AB vindicates pundits. Or does he?

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Pundits who have been calling for AB de Villiers to bat higher up the order at the World T20 will feel vindicated by his performance in SA’s rousing victory over England in Chittagong on Saturday.

Perhaps they should not. De Villiers, who scored an unbeaten 69 as SA surged into the semi-finals with a three-run win, did take guard at No. 3 – one place higher than in his other three innings in the group stage of the tournament – but he came to the crease as late or later than he has done in the competition.

De Villiers arrived after 10.5 overs on Saturday, exactly the same stage of the innings as when he made 24 against Sri Lanka. Moreover, when he came to the wicket after 4.6 and 4.3 overs against New Zealand and the Netherlands respectively, he was out for five and 21.

“I’m not sure if it’s about the position you bat in,” De Villiers said on Saturday. “I came in after the 10th over, which is what the coaching staff have been pushing for me to do. They enjoy me batting in those situations. That’s probably why they’re leaving me at (No.) 4, or somewhere around that batting position.”

Bang, then, goes the theory that SA get the best out of De Villiers the earlier he is unleashed. Or does it?

He has batted at No. 3 in 16 of his 56 T20s and at No. 4 in 28. De Villiers has scored five half-centuries – three from No. 4 and the other two as a No. 3. He has made those 50s having started his innings after 4.6, 9.6, 8.3, 4.4 and 10.5 overs.

De Villiers’ pyrotechnic performance on Saturday, when he set a record for the fastest half-century scored by a South African in the format by reaching the milestone off 23 balls, was thus the latest he has arrived at the crease and gone on to make 50.

Clearly, there is more to T20 success than these simple stats. Less easily quantifiable factors like conditions, match situations and quality of opposition must also be considered.

But Saturday’s match might not have ended happily for SA. The dangerous Alex Hales, whose 116 not out against Sri Lanka on Thursday was the first T20 century scored by an Englishman, was caught at point off Albie Morkel for nine in the second over on Saturday.

Only for umpire Rod Tucker to signal no-ball. Replays suggested Morkel had grounded his heel behind the crease, and had therefore legally dismissed Hales. That produced a moment of quick thinking by De Villiers.

“I asked (Tucker) to maybe have a look upstairs,” De Villiers said. “He said, sorry, but he had already made the decision. It was too late.

“I knew what the answer was going to be before I asked the question. I wanted to waste a bit of time because the boys were a little bit upset. I wanted to slow things down and reset and go again.”

De Villiers, who stood in as captain because Faf du Plessis was suspended after SA incurred a second penalty in 12 months for a slow over rate in a T20, achieved exactly that.

Hales, meanwhile, was dismissed – again – for 38 in the eighth over.


Amla, De Villiers put SA in WT20 semis

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg *

Hashim Amla lit the fire and AB de Villiers poured petrol on the flames. When the smoke cleared in Chittagong on Saturday, SA had reached the semi-finals of the World T20 by beating England by three runs.

Amla scored his maiden T20 half-century, 56 off 37 balls. Rarely has a cricket ball been so artfully dispatched.

De Villiers put the penthouse on SA’s tower of a total of 196/5, the biggest by any team in the tournament, with an unbeaten 69. He took 23 balls to reach 50, the fastest T20 half-century by a South African, and faced 28 in all. Rarely has a cricket ball been so innovatively brutalised.

England reached 193/7 in a decent reply that wasn’t good enough to stop a SA side that looked more like a team yesterday than they have so far in Bangladesh.

SA’s innings was launched with a stand of 90 between Amla and Quinton de Kock, the Proteas’ highest partnership in the competition.

De Kock’s dismissal brought De Villiers to the crease at No. 3. Hitherto, De Villiers batted at No. 4 in the face of calls for him to come in earlier.

England’s batting plan seemed centered on Alex Hales, whose 116 not out took them to 190/4 and victory against Sri Lanka on Thursday.

Not this time. Hales was reprieved on nine when Albie Morkel had him caught only for umpire Rod Tucker to call a no-ball that never was. But he was gone for 38, one of two wickets Wayne Parnell took with consecutive deliveries in the throes of England’s crash to 105/4 in the 13th over.

Jos Buttler threatened to spark a revival, but Imran Tahir removed him for 34 to leave England to score 66 off the 32 deliveries that remained.

Morkel left the field immediately after taking that catch. The ball had dislocated a finger, and he had it wrenched back into place on the boundary. Then he returned to the fray.

