/ 28 March 2022

Shhhh … nobody tell the Proteas the ‘C word’

India V South Africa 2022 Icc Women's Cricket World Cup
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 27: Mignon Du Preez from South Africa reacts to scoring the winning runs off the bowling of Deepti Sharma from India, at left, during the 2022 ICC Women's Cricket World Cup match between India and South Africa at Hagley Oval on March 27, 2022 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

The women’s cricket world cup has reached “squeaky bum time”, to apply Alex

Ferguson’s famous epithet. On Thursday, South Africa will face England in what could be a classic semifinal — perhaps one to rival Headingley in 1999. Can South Africa’s women avoid the “C word”?

Ever since Allan Donald’s brain-fade in the final over in the Leeds semifinal against Australia — run out with just one run to win — South Africa have choked. It’s a label that hangs heavily around the country’s cricketing neck. Thursday is the day to rip it off and throw it to the ground. Victory over England could break the mould.

It’s an enticing prospect. Two fine teams, in form. England, the reigning champions, have won four of four. South Africa come into the knock-out stage fresh from a nail-biting last ball victory over India that will surely fill them with self-belief.

It is an exciting, high quality tournament. But, it’s still 50-over cricket. And here’s the rub: whether it’s men or women playing it, the one-day international now feels about as fresh and modern as a Shane Watson mullet hairdo.

This juxtaposition with the relatively new kid on the block, Twenty20 (T20), could not have been sharper this weekend, with the start of the latest edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). After one-and-half Covid-related decamps to the United Arab Emirates, it felt like modern cricket’s coming home, such is the pulsating power of the IPL in full swing.

There have been interesting changes in the leadership of some of the biggest teams.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – MARCH 27: Mignon Du Preez from South Africa runs to the other end as Deepti Sharma from India tries to run her partner out during the 2022 ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup match between India and South Africa at Hagley Oval on March 27, 2022 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

Chennai Super Kings legendary captain, MS Dhoni, for whom the word “charismatic” was invented, and who has led the franchise to each of its four IPL trophies, has stepped aside to make way for Ravindra Jadeja, but still managed to stamp his authority — albeit in a losing cause on Saturday — with 50 off 38 balls.

Jadeja is a cricketing talent for the ages. By which I mean this: perhaps more than any other cricketer, I can imagine that he would excel in any era of the game, in any form of the game, and in any conditions, such is his dexterous ubiquity and his wondrous versatility. He can bowl attacking or defensive orthodox left-arm spin; bats with tremendous power or resilience; and fields like an angel diving to rescue a true believer from hell.

Which raises a rather different question, or a similar one but from the different end of the lens: which of the all-time greats who played before the modern era of 20-over cricket would have had the adaptability, as well as the skill, to play this shortest of the internationally recognised versions of the game?

Like many a “pick your best XI” assignment, it’s impossible to either prove or disprove an opinion in this regard. The statistics are meaningless. So, it’s pure subjective conjecture. Donald Bradman was a very correct batsman; and although his strike rate — the all-important number for T20 cricket — is not recorded, he was not known for power, but more for his apparently insatiable appetite for run-scoring.

He was also, it should be noted, extremely successful. As is well known, he ended up with a test average of 99.94 — a number about 30 runs, or 50%, higher than the next group of comparable players. That is a mesmerising gap, which suggests that his was an almost immortal talent, which one might surmise could easily have bridged the gap between the longer, red-ball format and the shorter, white-ball one.

Yet, this logic does not quite convince. Steve Smith, the nearest thing to Bradman in contemporary Australian cricket, who averages in the 60s in test cricket — the traditional benchmark of “greatness”  — is not the most effective of T20 players. He would not get into the current World XI for an intergalaxy T20 tournament. Nor would Joe Root, one of England’s most accomplished ever Test batters, but who can’t even get into England’s current T20 team. Kane Williamson, the Black Caps captain, maybe. Certainly Virat Kohli, who like Dhoni has handed over IPL captaincy, in his case to former Proteas captain Faf Du Plessis, who opened his IPL 2022 account with a blistering 88 on Sunday.

India’s team mentor Mahendra Singh Dhoni attends a warm up session before the start of the ICC mens Twenty20 World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium in Dubai on October 24, 2021. (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

A final rumination as the IPL gets going, which seems both apt and poignant as the long shadow of Shane Warne’s untimely death is cast over the world of cricket: the role of the leg-spinner. Before the IPL, leggies were regarded as a luxury item — like a Smeg toaster: a beautiful but unnecessary adornment to a functioning kitchen.

Like the Smeg appliance, leg-spinners were traditionally regarded as unequivocally expensive.

Why? Because the perceived wisdom was that they “always bowl one buffet ball an over”.

In the longer form, batters could survive the challenge of balls one to five, safe in the knowledge they could help themselves to ball six.

But in T20, this is gold dust. A decent leg-spinner’s bowling is difficult to get away in any form of the game, thanks to the lift and turn away from the right-hander, not to mention the “mystery spinner” variations of googly, top-spinner and slider. So, three or four of those, and few captains will care if the buffet ball goes for four or six. Anything under eight an over as an economy rate in T20 cricket is regarded as very useful.

Take Rahul Chahar, Punjab Kings’ leg spinner. His IPL career economy rate is 7.40, which extrapolates to 145 off 20 overs  — well below par on almost any ground or pitch. Yesterday, despite Faf’s onslaught and Kohli’s own contribution of 41 off 28, Chahar’s four overs went for a miserly 22 (or 5.5 per over). Gold dust, as I say. And all part of the charm and lustre of this highly lucrative, yet compelling league.