by Trevor Chesterfield
(Catch One of Chesters’ special write up on South Africa’s struggle and achievement and don’t mix the vivid pictures that have captured South African players who made a difference through the year!)
There may have been fleeting moments last March when Proteas coach Mickey Arthur and the captain Graeme Smith could have seriously wondered just how mature are most South African politicians in accepting the status quo.
Thinking too, perhaps if their intense efforts and careful long-term planning to build a world-class side is worth the mental trauma then experienced in a hotel room in what is now far off Dhaka, Bangladesh. And as far removed from the vibrant mood in the Melbourne dressing room on Tuesday as say Cape Town’s Table Mountain, which towers over the peninsular and Newlands.
The close buddies and swing bowlers, Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt, were wondering as well what why politicians through clumsy interfering efforts were damaging close relationships between players. Langeveldt felt betrayed by the system when told he was included because of his colour and quota numbers for the tour of India.
Such was the media hype about merit and quotas an emotional Langeveldt, angry with the iniquitous spurious label, withdrew from the tour. No one could blame him.
If this is how the politicians behind the scenes were planning the roles of the players, why bother. Merit was just a word that meant nothing. After all, politicians, even when caught out rarely admit to messing in areas where they should not. They are far too shameless to act with mea culpa intent.
Yet the fall out from that tawdry episode of interference not only made the side mentally and emotionally stronger, it also drew the team together as a close-knit band of brothers. It also meant first Langeveldt (Kolpak contract) and later Nel (injury), were not part of the squad and new bowling combinations were needed to execute the Proteas plans. Such was the political hubris that helped create new order.
To win though a three-match Test series as demanding as this one in Australia in such fashion needed experience and the quality of bowling that can take sixty wickets. Stupid politicians in Cape Town fail to understand this bottom line reality.
But in Perth and Melbourne, the Proteas, working to a plan achieved two-thirds of this imposing target, which India also managed twelve months ago but with differing results.
Proteas selection panel convener Mike Procter, when asked before the Perth Test proffered the comments that the bowling balance, considering the tours of India and England, was now about right in their efforts to take twenty wickets a match.
“I know they can,” he predicted on the eve of the tour. “Dale (Steyn) has the pace, Morne (Morkel) can achieve the bounce, and Makhaya (Ntini) has the experience. Makkie (Ntini) has bowled really well in domestic programme and his hunger has really returned. It is going to be fascinating to watch them battle with the Aussie batsmen.”
Procter, in his day an all-rounder of impressive world-class skills and ability and South Africa’s first coach after isolation knows what is needed better than most. He offered his thoughts on the series on December 12 and just how prophetic have they become can be seen in the results: two comprehensive victories, Perth by six wickets and Melbourne by nine wickets.
Two significant performances in a matter of ten days: in both cases, South Africa climbing back and showing amazing character with it in a style that has taken the game by the scruff of the neck and given it a good shake.
It wasn’t though all that simple. Steyn battled with length and direction in Perth and the figures showed it. He found swing and rhythm though in Melbourne and it showed.
Also, forgotten is that South Africa breaking new ground in Perth, it is the first Test they have played at the Waca in the Western Australian capital. Up to now it has all been the fifty-overs slogs events.
More interesting is how players such as Steyn, Hashim Amla, Paul Harris, Morne Morkel and Jean-Paul Duminy have no qualms about playing Australia in Australia. They are part of the new brigade of talented youngsters emerging in the post CWC2003 era with its hangover of Hansie Cronjé and Shaun Pollock’s style of leadership long a thing of the past.
If anything, Perth created the right mental approach to start the series as the players came to met Australia away from the more focussed environs of Test history Down Under: those critical audiences in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. And as usual, the Test arena sets its own ambience.
But as Procter, a cunning and streetwise practitioner in the art of pace and swing and seam guile would explain, South Africa have the bowlers. The secret is to get the length right and make the opposition suffer.
But we are queue jumping a little here. The need is to return to Perth. As an injunction that may seem out of place but it is worth remembering in the aftermath of the 414-runs chase that it had been Graeme Smith leading by example and creating the model needed for others to follow. His century in Perth is where he again led from the front and had others as equally determined to put a victory together.
There were solid contributions in half-centuries from Amla and Jacques Kallis and which swelled the total, but eschewed by the critics. That is the problem when two centuries and a match-winning partnership shadow the efforts of others. Amla is a neat and tidy, if unfussy batsman who has fitted in at three with marked composure.
It is four years since he made his debut against India at Eden Gardens in December 2004 and struggle. He has long since created a niche that suggests he has many more years ahead. Kallis has experience of playing Australia and knows the drill. Amla though was quite happy not to have such history.
Or, as man of the match in Melbourne Steyn predicted, when commenting on the issue of the team of how the success would see a new generation of players would emerge take South Africa forward to further triumphs.
“I just feel so relieved or privileged – I am not sure exactly how I feel – to be part of a team that has come down here and been successful. This side is a young side with its De Villiers, Duminy, Amlas and Morkels who are mostly playing their first Test matches here (in Australia) and they are going to carry on playing Test cricket for a long time.
“We don’t have that kind of history – that word chokers keeps on coming up – and if we can start our careers like this and take it forward, we can start a new generation of cricket and South African cricketers. I am very proud to be part of a side that has achieved something special.
“I feel we have a great attack with a lot of maturity about it represented by Makhaya and Jacques, then you get the other three of us and we seem to be learning all the time. And we are also supported by a great captain.”
As in Perth, Smith led by his own paradigms of laying the foundation for success. Yet it seems only last week when he was handed the leadership after the World Cup fiasco in Durban in 2003. Mark Boucher and Kallis apart, the players who shaped the victory landscape at the MCG were barely known outside their franchises.
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