With that, the tension dissipated. England knew there was no way back from there against these hard men. Instead, they were on their way back home.

* Not in Bangladesh

Pancakes versus properly – the evolution of T20 batting

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

While JP Duminy was flipping pancakes at one end of the pitch during SA’s innings in their World T20 match against New Zealand in Chittagong last Monday, at the other Hashim Amla was getting on with the relatively stoic business of batting.

Amla’s 41 off 40 balls wasn’t the stuff Quinton de Kock or David Warner are made of but it was as important to SA’s victory as Duminy’s unbeaten 86, which whizzed and banged off 43 balls, and Dale Steyn’s Godzilla act, which earned him figures of 4/17.

Without Amla, the whizz-bang would have been fun but futile. Godzilla, meanwhile, would never have made it to the final over to knock over the tall buildings.

Three days later against the Netherlands, Amla tuned his batting to a frequency that yielded 43 runs off 22 balls. Without that, SA would have stumbled to a total much more embarrassing than their 145/9. Even Amla’s 23 off 26 in SA’s first match, which they lost to Sri Lanka by five runs, was not what Geoffrey Boycott would have come up with were he beamed into a T20 timewarp.

And yet, Amla’s batting has been a magnetic target for criticism about what is in need of fixing in SA’s performance at the WT20.

Somehow, West Indian Chris Gayle escaped similar questioning of his suitability for the format after taking 33 balls to score 34 against India and making a run-a-ball 48 against Bangladesh. His 35-ball 53 against Australia on Friday has buried those memories forever.

“Hashim is vital,” former SA batsman Peter Kirsten said. “He’s an important cog, and he’s a senior player now after all the retirements.

“His best formats are test and one-day cricket, and if he plays T20s he has to open. But people are getting melodramatic about him; they’re over-reacting.

“There is a place for proper batting in T20 cricket. Hashim should stay there and bat better.”

SA coach Russell Domingo was adamant that Amla was going nowhere – slowly or fast.

“In our domestic T20s, Hashim had the second-best strike rate of all players in SA,” Domingo said after the match against the Netherlands. “His strike rate for me is not a major concern.

“He is a quality player, and he is always going to find the gaps and the boundaries when it’s his day.”

For Kirsten, what SA needed was stability and consistency in their approach: “It’s confusing when Albie Morkel comes in up the order ahead of David Miller (which happened against the Dutch, and after batting so beautifully at No. 5 against New Zealand JP Duminy comes in at six against the Netherlands.”

Like an office full of giddy executives on dress-down Friday, T20 cricket makes sensible people do strange things. Call it the “Wolf of Willow Street” syndrome. One of the symptoms is to forget that the best way to hit a cricket ball hard and far and into the gaps is, usually, to hit it properly – which means with the help of a stroke designed for the purpose, not some hoik fetched from down on the bayou.

Innovation there is a aplenty in T20, and some of it has crept into one-day and even test cricket. This is healthy, but it is just as healthy that the game remembers what it is rather than contorting itself into unrecognisable forms.

For instance, kneejerk thinking would have it that Herschelle Gibbs is a better T20 batsman than Amla, and that Jacques Kallis would finish third in that race.

But, after they had each played 23 innings for SA in the format, Gibbs had scored 400 runs, Amla 479 and Kallis 666.

Mix enough flour into the batter and it will be strong enough to flip the pancakes as many times as you like.

Leading Edge: SA’s new test captain needs to keep it real

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Some teams don’t need to be captained as much as left alone to get on with winning. Others are nothing without their captains. Still others are captained by committee.

Players look to the skipper to sweat the small, medium and large stuff; from being the first bloke to step over the rope to putting up with the press to being fined – banned, even – for a slow over-rate.

Captaincy looks sexy from the distance of the boundary, but it’s not much fun from the proximity of a match referee’s accusing finger or when some humourless reporter gives you a hard time about the sky being too blue.

The job (and it is a job) is much easier on the field than off. Even so, when the players get it right, they take the credit. When they get it wrong, you take the blame.

And those are just the broad strokes. How much more taxing is cricket for those unfortunates who are under the continuous pressure of knowing they are responsible for setting the example for everybody else in their team?

Oh, and don’t forget to play properly while you’re busy with all that. No-one is as despised as a captain who does not pull his weight in the side.

Until March 6 this year – the day after the third test against Australia at Newlands – Graeme Smith had woken up and gone to sleep to this reality for 3959 straight days.

