The curious case of SA’s No. 7

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

WHO has been SA’s best No. 7 in one-day cricket this year? How do we measure such a thing? Besides, shouldn’t the match situation, rather than a predetermined order, dictate who bats where?

As with much in cricket, answers to those questions are difficult to come by. But some of them can be summed up in two words: Farhaan Behardien.

Which is not what many would want to hear, including whoever runs a parody Twitter account in the name of former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers.

Last Wednesday, when SA beat New Zealand by 20 runs in the first ODI in Centurion, “Coachdivvy” posted, “Behardien is the (Zane) Kirchner of cricket. No-one knows why he is in the team but at least he looks cool.”

Few could say why Behardien was preferred to Ryan McLaren in SA’s World Cup squad. That meant his selection was, fairly or not, pinned on transformation quotas.

And it is true that, in his demeanour and body language, Behardien seems less a man to go to war with than a refugee fleeing a war.

Also, let’s not forget that, in SA, any player who is not white will be suspected of having earned his place on race rather than ability.

Whatever. This year Behardien has been SA’s most successful option for a No. 7 batsman who also bowls.

Of the 13 ODIs SA have played in 2015 in which they have sent a No. 7 to the crease, Behardien has been that man seven times. David Wiese has done the job in three games, JP Duminy twice and Wayne Parnell once.

The only equable stat with which to compare them is strike rate. At No. 7 this year, Parnell’s is 60.71, Wiese’s 72.34, and Duminy’s 117.64. Behardien’s? 122.76.

McLaren also comes second to Behardien as a No. 7 with a strike rate of 73.96 after 29 innings in that position. Overall, Parnell has had six innings there for a rate of 85.05. In Behardien’s total of eight innings at No. 7 he strikes at 120.80.

Duminy tops all of them with 136.36 as a No. 7: his best place in the order in those terms. But, perversely, that has led to him being promoted to No. 6 to give him more time at the crease.

With Duminy on daddy duty, Behardien moved up to No. 6 in SA’s series against New Zealand. Wiese was at No. 7.

“We had a chat before the start of the series and I thought Farhaan was moving exceptionally well in the nets,” AB de Villiers said. “I sensed something special was coming.

“If we can have a batter at No. 6 in form in moments like that, we are going to win a lot of ODIs. I am very excited for what’s to come if he is going to play like that.”

De Villiers topped SA’s strike rate charts in the series with 101.96. Next, with a round 100, was a skinny coloured fella who wears a scraggly beard, bats with a calculated coldness of purpose, bowls decently and fields like a demon.

Why is he in the side? Dunno. Must be a quota player …

SA’s winter of discontent ends brightly

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

SA put a shine on their winter of discontent with a display of will rather than wonder to clinch the one-day series against New Zealand at Kingsmead on Wednesday.

The home side prevailed by 62 runs to claim the rubber 2-1 in a match blighted by seven dropped catches and in which only three batsmen emerged from the 40s.

Blessed by batting first on the best pitch of the series, SA totalled 283/7. Tigerish bowling quelled New Zealand for 221 in 49.2 overs.

“We knew what we had to do in this game,” Kagiso Rabada said after SA took some of the sting out of losing a one-day series to Bangladesh for the first time last month.

SA’s innings was given shape by Hashim Amla, whose bigger-hitting opening partner, Morne van Wyk, fretted in frustration for much of his innings.

While Amla deftly chipped and dipped his way to 44 off 55 balls, Van Wyk stepped wide of his off-stump more often than orthodoxy would like for his 58 off 100 deliveries.

The product of their differing methods was a stand of 89, SA’s biggest opening partnership in their past 17 ODIs – a sorry streak that owes much to the now dropped Quinton de Kock’s poor form and goes back to the third match of the series against West Indies in East London on January 21.

A game earlier in that rubber, Amla scored an undefeated 153 and Rilee Rossouw made 128 in a first-wicket effort of 247. Then AB de Villiers shot the lights out with a ridiculous 149 off 44 balls. For all sorts of reasons, SA are no longer that juggernaut.

Van Wyk and Amla were together for 20.1 overs on Wednesday and their runs trickled rather than flowed at 4.41 to the over. That was significantly less bright and busy than the rate of 8.6 achieved by De Villiers and David Miller in the 10 overs needed to hammer 86 for the fourth wicket.

