Sharp sense of transition shadows SA to Sri Lanka

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Around two years ago, SA were preparing to confirm their peerlessness by unseating England as test cricket’s No. 1 team. Graeme Smith captained and Gary Kirsten coached what the world already knew was the best XI in the game, which included the finest allrounder of the age in Jacques Kallis. But the mace would make it official.

On a bright and beautiful evening at Lord’s, the home of the snobs of cricket, the mace became SA’s. Beer and bravado flowed in the shiny, happy celebration. Surely, nothing could go wrong …

A year later, Kirsten exited after SA’s underwhelming Champions Trophy campaign. At Christmas, Kallis called it a test career. Less than three months after that, Smith was done with international cricket.

On Sunday, the bulk of a SA squad that in significant as well as subtle ways is unrecognisable from the side that ruled the world just two years ago boarded a flight to Sri Lanka. As they did so, the sharp smell of jet fuel should have been laced with the even sharper recognition that they are a team at the start of a season of transition.

Their first challenge will be to take the edge off South Africans’ memories of the 4-1 thrashing they took in their one-day series in Sri Lanka last July. They will have three matches in the format, starting in Colombo next Sunday, to do so. Then SA will play two tests in a country where they last won a series in 1993.  

“They are up against it, not just because Sri Lanka is a tough place to tour but because there has been a big shift in the team’s dynamics,” former SA batsman Boeta Dippenaar said.

“We like to be patriotic and say that we can get back to No. 1, but the reality is that no-one stays at the top forever. We saw that with West Indies in the 1980s and recently we saw it with Australia, although Australia’s rebound was a lot quicker than expected because their structures are strong.”

And SA’s, Dippenaar said, are not what they used to be.

“The Proteas’ success was an effect of what was happening in franchise cricket eight or nine years ago. It was a very strong system. I remember playing franchise cricket against Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. You don’t see that anymore. The truth of the matter is that we are now in a rebuilding phase.”

This uncertainty has hit SA as they should be tightening the nuts and bolts on their bid to win the World Cup in Australasia in February and March. If they do not come home with the trophy, the fact that the stronger squads SA have sent to the tournament in the past returned empty-handed will not be remembered. Instead, the class of 2015’s failure will simply be added to the list.

For that not to happen, SA would need to make rapid progress in the more than 20 ODIs they will play before the World Cup.

“Our biggest challenge is the psyche of coaching in this country,” Dippenaar said. “It is a schoolmaster-schoolboy interaction. You see that when the players have to make decisions on the field and they are found wanting.

“If we want to break the cycle of being called chokers we’re going to have to produce players who can think on their feet.”

Two years ago, SA had those players and coaches in abundance. Some of them are no longer around, but many remain. Surely, even in a season of transition, not everything can go wrong. 


SA eyes are smiling at Irish appointment

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

It isn’t often that SA’s players will be inspired to perform by the appointment of some suit to a powerful position.

But Tony Irish is no ordinary suit, and his unveiling on Friday as the executive chairperson of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA) should have done do wonders for SA’s morale as they left for Sri Lanka on Sunday.

Since 2002, Irish has been fighting the good fight for the country’s players as chief executive of the SA Cricketers’ Association (SACA). He is trusted and popular among his constituency, and a committed and passionate campaigner for their interests. Happily for them, Irish’s new job will not mean he has to give up his SACA position.

Irish has ascended to the leadership of what amounts to a trade union for the world’s cricketers at an important juncture in the game’s history.

“The cricket landscape is an evolving one, with challenges and opportunities on many fronts,” Irish was quoted as saying in a FICA release. “Now, more than ever, it is critical that the voice of the players is heard. FICA is committed to contributing effectively to the game.

“The confirmation of FICA’s guiding principles – which include good governance, strong representation, and integrity – helps underline what we stand for, and the imminent assembly of a player advisory group is intended to ensure that the crucial viewpoint of those that play our game remains paramount.”

SA’s tour to Sri Lanka will be their first venture since the International Cricket Council’s rubber-stamping of the new pecking order in the world game.