That’s enough to drive most sane men mad. Perhaps Smith was nuts to start with. Or maybe he is cut from a cloth we have little hope of unravelling in our own minds.

Thing is, he needs to be replaced by the time SA play two tests in Sri Lanka in the second half of July. That’s 15-and-a-half weeks away, so time, for once, is not of the essence.

But making the right decision is, and we should be grateful that SA have two viable candidates to choose from in AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis.

However, a pertinent question remains: what will Smith’s successor as SA’s test captain be getting himself into? All of the above is only part of the answer.

He will also have to deal with the real and imagined challenges of the game’s ongoing racial transformation – amazing how darkening the national team always raises the alarm that it is being weakened, never strengthened – easily the most fickle public in world cricket and with them a press that has little taste for subtlety, and, of course, those creatures called administrators.

The new captain will take over a dressingroom in which the coach still has to earn the respect that came standard with his predecessor.

Russell Domingo is a solid man and a successful, experienced coach. But that’s not good enough for the people who want him to be Gary Kirsten. So much so that Domingo could do with the protection afforded by a captain whose appointment does not need to be explained.

As a team, SA have become adept at sealing their dressingroom against the realities of their wider world. Most of the time, that unifies them and they are stronger for it. Sometimes, it isolates them and they lapse into bouts of Quixotic self-regard.

Add that to the to-do list: keep it real, skipper.

Members End: Say what, say cheers, say ouch, say how many

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Sometimes, cricket gets lost in translation. “I didn’t understand a word you just said,” was Dale Steyn’s candid response when he was asked a question by a reporter armed with the thickest of Asian accents at a press conference in Bangladesh this week. It’s a long way from Phalaborwa to Chittagong, linguistically and geographically.

What are the Proteas getting up to after hours in a country where condensation falling from an airconditioner can count as a welcome distraction? “We’ve got a wine club,” Steyn said. “We meet every now and then and have one or two glasses of vino; nothing serious. We’ve got movie clubs and stuff. We’ve got a big team room at the hotel, and the guys are getting in there and playing poker and watching movies. We are not really allowed to leave the hotel, but there’s a Pizza Hut across the road – I’ve never eaten so much pizza in all my life.”

The boredom must have reached critical levels on Tuesday, when Steyn posted a video on social media of David Miller and AB de Villiers smacking themselves in the face with one of those electrified insect killers shaped like a tennis racquet. Eina. Pain. No jokes about shocking experiences, please.

Graeme Smith is taking his civilian status seriously. After SA lost to Sri Lanka, the epitome of craggy canniness in SA’s test team for 11 years tweeted, “How many wins are needed to go through?” Not long ago, he would have known the answer before he had a chance to ask the question. Did he watch every ball of his former team’s game against New Zealand? Don’t be silly. “Just caught the highlights of today’s game,” he posted. “Great win for the Proteas and under big pressure.” Ah, the bliss of not having to worry about these things. Retirement’s not so bad, eh, Biff?

W(here’s)T(he)F(af)?! Du Plessis ban adds to pressure on SA

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

As if England’s freshly sparked momentum wasn’t a big enough worry for SA going into their crunch World T20 match in Chittagong today, the Proteas will also have to do without Faf du Plessis.

SA’s captain has been banned for the match because his team maintained a slow over-rate against the Netherlands on Thursday. The sanction kicked in as it was SA’s second infringement in the format in 12 months following the fine they picked up for also not getting through their overs in good time against New Zealand.

The simplest way to stay clear of the tangled web of permutations that could decide the line-up for next week’s semi-finals is to keep winning. But Du Plessis’ banning has made the order SA face today significantly taller.

He has not been a major contributor with the bat so far in the tournament with scores of 13 and 24 against the Kiwis and the Dutch respectively.

But the fact is that SA lost their first game, against Sri Lanka, when Du Plessis sat out due to a hamstring problem. With him back in harness, they have beaten New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Besides his calm leadership, which has extricated SA from difficult positions in both of their last two games, Du Plessis’ predatory fielding has been an important factor.

There is no under-estimating his loss ahead of a game against an England side who, on Thursday, rose from the canvas they were on at 0/2 to chase down a target of 190 and beat Sri Lanka by six wickets with four balls to spare. If SA look to replace Du Plessis with a batsman, Farhaan Behardien is the only option.