But, given SA’s inconsistency in those 17 ODIs – they won 10 and lost the rest – a steady rather than spectacular start to the innings was to be welcomed. Far better that than New Zealand’s lurch to 18/1, then to 102/2 and 114/3, and then to 141/4, 152/5 and 156/6.

The end of the home side’s time at the crease was another important factor in their success. Farhaan Behardien, whose value to to the team is often doubted, pulled his weight with a nuggety 40 off 28 balls that was ended with the last ball of the innings.

That put SA out of reach of the New Zealanders, whose challenge was dealt a mortal blow when Imran Tahir’s googly rattled into Kane Williamson’s stumps to end a second-wicket stand of 84, one of the innings’ only two partnerships of more than 30.

Twenty balls later the Kiwis’ goose was all but cooked by Miller’s underarm whip from midwicket, which ran out Tom Latham for 54, their top score.

After Dale Steyn and Rabada roared in emboldened by the decent total at their backs, David Wiese and Kyle Abbott did not let the intensity slip, and Tahir twirled and teased his way through 10 testing overs. SA took the last eight wickets for 107 runs.

Job done. And well done.

Practice will not make perfect, says Domingo

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

RUSSELL Domingo’s bum was barely on seat at a press conference in Durban on Tuesday when the elephant in the room cleared its throat.

What had SA cancelled training a day before the series-deciding one-day international against New Zealand at Kingsmead on Wednesday?

“We’ve got a few niggles and I don’t think one practice session is going to make too much of a difference,” Domingo said with the smile of man who knew that bouncer was coming his way.

“We just feel it might be a good day to connect as a team and doing something other than cricket. So we will be spending time together. It won’t be on the cricket field, it will be somewhere else.”

Domingo finished his answer with a question of his own: “Is that OK?”

It was not. Where would the SA squad be if not on the training ground ironing out the kinks that helped New Zealand level the series with an eight-wicket win in Potchefstroom on Sunday?

“That’s for the team’s information,” Domingo said tersely.

At least two of those kinks would not be resolved by any amount of practice – JP Duminy’s absence due to the arrival of his daughter and the knee injury that has ruled out Faf du Plessis.

“It’s important to have two or three solid batsmen in our top four, guys who score at a certain strike rate,” Domingo said. “Hashim (Amla) is one of those guys. Faf is the other guy we look to to hold the innings together.

“Rilee (Rossouw) and Hashim played superbly in (Centurion, where SA won the first ODI by 20 runs) and no-one hung around long enough after Hashim got out early in Potchefstroom.

“We need to have someone who is willing to graft through 40 overs. When you only have Hashim who does that consistently it becomes a problem. You’ve got to find the balance between being overly attacking and too defensive. Hashim and Faf have that balance, some of the younger players need to find it.”

What with Morne Morkel also about to become a father and therefore out of the equation and AB de Villiers freshly returned from daddy duty, SA’s dressingroom might feel more like a creche.

And it doesn’t help that SA will be trying on Wednesday to take the edge off the bad memory of their tour to Bangladesh, where they lost a one-day series for the first time last month and then saw six of 10 days of test cricket lost to rain.

“It’s been a bit disjointed, having three one-dayers (in Bangladesh) then two test matches rained off and a couple of T20s (in a shared series against New Zealand), now three one-dayers again, and there’ve been a few babies born and chopping and changing with non-availability.

“We haven’t got that continuity yet, we haven’t found that recipe yet. New Zealand have just come off nice tours in England and Zimbabwe where they played together as a unit. We haven’t had that yet since the World Cup.”

Translation: stability can’t be gained in the nets. Damn straight – the XI that played in Potch on Sunday shows six changes from the one that did duty in the first ODI against Bangladesh not quite seven weeks ago.

Whichever way you spin it, that’s no day at the beach.

Pitched battle awaits between Ashwin and SA batsmen

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

THABO Mbeki was less than a year into his tenure as president when SA’s batsmen exploded the myth that they struggle against spin bowling and on slow pitches.

That was in March 2000 in only their second test series in India, when they won both matches. But, when SA tour India this season, they will be under the spin spotlight once more.

Not, however, because of what their batsmen can’t do. Rather, because of what a particular Indian bowler can do.

His mother calls him Ravichandran. Cricket calls him Ashwin. And, after two tests of India’s series in Sri Lanka, he is shaping up as the fulcrum on which the rubber will turn.