As much as SA’s players won’t want to acknowledge that the carving up of cricket into the “Big Three” – India, England and Australia – and the “Small Seven” – the rest of the test-playing countries – bothers them, it must.

Having recently been feted as the No. 1 ranked test team, SA are now, officially, second-class cricket citizens. It is a cruel reality that they had better get used to before the first one-day international in Colombo next Sunday. Two more ODIs will be followed by two tests.

Having been smashed 4-1 in a one-day series in Sri Lanka last July and having not won a test series on the Asian island since 1993, SA have plenty to prove to themselves, their supporters, and their opponents.

But even if the Proteas never lose again, Cricket SA will not be able to enter the pantheon reserved for the “Big Three”. Another cruel reality is that big cricket is about money, not cricket.

As for the cricket, the immediate focus will be on SA to play a more decisive brand of the one-day stuff what with a World Cup just seven months away.

In the past year, SA have won eight of their 13 completed ODIs. But they have shown little consistency and even less evidence that they are playing to a plan that is recognisably South African. The latter may be no bad thing in a cricket culture that can be too rigid for its own good. However, when SA lose that makes it easier to point fingers.

Which brings us to Russell Domingo, a fine son of the Eastern Cape and SA’s coach. Domingo has taken flak for SA’s indifferent performances, which is fair to some extent, and for backing up his arguments with statistics, which is patently unfair.

Like Irish, Domingo has also been fighting the good fight for years – first as Gary Kirsten’s assistant, now as the man with whom the buck stops. But, unlike Irish, Domingo has yet to be given the credit he has earned.

CSA’s status slips as PCB’s rises

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Cricket SA’s (CSA) slipping status among national boards was hinted at yesterday when the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) claimed to be the leading earners among the game’s small seven test-playing countries.

The PCB said in a statement that the International Cricket Council (ICC) had, at their meeting in Melbourne, agreed to “grant Pakistan the fourth rank after the ‘big three’ – India, England and Australia – in terms of the percentage of revenue to be received from the ICC in the next eight years from broadcasting and other rights on ICC fixtures”.

In January, parts of CSA’s grandiosely framed objection to a proposal to restructure the ICC invoked the words of Nelson Mandela and read like a plea to be admitted to the highest echelon of suits itself.

Their president, Chris Nenzani, wrote to the ICC of “SA’s cardinal role in the history of the ICC and also the sacrifices made by the people of SA in order to defeat a system condemned by the international community as a crime against humanity (apartheid)”.

The South Africans damned the revamp plan, which would lock most of the authority and revenue in international cricket in the Indian, English and Australian boards, as “fundamentally flawed”.

Seven of the ICC’s 10 full members supported the proposal. CSA, the PCB and Sri Lanka Cricket were opposed. Eight votes were needed for the measures to be adopted.

In February, all three of the holdouts backtracked and agreed to an amended version of the new deal. Among the changes was a fund to support test cricket, a convoluted process for increasing the ranks of test teams, and a binding future tours programme.

Currently, more powerful countries are able to force others to do their bidding in terms of tours – as India did when they shortened their visit to SA last season from 12 to five matches.

But money matters most. Although India generate more than 70% of world cricket’s revenue, under the ICC’s existing model they are required to share the profits equally with the other nine full members. Now, the cake will be unevenly sliced.

One version of cricket’s future leading up to the ICC’s February meeting at which the restructure proposal was accepted in principle said that if the game earned US$2.5-billion between 2015 and 2023, the BCCI would keep US$568-million, the England Cricket Board US$173-million and Cricket Australia US$130.5-million.

The restructure process is being completed at the Melbourne meeting this week, where the 52 members of the ICC’s full council approved the proposal at their annual conference.

The president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Narayanaswami Srinivasan, was confirmed as ICC chairperson – officially recognising what he has long been, the most powerful man in cricket.

At a press conference in Melbourne yesterday, Srinivasan said the ICC had “restructured itself to become more viable and offer better financial stability to full members as well as associates, concentrate on meritocracy, afford associate members a chance to start playing test cricket with full members, and also to emphasise development of cricket among the associates and affiliates”.

