Real world, meet Mr Smith

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TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

What to get for the retiring star cricketer who would appear to have everything: Another luxury car? Another endorsement deal? Another tattoo? A new – or even another – girlfriend? Another career in cricket as a commentator or a coach? Perhaps an exercise regime to try and halt the sagging of all that diligently trained muscle?

If the cricketer in question is Graeme Smith, none of the above. Instead, Smith has landed something his generation of international players know nothing about: a real job. Two, in fact.

Having bestrode, for 12 years, the neverland of cricket like the colossus he was, Smith is now the director of South Africa’s domestic T20 tournament as well as an employee of the major sponsor of the one-day game in the country. And, yes, it seems his involvement with the latter, an insurance company, will mean more than public appearances and lending his famous name to letterheads.

You could ask how someone with no experience of running anything except to the other end of the pitch could be put in charge of an entire tournament. You could also wonder if money is safe with an insurance company that thinks nothing of appointing unqualified executives.

But those who have been within headline distance of Smith these past dozen years have little doubt that, despite his lack of relevant qualifications and experience, he will make a success of his new life.

Besides, it is not as if he had whatever the required experience or qualifications were when he was named South Africa’s captain aged all of 22. And, by almost every measure, that did not turn out badly. No degree could serve Smith as well as that truth. It is a solid gold, diamond-edged business card.

But the most striking aspect of Smith’s future as surveyed by a public still not used to the thought of his not walking out to undertake the toss is the choice he has made.

He is to be admired for not opting to become just another woeful, washed-up warbler in a commentary box somewhere – nevermind that as one of the few players or captains whose press conferences were invariably worth attending for their clearly expressed insight and bracing humanity he would doubtless have been a hit behind the microphone. Similarly, Smith would have been far more than a tracksuit with a notable face that seems to fit many impostors’ idea of what a coach should be.

There is nothing Smith can do about the fact that he is part of that crop of cricketers who spend their entire careers as unaware of the machinations of Chinese politics as they are of the price of a pair of batting gloves. No-one, after all, is bigger than the game and this is how the game moulds the modern player.

Sometimes, these players are jolted to earth – not back to earth, because they do not really live on our planet – by reality. If they are lucky, that means meeting the right partner: not for batting or bowling, but for life. If they are unlucky, it could mean having an eye destroyed by the random flight of a bail in the weak sunshine of a Taunton morning.

Happily, Smith has both of his eyes. And they would seem to be firmly fixed on his wife and young family, and now on his future. In an age of cricketers striving towards the professional brattishness of Justin Bieber, Smith has matured into a poster boy for the best of conservative values.

Time was when cricketers had proper jobs. Peter Pollock was a journalist. Ali Bacher qualified as a doctor, though he did not spend a significant time practising medicine. And while little about Rupert Hanley – the wild-haired rebel-era fast bowler – could be described as proper besides the pace at which he bowled, he became a noted artist.

But that was then. This is now, when players go straight from school to stardom and then retire to a life not all that different to what they say they are leaving behind.

Not, however, Smith. Real world, he’s here; ready or not. Apologies, Graeme – it’s Mr Smith now.

Leave Steyn, Philander at home for dash Down Under, say ex-selectors

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

TO earn the approval of former selectors when he names SA’s squads on Tuesday to play limited overs series in New Zealand and Australia in October and November, Andrew Hudson should mention Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander only to explain why they have not cracked the nod.

And he should make an effort to narrow the strength gap between SA’s superb batting line-up and their less impressive attack.

To many, those goals would seem at odds. Not to Rushdie Magiet and Hugh Page.

For former selector Page, Steyn – who was rested on Cricket SA orders from being part of the Cape Cobras squad who are on their way home from the Champions League T20 in India – should keep his feet up.

“If the selectors have questions about some guys, they should include them to see for themselves whether they should be in the side,” Page said on Monday.

“The dead ‘certs’, those who could do with a break – someone like Dale Steyn – leave them out and make sure they are fresh.”

SA host West Indies in three tests, five ODIs and three T20s this summer, and Steyn is likely to play in most of them. Then it’s off to the 2015 World Cup in Australasia.

“The New Zealand and Aussie tours are going to be the best opportunity to see players in the conditions they will be playing in at the World Cup,” said Page, who was keen to keep the microphone on the bowlers.

“Batting-wise, SA have six matchwinners: any one of the top six could win a match on his own on his day.