But they could also try and beef up their attack what with the England batsmen sure to be on a high in the afterglow of their rousing victory. “We’ve always had confidence in the last few months but without much success,” Alex Hales, whose undefeated 116 – the first century by an England player in this format – said.

“Getting this win was really good and hopefully we can take that into the next couple of games. “We’ve admitted that we are underdogs in this tournament, and historically we haven’t done too well in the subcontinent.

“But this will help us build momentum. If we perform to the best of our ability against Holland and SA we’ll get two wins.”

Today’s game is SA’s last group encounter, and if they win they should book their place in the semis. But if they lose, who goes where will become clear only after Monday’s games – England play the Netherlands and New Zealand take on Sri Lanka.

“We know we’ve got to beat England to try and progress,” Russell Domingo said. “It might still come down to run-rate. There’s still a lot to play for.”

Not quite, coach. In the hearts and minds of trophy-starved South Africans, there is everything to play for.

Domingo is not Kirsten and that’s just fine

Gocricket.com – http://www.gocricket.com/Domingo-is-not-Kirsten-and-thats-just-fine/Telford%20Vice/columnshow/32837842.cms

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg *

Russell Domingo is getting sick of being treated like Gary Kirsten’s talentless, feckless younger brother. You know the type: lucky to be born into the clan and hopelessly unsuited to being part of the family business.

Yes, you can hear Domingo screaming silently to himself at press conferences, we know that Kirsten wins World Cups. Yes, he takes teams to the number one ranking. But, no, he is not some sort of genius – unless we count his gift for taking his own ego out of the way to allow teams to play to their potential.

Kirsten is human. Domingo is human. Now, would the rest of us humans get the hell out of the way and allow Domingo to coach what is now his team, whether we like it or not?

No, we can’t. Because we know – or we think they know – that Domingo does not deserve to zip up Kirsten’s tracksuit top. It doesn’t matter a jot that Domingo has been coaching for 17 of his 39 years, or that he has earned his respect at all levels, including in South Africa’s franchise system, where he turned the Warriors into a competitive team and won two trophies in six seasons. Or even that – as Kirsten’s assistant – a share of the credit for South Africa’s rise to the top of the Test rankings belongs to Domingo.

Instead, what matters is that Domingo never played first-class cricket, nevermind adorned the international stage. Does it also matter that he is not white? Who will admit that?

But what seems to matter most is this: Domingo is not Kirsten. Therefore he is not good enough to coach South Africa.

This absurdity survives and prospers without taking into account what the removal from the equation of Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and now Graeme Smith in less than two years would do to any team.

It also ignores the fact that Kirsten focused on building South Africa’s stature as a Test team. Something had to give, and that something was performance in the shorter formats – which South Africans have come to expect their team to dominate even though all they have to brag about is a sole trophy won in 1998.

But kick a kitbag anywhere in South Africa and you will find a Domingo doubter. By the look of him after South Africa found creative ways to turn what should have been a walkover win against the Netherlands into an exciting game of cricket in their World T20 match in Chittagong on Thursday, the dressingroom itself was crawling with them.

“If we stick with the same line-up, people say we do the same things over and over; if we change it, people say we change it too much,” Domingo said. “We are a strange cricket nation. If we win two or three games comfortably, people accuse us of peaking at the wrong time. If we win two close games, people say we are playing badly.”

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Domingo isn’t the first coach to have to step out of the shadow of a notable predecessor – David Moyes could tell him a thing or two about that – and as a staunch Manchester United supporter himself he knows that there is only one way to make the noise stop: win.

Indeed, having endured a mauling at home at the hands of the Australians this season, and after a loss and two tight wins at the WT20, the natives are even more restless than usual.

That Kirsten’s South African team lost 12 of their 29 one-day internationals – comfortably under their alltime winning percentage of 61.51 – and half of their 18 T20s doesn’t register as a comparative factor in this debate.

Which is not to say Domingo gets it all right all the time. If he did, he wouldn’t be under pressure. For a start – and you’ve read it here before as you will do until it is no longer the case – AB de Villiers should bat at number three in T20s. Anywhere lower, as is currently the case, and he is wasted.

But there is an unfair refrain blowing from the pundits all the way through to the public in South African cricket. Sometimes it is honest, mostly it is a snotty insinuation. It is that Domingo is part of the problem with the team, not the solution.

South Africans need to know that Domingo is used to being unfashionable, that he can take criticism, and that he doesn’t mind his credit being given to others. However, he will not be pushed around. He will push back. We have been warned.

* Not in Bangladesh