Ashwin took the new ball in the second innings in Colombo, where India won by 278 runs on Monday, and with it 5/42. That performance put the off-spinner on 17 wickets at an average of 16.35 from the 87 overs he has bowled in the two tests.

Even Rangana Herath, the master of slow left arm bowling who tied SA’s batsmen in knots at Kingsmead in December 2011, when he claimed match figures of 9/128, hasn’t been able to top Ashwin: Herath has bowled 21 more overs in this series but taken six fewer wickets.

Ashwin has snared his victims with masterful control of flight, veering drift, enough turn, and superb catching by his teammates.

He was superbly backed on Monday by Virat Kohli, who showed an approach to captaincy at least as aggressive as his batting by peppering Ashwin’s fields with close catchers. Kohli’s reward was his first win in five tests as India’s skipper.

SA will doubtless do their homework on the Indians before their test series starts in Mohali on November 5. Just as doubtlessly, they will spend more time discussing what to do about Ashwin than most of India’s other bowlers – not least because Ashwin has played just one test against SA.

That was the drawn Wanderers match of December 2013, when he went wicketless in 42 overs. Those days, it would seem, are gone.

SA will also focus their analysis on Kohli, who will be bent on earning the support of his compatriots in what will be his first home series as MS Dhoni’s successor.

India’s handsome win was their first success in the format in more than a year and perfectly timed to bolster their confidence ahead of their engagement with SA.

Lord’s in July last year was the where and when of India’s previous win. They lost their next five tests – against England and Australia – then drew three against the Aussies and Bangladesh. However, it was back to their losing ways in Galle in the first test of their current series.

And now this convincing victory over the Lankans. The deciding test starts on Friday but the manner of India’s win on Monday tells all who will listen that they are back to their bristling best.

Led by Lokesh Rahul’s century, 50s by Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Wriddhiman Saha, and leg spinner Amit Mishra’s haul of 4/43, they earned a first innings lead of 87 runs.

Another century, this time by Ajinkya Rahane, helped set Sri Lanka a target of 413. The home side, perhaps distracted by the fuss and bother of Kumar Sangakkara’s last test, sank like a lead submarine for 134.

Four of Ashwin’s victims were members of Sri Lanka’s top six: he is no wrapper up of tails. SA, meanwhile, are no klutzes against spin. A pitched battle awaits.

Corporatised cricket cake leaves crumbs for smaller centres

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

TOILETS clean? Check. Enough beer in the fridges? Check. Jumping castle nice and plump? Check. “We’re busy with the last-minute runaround, but I think we’re ready,” Heinrich Strydom, the chief executive of North West Cricket, said three days before Sunday’s second one-day international between SA and New Zealand.

All good. But the cricketminded folk of Potchefstroom should have taken a long look at the men in green and gold: it could be a while before they see them in action again.

In future, the national team will be confined to the country’s five highest ranked venues. Places like Potch, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, East London, Paarl and Benoni are unlikely to make that list.

But they all boast grounds where SA have established a relationship with their supporter base. In fact, cricket has set itself apart from sports like rugby and football by taking the team to smaller centres.

Those days are numbered thanks to cricket’s growing corporatisation. “It forms part of a new dispensation announced by Cricket SA (CSA) which is geared to maximise income generation by only allocating internationals to be hosted by the main five stadiums in SA,” the WP Cricket Association said in a press release.

But does that threaten the emotional bond South Africans who do not live in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Centurion or Port Elizabeth like to think they have with the team who say they play for them?

“We were sold out (on Wednesday), which means people here are hungry for cricket,” Strydom said. “I’d like to provide the public with more international cricket but I understand CSA’s position.”

So do those who run the glitzier venues. Dolphins chief executive Pete de Wet was quoted as saying in a press release detailing recent upgrades at Kingsmead, “… in the light of CSA now grading the top five stadiums annually and awarding international fixtures accordingly, we hope that the stadium improvements … will contribute to even more international cricket coming to Durban”.

The catch 22 is that cricket in KwaZulu-Natal is more moneyed than in Griqualand West. What chance does Kimberley stand of buying its way into the big five?

“We didn’t want to sit back and mope, so we’ve approached local government for assistance,” Eugene Jacobs, the chief executive of the Griqualand West Cricket Board, said.

“Obviously the public want to see the Proteas, but financially we benefit from the new model. From a cricket administrators’ point of view we’re very happy. But from the public perspective it is a concern.”