“But our bowling is a problem. Take away Steyn and it’s a completely different attack. He fires up everyone around him.”

Makes sense considering Steyn’s immense presence, not to mention his talent and skill. Except that SA win more games when Steyn is not involved.

Of the 82 completed ODIs he has played for SA, 52 have been won. In the 74 games in the format SA have contested without Steyn since he made his debut, 51 have ended in victory. That’s a success rate of 63.41% when Steyn is around and 68.92% when he is not.

Former selection convenor Rushdie Magiet had another of SA’s premier fast bowlers on his mind.

“Our batting is very strong and our attack is good, too – especially when Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn both play and if the spinner bowls well,” Magiet said on Monday.

“But I don’t know about Vernon Philander. He’s a fantastic test bowler, but I don’t think he is the answer as a one-day bowler.”

Philander exploded onto the international scene in 2011-12, when he became the first bowler in 116 years to take 50 wickets in his first seven tests. After 26 tests, he has 115 scalps.

But he has not had that kind of success in one-day internationals, where he has taken 17 wickets in 14 bowling innings.

SA have won nine of the 14 completed ODIs in which Philander has played – a winning percentage of 64.29%. Because of his injured hamstring, he missed the eight games in the format the Proteas played against Zimbabwe and Australia in August and September. SA won seven of those matches – or 87.50%.

Starting on October 21, SA will play three ODIs in New Zealand. They will then cross the ditch for three T20s and five ODIs in Australia.

Leading Edge: Domestic cricket faces bleak reality

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

BEING disabused of a notion is never pleasant if the idea is held dear. But sometimes it has to be done. This is one of those times: SA’s franchise system is not as strong it thinks it is.

For this, we have the Cobras and the Dolphins to thank. Rather, we should thank their opponents in the Champions League T20 – the teams who made the SA sides look like they were out of their league in their first four games.

The argument that the South Africans came in cold from their off-season does not hold because three of the sides who beat them did, too – New Zealand’s Northern Districts, the Perth Scorchers and the Hobart Hurricanes.

Neither does it wash that SA’s players are not familiar with the conditions. Most of them have played in the sub-continent before, and if that were true it would also apply to the three Australasian teams above.

Worse yet, after those games, the only victories celebrated by Northern Districts, Perth and the Chennai Super Kings had came at the expense of SA teams.

It needed an eliminator over to earn a first SA victory: the Cobras prevailed by one run against the Barbados Tridents in Mohali on Friday.

Even though these truths have made themselves evident in a tournament of no great relevance based on a format that cannot be taken seriously except as a measure of how awful kit design can become and in which the prizemoney is much more impressive than the level of play, they add up to the bleak reality that SA’s domestic structures are less sound than those in other countries.

That is what South Africans need to countenance if they expect representatives of that structure to hold their own in the great out there of competing against their far-flung peers. But if the sole function of franchise cricket is to unearth and incubate international players, SA is doing just fine.

Cricket’s best test team did not fall out of the sky readymade, and SA’s star players fetch top dollar at the Indian Premier League auction as well as in the less overtly mercenary world of county cricket. Much of the credit for those successes belongs to a domestic game that, if SA win the World Cup, would deserve all the accolades it would not receive.

But South Africans who dip their interest in cricket into the domestic scene will discover a cold, impoverished pond. Shots and appeals echo around desolate grounds in the first-class and one-day competitions, and there is surely no more mournful sound than the now standard applause from the field that follows almost every delivery that is not hit to or over the boundary rippling outward towards the stands rather than inward from an appreciative audience.

Twenty years ago, SA’s newspapers – this one in particular – devoted hundreds of words to every domestic first-class match. No more. Live coverage of proper cricket at anything below test level has disappeared from television screens. Are broadcasters who hold lucrative contracts to put international cricket on television offering franchise games pro bono?

Viewership figures can be nudged this way and that, but there was no misreading the awkwardness of the biggest crowd at Newlands during the cheesy T20 extravaganza mounted at Newlands at New Year in lieu of real games – which the brattish Indians had refused to play – turning up to watch the Springboks.

That’s right: more people seem to be interested in seeing the national rugby team play cricket than seeing the nation’s best cricketers play cricket. Scary, but true.

Miller time may never come in SA’s top heavy order

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

DRIVES that hurry high and handsome over the long-off boundary do not evoke poignance in their authors, but David Miller seemed struck by that warm, fuzzy feeling as he watched the target of his stroke fade from white to grey to gone in Mohali’s black velvet sky last Saturday night.

