SA cricket reels in nightmare week

The timing of AB de Villiers’ lucrative new county contract couldn’t be more annoying. He had nothing to do with the 

Proteas being swatted away by Sri Lanka on Day 3, but under these irrational circumstances, his absence feels like a case of culpable homicide.

It’s been that kind of week, one in which we’ve turned on everyone, demanded answers from anybody.

We’ve even questioned the sport and the format itself. Duane Olivier’s shock migration to county cricket has raised the question of what our international cricket has to offer. Here’s a player who recently had a dream Pakistan series, is approaching his prime, is in World Cup contention and yet decides that’s not enough to keep him around.

How did we get here? What factors had to align to cause the Proteas to lose a first Test series on home soil to an Asian side?

“It’s more a spirit of being adventurous,” says Ashwin Desai, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Johannesburg. “If you look at the Sri Lankans as an example, they were prepared to blood younger players. Players that many of us had not heard of, and you can see how that had an effect. Variation in their bowling attack, for example. That kind of adventurous selection really paid dividends. Whereas ourselves, we find these things difficult to do. We’re more plodders — we want to choose one at a time.”

Desai made an extensive study of the development of the game across the country and the inhibiting effect limited transformation has had. This moment, however, seems more a product of the basics being bungled than of any greater sociopolitical cause.

The clumsy batting is at the front of that line. Because the selectors never ventured far out of their comfort zone of Theunis de Bruyne and Aiden Markram, there are no obvious answers to fixing the line-up that offered up an innings of 128. For legendary pacer and former Protea Allan Donald, there’s much to keep us up at night.

“Bluntly put, that was a proper thrashing,” he says. “Dean Elgar is a guy that’s been Mr Reliable for so long and now he’s struggling for form. Hashim Amla’s been struggling for form. It’s a big concern. It’s put a lot of pressure on Faf du Plessis coming in at number five when that top order doesn’t fire. The top order for South Africa hasn’t been good. There’s one or two guys that have shown glimpses but other than that it’s been real hard work.”

Has Hash run his race?

Before the Test series got under way in Durban, when we were still looking the other way, the biggest point of contention seemed to be whether Temba Bavuma should get a shot at number four. Now, that debate feels insignificant.

Since De Villiers called time on his international career last May, no player has demanded to be considered a standout. That remains true from the back-end to the openers, who too often have come to the crease seemingly untethered from restraint.

The toughest question mark, however, hangs over the head of Amla. It’s not the first time the veteran has come under scrutiny — and he’s often had an unfair share of the doubters. This time, even for the ardent backer, his decline is impossible to mask.

Asked about it, Donald says he refuses to climb on the bandwagon calling for his head. All players go through such phases, he insists; it’s the nature of being a sportsperson. Still, he acknowledges that decisions will have to be made in the very near future.

Test cricket will be tucking in its tail for a while as the white ball takes full focus in the coming months. Will the selectors insist on playing a failing Amla in the build-up to the World Cup? Or will they give some of those aforementioned chances to youngsters struggling to break through the ranks?

“I know Ottis [Gibson] quite well. I don’t think that he’ll panic just yet,” Donald reckons. “It’s now a case of motivating those players to get better soon, but easier said than done.”

Vicious lessons

Endlessly pointing out the individual deficiencies of the side can only get us so far. To many observers, this is a team that has too often come into games with an unconsidered, perhaps even lackadaisical, approach. The whitewash against Pakistan only enabled the bad habit further.

Through the quartet of Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Olivier, South Africa were able to demolish the visitors without much thought. At the time, coach Gibson said it would be silly not to play them all. Who knows what silly is any more after that rudimentary grind was brutally exposed last weekend?

“I just think that the Sri Lankans showed us, for all our great pace attack, how they were able to lead and use the pitch, in what is our own home ground,” Desai says. “Including some journeymen spin bowlers. They were able to take wickets, get the ball to turn and were prepared to set an aggressive field.

“For us a spin bowler is a defensive mechanism, not a wicket taker.”

What’s not up for discussion is the ugly dark mark this leaves on the record book. That can’t be removed now. What can be changed is the way forward. With the inaugural World Test Championship supposedly happening this year, perhaps it’s a good thing the lessons were delivered early.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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