Srinivasan will become ICC chairman despite having stood down as BCCI president pending the outcome of an Indian supreme court investigation into corruption claims made against him. He dismissed the basis for the probe as “unsubstantiated, unverified allegations made by some people”.

CSA, who will not look forward to Srinivasan’s elevation as he and their chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, have clashed in the past, ignored requests for comment.

Good news, bad news for SA ahead of Sri Lanka ODIs

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

The good news for SA ahead of their one-day series in Sri Lanka next month is that they are a more successful team in sub-continent conditions than they are in England or New Zealand.

The bad news is that their record in Sri Lanka is their worst out of all the countries in which they have played ODIs.

In the similar conditions of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Emirates combined, SA have won 66 of their 117 games, or 56.41%. 

That did not surprise Colin Ingram. “Ten years ago, we would be criticised for not playing well enough on slow pitches,” he said yesterday. 

“But a lot of cricket is played on those kinds of surfaces these days and our players have become better in those conditions.”   

However, on pitches that seem, on balance, to be more attuned to SA’s strengths – Australia, England, New Zealand and West Indies – their winning percentage drops to 53.15.

SA have won 42.11% of their ODIs in England and 40.91% of those they have played in New Zealand. But their success rate crashes to 28.57% in Sri Lanka, where they have been successful in only six of their 21 games.

Even more alarmingly, they have lost 13 of 16 matches against the Lankans on the island. The closest SA have come to winning one of their three bilateral series there was in 1993, when the first game was washed out and the teams each won one of the other two.

SA’s only other ODI victory against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka was achieved in Pallekele last July. Trouble is, the home side won the other four matches in the rubber.

But the squad has since undergone a significant overhaul, particularly in the bowling department.

Of the group of 16 that did duty in Sri Lanka last year, Farhaan Behardien, Ingram, Rory Kleinveldt, Chris Morris, Alviro Petersen, Robin Peterson and Lonwabo Tsotsobe are not in the mix this time.

In their places in the squad of 15 from which the XI to play the first ODI at the R Premadasa stadium in Colombo next Sunday will be drawn are Beuran Hendricks, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn, Wayne Parnell and Vernon Philander.

That should put a significantly stronger attack at AB de Villiers’ disposal – including a genuine spin threat in Tahir. In nine ODIs in the sub-continent and the Emirates, the leg spinner has taken 23 wickets at an average of 14.21 and an economy rate of 4.22. By contrast, his four games in SA have yielded three wickets at 39.66 and 4.76 respectively.

SA will also need to buck up their batting in Sri Lanka. Although their players went to the crease 10 more times than their opponents’ in the 2013 series – 49 individual innings to Sri Lanka’s 39 – they registered only four half-centuries compared to the home side’s five 50s and a century.

But, to Ingram, those numbers don’t mean a thing because they ain’t got the swing of what he has seen for himself.

“Too much is made of SA’s record in Sri Lanka,” he said. “Maybe they just haven’t had good tours there. There were good signs when we were there – we made some big strides in the right direction.”

With next year’s World Cup looming, best they make a giant leap this time. 

How Sri Lanka’s tigers have changed their stripes

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Before their series in England that ended yesterday, Sri Lanka were tigers at home and tiggers on the road. They had won just eight of the 43 test series they had played on foreign ground. Even less flatteringly, five of those successes were achieved in the B-grade backyards of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

But yesterday they clinched their first series in England by winning the second test at Headingley by 100 runs with one ball left in the match. In the first test at Lord’s, the Sri Lankans held on to draw with nine wickets down.

With that, notice had been served that Hashim Amla’s men will have to tame the most confident team of tigers yet in the two tests they will play on the Asian island next month.   

Or will they? One win cannot change the fact that the Lankans have been victorious in only 15.15% of the tests they have contested outside of sub-continent conditions. In the sub and the United Arab Emirates, they have won 35.98% of the time. That figure rises to 41.59% in Sri Lanka itself.