The ball left the building with the grace of an angel on a mercy mission and the haste of a demon rudely exorcised. Miller had dismissed it from his presence with a stroke of never-say-die and nonchalance.

Well might he have gazed long and hard on what his talent, skill and confidence had wrought: with that, the match was won for Kings XI Punjab.

“It was very relieving to hit the winning runs,” Miller said afterwards. “I was fortunate from the beginning of my knock, but I want to take those opportunities.”

Forty-six not out off 34 balls represents a good day-night’s work for a No. 5 batsman coming to the crease after 10 overs in a T20.

Well, too, might Miller have been relieved that, finally, he had been given a decent chance to do his thing. In his previous five innings – one for Punjab and the rest for SA in one-day internationals – he had faced a total of 29 balls. Twice, he was not out. Twice, he was dismissed without scoring. Twice each, in those ODIs, he had batted at Nos. 5 and 6. Twice more in other games, he had not batted at all. Not once in the ODIs did he take guard before the 24th over.

To see Miller bursting at the seams of his will as he scuds about the outfield at speed to make outrageous catches look routine, improbable stops eminently possible, and turn what should be long, looping throws into flat, fired fury is to see a cricketer who does not know how not to give his all, and then some. If leopards played cricket, they would play like Miller does.

But too often he is not given nearly enough of an opportunity to do what he has been selected to do and what we know he can do: bat like hell and win games.

The problem, for Miller, is that SA’s ODI side are top heavy with quality batsmen. Who might he displace among Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers?

Does that mean the shimmering nucleus of Miller’s talent, his sonic boom of a bat, the menace he is to opposing attacks, is in danger of going to waste?

“Sometimes you are born in the wrong era,” Andrew Miller said this week, but he was not talking about his son, whom he has watched “grow into what he always wanted to be”.

Surely Miller did not, as a kid, dream of the days he would sit all padded-up with nowhere to go and watching other players win matches?

“He’s not frustrated,” Miller senior, who played a significant role in his son’s development as a cricketer, said. “He’d be happy to bat at No. 11 – he is at peace with his role in the SA team.

“But he is an out-and-out batsman and that’s a difficult thing to do properly without proper gametime, specially when you’re expected to come in and hit Mitchell Johnson out of the ground when he’s bowling at 150 clicks.

“He either comes in at 60/4 and is expected to get a hundred, or he comes in in the 48th over and is expected to hit everything for six.”

Even so, Miller believed his son had what was needed to stay focused on both the bigger and the smaller picture: “He’s like blotting paper in the way he absorbs knowledge. He comes across as casual, but he has an inner desire; an inner drive to succeed. He doesn’t need accolades.”

Two days earlier, Miller strode to the wicket for Punjab in the third over – and lifted the third ball he faced into the hands of the man at mid-off.

“I played out of my gameplan that night,” he said. “Maybe I thought the wrong thing.

“When I get in in the first six overs I need to hit the ball along the ground. Then, at the end of the innings, it becomes second nature. It’s a see-ball, hit-ball mentality.”

We see. He hits. Bloody hard. But not often enough.

Viljoen blitz sinks Titans

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

HARDUS Viljoen blitzed the Lions to a convincing victory over the Titans at the Wanderers on Sunday in the opening round of this season’s first-class franchise matches.

Viljoen took 7/32 with Chris Morris picking up 3/38 as the Lions clinched victory by 190 runs.

Only five of the Titans’ 20 wickets escaped the clutches of Viljoen and Morris – had match figures of 8/81 while Morris banked 7/76.

The match was effectively decided on Saturday when the Titans, who had been set a target of 360, lurched to stumps on 50/4. They were dismissed for 169 in the fifth over after lunch on Sunday.

Viljoen took all the wickets that stood at the start of Sunday’s play. He sparked the slide with the last ball of the morning’s first over by having Theunis de Bruyn spectacularly caught behind by Quinton de Kock diving to his left to take a high catch. In the space of the 50 balls he bowled on Sunday, Viljoen took 6/25.

Farhaan Behardien and Mangaliso Mosehle held up the Lions’ progress for 20 overs with a stand of 81 for the Titans’ seventh wicket, the biggest of the innings.

Behardien stood firm until the end for his gritty 71 not out. He batted for almost three hours, faced 114 balls and hit 12 fours.

But the first win of the domestic season belongs to the Knights, who beat the Warriors with a day to spare in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

An hour into what became the last day’s play, the home side were dismissed for 327 with Simon Harmer taking 4/89 and Basheeru-Deen Walters bagging 3/87.

