments later came the run out. It was hard not to reach the conclusion that his flight instinct had taken over from his fight instinct.
So, he had failed to score, his team were in tatters at 26-3, he had been dismissed in the most inappropriate way possible and, perhaps, his courage — never once questioned in a distinguished decade of international cricket — had looked a bit shaky.
Maybe it was all a bit too much to digest, resulting in the “divert” switch being flicked. Williamson should have run. What was he thinking?
Like all cricketers, Steyn, too, has had his moments of diversion and blame but his magnificent return to Test cricket was not treated as an opportunity to claim that everything was back to normal and he was back to his best.
A 26th five-wicket haul to clinch the Proteas 204-run win, and a match bag of 8-99, suggested the glory days had returned — but only in the numbers.
It is far easier to be honest and magnanimous in victory than in defeat but, nonetheless, it was a sage Steyn who reflected that he was still “a long way from where I want to be”.
He quickly admitted that there had been undue assistance for the quick bowlers on a pitch with a rich abundance of grass and moisture, and said that his pace and swing movement needed to improve before the three-Test tour of Australia in November.
“If you look at some of the wickets I took … the lbw to Taylor in the second innings virtually rolled along the ground. That’s not bowling skill, that’s not really how you want to get the job done. Having said that, I’m not giving any Test wickets back. I’ll keep them,” Steyn said with typical humour.
Others will do well to reflect similarly on ways and areas in which they can improve before they land in Perth in late October.
It’s easy to point towards batting scores and bowling figures but the most important reflection comes from inside the best players. Are they really fit enough, never mind as fit as they can be? Did they prepare as efficiently and professionally as they are capable of doing?
There is nothing wrong with celebrating victory, but it was a slight cause for concern when stand-in captain Faf du Plessis described the Centurion victory as “almost the perfect Test match”. It was a long way from that, as half a dozen dropped catches will attest.
AB de Villiers’ return will put an end to such whimsical thinking, having said often that there’s “no such thing as perfect”. But the Proteas are heading in the right direction after moving from seventh to fifth in the world rankings, and for now there’s reason to smile.
It seems certain that it will be the only time South Africa beat New Zealand in any sort of Test match this year.
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