By contrast, since readmission SA have won 48.11% of all their tests. At home, they have a winning percentage of 57.27; away, 38.24.

Is the gap between the teams as large as their rankings before yesterday’s result suggested – SA second, Sri Lanka seventh – and how far will it grow in the opposite direction once the Lankans are back in their Hundred Acre Wood?

Significantly, it seems. That’s if Mahela Jayawardene’s comments after the fourth day at Headingley are an indication of how his men will react to the standard SA tactic of using aggressive fast bowling to drill holes in their opponents’ psyche.

“Their idea of hurting us and hitting us on the head probably doesn’t work,” Jayawardene said at a press conference. “I thought we hung in there. We were disciplined enough.”

Another hardy SA perennial – trying to talk as hard a game as they play – appears equally unlikely to get them far in Sri Lanka.

“England were quite chirpy in the morning, but they quietened up after the first hour or so,” Jayawardene said. “But that’s just part of the game – we know who is on top and who is not.”

In fact, the South Africans can look forward to the usually demure Sri Lankans filling their ears with barbed words.

“Chirping them (England) is something we had spoken about,” Jayawardene said. “We’ve seen that under pressure, and they’re not quite up to it. There’s a few young guys to come in and they’ll get some sledging.”

And this, mind, from one of the most mannered, respectful opponents any team could hope to face.

But Jayawardene is also part of a side that has found more than one way to win. In the past, if Muttiah Muralitharan dominated, so did Sri Lanka: 18 of his 22 10-wicket hauls were claimed in a winning cause. In the 155 tests Sri Lanka played during Muralitharan’s career, they won 54 when he was in the XI and only five when he was not.

The Headingley match illustrates how much that has changed. Shaminda Eranga, a right-arm fast bowler playing his 13th test, and Angelo Mathews shared eight wickets in the first innings. In the second dig, Dhammika Prasad, another right-arm quick playing his 13th test, took 5/50.

A pair of sturdy half-centuries by Kumar Sangakkara, another by Jayawardene and a brilliant 160 by Mathews took care of the other end of Sri Lanka’s matchwinning equation.

It was a win for the ages, and that’s no poo.

No change, please – we’re South African


TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

You would be forgiven for thinking that, here at the sharp end of Africa, where we talked much more than shot our way out of almost four centuries of racial oppression into something approaching democracy, we are open to change.

We are not. South Africans of all colours and creeds would rather that everything stayed the same. Change? Change is for parking meters and beggars and politicians – who scratch change off the agenda the instant they are elected.

Change is not what gets us out of bed. This is because we are what we think we hate: conservative.

Which is part of the reason cricket is played and followed by South Africans of every racial and cultural stripe. It is the game of those trapped in the aspic of long gone days, and that is the way we like it.

Twenty years from now, we will talk about seeing the last Test innings of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis with far more fondness – and far less accuracy – than current players with years of fine performances left in them.

In that sense, everyone who truly holds cricket dear should thank the Indian Premier League (IPL) and all its garish excesses for proving that cricket belongs in the 21st century. That the IPL takes so much flak is ammunition for the argument that the game has no future.

But South Africans should brace themselves: change is coming, ready or not. And it will shake up the game from top to bottom in this country.

For JP Duminy, the process is well underway. “I don’t think it starts now; it started a couple of months ago with ‘Jakes’ (Kallis) stepping down (in December),” he said.

“There has already been some added responsibility for me, not maybe as much in Tests but definitely in the shorter formats and I have really enjoyed it. I know this season is going to determine whether I can sustain that responsibility. It’s going to be a tough season for all of us so we are going to have to manage ourselves well.”

Managing Smith’s removal from the equation looms even larger for South Africa than handling Kallis’ Test retirement. Kallis’ contribution is far more easily measurable in runs and wickets and slip catches than what, besides runs, Smith brought – confidence, brashness, dominance, a discernible South African way of cricket. It will be up to players like Duminy to keep those flames flickering.

“I’ve gained enough experience to know what to expect and passing on that knowledge will be important,” he said. “But it’s also important for guys to learn through experience. We’ve all had to find a way to deal with things on our own and, of course, through senior players. But the best way to learn is through experience – the quicker we can learn that way, the better.”