The last man out was Rudi Second, who scored 113 – the only century in the two matches – in more than six-and-a-half hours at the crease.

All of which left the Warriors to score 331 to win. Instead, they were dismissed for 202, handing the Knights victory by 128 runs.

Werner Coetsee claimed 3/47 with Quinton Friend and Corne Dry sharing four wickets. Dry earned match figures of 7/78.

Wayne Parnell did not bat in the Warriors’ second innings having injured a shoulder while bowling. Team management said he would have the problem fully assessed today, but they did not expect him to be out of action for longer than 10 days.

That would put Parnell out of contention for the Warriors’ match against the Titans in Benoni on Thursday, but not for SA’s tour to New Zealand and Australia later next month.

The squads for the three ODIs in New Zealand and the three T20s and five ODIs in Australia will be named in Durban on Tuesday.

Wins loom for Knights, Lions

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

THE Knights could wrap up victory in Bloemfontein on Saturday in the season’s opening round of first-class matches, while the Lions are on top of the Titans at the Wanderers.

When the Knights were dismissed for 140 on Wednesday, they could not have imagined that they would take a lead of three runs into the second innings.

But that was how the numbers stacked up when the home side claimed the one wicket they needed to end the Warriors’ reply at 137 with the eighth ball of Friday’s play.

By stumps, the Knights were 286/8 in their second innings and had built their lead to 289 runs. They did so largely on the back of Rudi Second’s patient 92 not out, which consumed 217 balls.

Second shared stands of 68 with Gihahn Cloete, 69 with Corne Dry and an unbroken effort of 60 with Quinton Friend, while Rilee Rossouw’s 44 was the Knights’ second best score.

In Johannesburg, the Lions added 126 runs to their overnight score of 275/5 before they were dismissed for 401 with Marchant de Lange and Shaun von Berg sharing six wickets.

Kagiso Rabada propped up the second half of the order with an unbeaten 48 that featured six fours and two sixes. Rabada and Hardus Viljoen added 53 for the ninth wicket.

Dean Elgar’s first innings as a Titan lasted five balls. He shouldered arms to a delivery from Viljoen and was trapped plumb in front.

Heino Kuhn and Qaasim Adams also went cheaply, and when Theunis de Bruyn fell leg-before to Chris Morris for 30 the Titans had slipped to 47/4.

A partnership of 55 between Farhaan Behardien and Roelof van der Merwe eased their troubles, and Behardien has found a fellow fighter in Mangaliso Mosehle.

They have put on 56 runs for the unbroken sixth wicket. Behardien will resume on Saturday on 45 with Mosehle 35 not out.

The Titans limped to stumps on Friday on 158/5, still 243 runs behind.

First-class season starts with strange day indeed

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

A strange day indeed heralded the start of the first-class cricket season on Thursday, what with 19 wickets falling on Bloemfontein’s normally docile pitch and just five at the allegedly lusty, lively Wanderers.

The Warriors dismissed the Knights for 140 inside two sessions in Bloem. But, by stumps, the visitors had dwindled to 136/9 in reply.

There was no such rude awakening in Johannesburg, where the Lions reached 271/5 against the Titans.

As bad as things were for the Knights, they could have been worse – the home side crashed to 32/8 with Andrew Birch, Wayne Parnell and Basheeru-Deen Walters taking seven of those scalps between them before Corne Dry and Quinton Friend came up with a stand of 98.

Dry and Friend each scored 51 before they were removed by Simon Harmer, who took 2/8 in 20 balls.

Then Dry got back to his real job as a fast bowler and claimed 5/43 in the Eastern Capers’ lurching reply.

Like their Knights counterparts, the Warriors’ bowlers also found themselves having to do more than their fair share of the batting. Birch and Walters were two of their three visitors to pass 20 runs. The other was Colin Ingram.

Eight of the men dismissed in Bloemfontein yesterday were caught behind – an indication of the movement in the pitch.

By contrast, it took the Titans more than 21 overs to separate Lions openers Stephen Cook and Rassie van der Dussen. Only for Cook and Temba Bavuma to add 116 for the second wicket.

Shaun von Berg had a cutting Cook trapped in front for 56 and he bowled Bavuma for 84 when he played back and down the wrong line.

Quinton de Kock scored a bright 51 off 61 balls with nine fours before he was bowled by Marchant de Lange.