So much for the change at the top. At the bottom, the change that is afoot promises to scare the reactionaries out of the woodpile.

For 10 years, the unofficial race quota in senior domestic matches in South Africa has been that teams have been expected to include four players who are not white. Next season, in the words of an unusually clear Cricket South Africa (CSA) press release, “franchises will be required to field at least five players of colour in all competitions, two of whom must be black African”.

The same release quoted CSA’s chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, as saying, “It is a fact that we have still not succeeded in unlocking the vast cricket talent among black African people and next season we will expect the affiliate (provincial) and franchise presidents, chief executives and their coaches to assume direct responsibility to do so.”

Damn straight. As much as we talked our way out of civil war in South Africa, so the country we talked ourselves into being cannot call itself a democracy until the gap between rich and poor – not simply black and white – is narrowed appreciably.

Similarly, cricket cannot call itself a national sport in this country until the XI it dares to call the national team looks like the nation. That matters infinitely more than winning.

Yes, you might have seen these drums being beaten under this byline before. Yes, you will see that happen many more times yet if you keep reading.

But here’s something new. This year, eight members of South Africa’s under-19 World Cup squad of 15 were something other than white.

None of the senior squads South Africa have named since re-admission in 1991 have been majority black. And, unlike this year’s under-19s, none of those senior squads have won a World Cup – even the ones that included Kallis and Smith.

The under-19s did not win because most of their players were black. They won because those players were not overlooked.

Too often, black players are ignored because picking them would mean that awful thing: change. 

Super skipper not so super, say pundits

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

Next season, if you change the channel on the world’s only surviving black-and-white television set to see Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis all discussing what SA should do next, you might need to know which format is being played to work out who is the captain.

Amla’s tenure as SA’s test captain starts in Sri Lanka next month. De Villiers leads the one-day team. Du Plessis is in charge of the T20 outfit. All of them are important members of all three teams.

If Amla, De Villiers and Du Plessis are likely to always be on the field together, why not pool the resources they bring? The age of the super skipper could be upon us …

Not so fast, former test batsman Peter Kirsten said yesterday: “Three is a bit confusing for all concerned. When it gets tight and hot out there you don’t want three conflicting opinions on what to do. You want your leader to be in charge.”

Kirsten said he would have preferred two captains – Du Plessis in the tests and T20s and De Villiers in the ODIs.

“The players will have to get used to three different styles of captaincy,” Kirsten, who led the rebel-era SA team to 13 wins in the two existing formats in his 20 matches at the helm, said.

That the issue is being debated which piqued interest is a reflection of Graeme Smith’s towering shadow of influence on the national team. Smith captained SA in 284 of the 347 matches he played for them between April, 2003 and March this year.

“We’ve been spoilt by Graeme captaining in all formats for most of his career, but we’re lucky to have three astute guys to take it forward,” Kirsten said.

The early focus when SA tour Sri Lanka next month to play two tests and three ODIs will be on the fallout from De Villiers saying, on May 15, that he “would love to” be SA test captain and was “certainly ready for it”. On June 3, Amla was unveiled in the job.

“AB will be feeling a bit peeved, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out,” Kirsten said. “But Hashim is going to be a calming influence. He has always come across as a reluctant leader, so well done to Cricket SA for talking him into it.”

Asked whether a different captain in each format would work for SA, Shaun Pollock – who led the Proteas in 26 tests, 92 ODIs and a T20 – said he did not “really have an opinion” but offered that he was “not convinced that it is good”.

Inside the current dressingroom, which is trying to absorb and recover from the partial or complete retirements of Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, and Smith, the view was different.

“For where the team is at the moment, it’s probably a blessing in disguise,” SA team manager Mohammed Moosajee said.

“The fact that you have guys complementing each other in the different formats lessens the burden but it also gives them the responsibility to bring their character and their personality to the team environment.”

South Africans will have their first chance to see how that works in the first ODI in Colombo on July 6.