All that said, England will play a one-day international in Bloemfontein on February 3 while the lesser lights  among touring teams could yet find themselves in East London.

And it’s not as if big cricket goes there regularly: Sunday’s game was only the 75th of the 466 home games SA have played that has not been staged in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth or Centurion.

But that slice of the cake – just 1.61% thick – seems set to get even skinnier.

Corporatised cricket snubs smaller centres

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

TOILETS clean? Check. Enough beer in the fridges? Check. Jumping castle nice and plump? Check. “We’re busy with the last-minute runaround, but I think we’re ready,” Heinrich Strydom, the chief executive of North West Cricket, said three days before Sunday’s second one-day international between SA and New Zealand.

All good. But the cricketminded folk of Potchefstroom should have taken a long look at the men in green and gold: it could be a while before they see them in action again.

In future, the national team will be confined to the country’s five highest ranked venues. Places like Potch, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, East London, Paarl and Benoni are unlikely to make that list.

But they all boast grounds where SA have established a relationship with their supporter base. In fact, cricket has set itself apart from sports like rugby and football by taking the team to smaller centres.

Those days are numbered thanks to cricket’s growing corporatisation. “It forms part of a new dispensation announced by Cricket SA (CSA) which is geared to maximise income generation by only allocating internationals to be hosted by the main five stadiums in SA,” the WP Cricket Association said in a press release.

But does that threaten the emotional bond South Africans who do not live in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Centurion or Port Elizabeth like to think they have with the team who say they play for them?

“We were sold out (on Wednesday), which means people here are hungry for cricket,” Strydom said. “I’d like to provide the public with more international cricket but I understand CSA’s position.”

So do those who run the glitzier venues. Dolphins chief executive Pete de Wet was quoted as saying in a press release detailing recent upgrades at Kingsmead, “… in the light of CSA now grading the top five stadiums annually and awarding international fixtures accordingly, we hope that the stadium improvements … will contribute to even more international cricket coming to Durban”.

The catch 22 is that cricket in KwaZulu-Natal is more moneyed than in Griqualand West. What chance does Kimberley stand of buying its way into the big five?

“We didn’t want to sit back and mope, so we’ve approached local government for assistance,” Eugene Jacobs, the chief executive of the Griqualand West Cricket Board, said.

“Obviously the public want to see the Proteas, but financially we benefit from the new model. From a cricket administrators’ point of view we’re very happy. But from the public perspective it is a concern.”

All that said, England will play a one-day international in Bloemfontein on February 3 while the lesser lights  among touring teams could yet find themselves in East London.

And it’s not as if big cricket goes there regularly: Sunday’s game was only the 75th of the 466 home games SA have played that has not been staged in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth or Centurion.

That sliver of the cake is just 1.61% thick. Now, it is set to get even skinnier.

The passion of Mr T: a rare and wonderful thing

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

NEW Zealand are plodding through a wintry vacuum devoid of relevance and interest on their tour of SA. But no such cynicism will rise from the throats or bubble in the blood of the good folk of Potchefstroom, where the second one-day international will be played on Sunday.

Cricket in small towns sizzles with soul that stadiums in cities cannot hope to capture. And the peeps in Potch should know that, out on the field, at least one heart will beat as one with theirs.

“If I mistakingly drop my cap, I pick it up and kiss it,” Imran Tahir said. “This (playing for SA) is the biggest thing in my life. I have a lot of respect, whatever format I play.”

Respek, Mr T. And thank you. In these days of cricket veering between moneyball and dodgyball, a player who plays this silly game for the sake of playing it as well as he can – and bugger everything else – is a rare and wonderful thing.

That AB de Villiers knows, as he said after SA won the first match of the series in Centurion on Wednesday, he can count on Tahir to control the pace of a game “pumps my heart”, the leg spinner said. “I want to be the guy he can trust.”

Tahir was that guy in Centurion, ending a century stand by removing Kiwi kingpin Kane Williamson and then dismissing the dangerous Colin Munro.

On a surface that is expected to be less friendly to bowlers than even Potchefstroom’s perfectly platteland pitches, Tahir’s vexing variation, taut temperament, nuggety nous and, most of all, his soaring, singing spirit could be the difference between SA clinching the series and New Zealand levelling it heading into the third game in Durban on Wednesday.

Of course, the last time SA were a victory away from winning a one-day rubber, they flopped against a bunch of palookas. Twice.

And New Zealand are not Bangladesh. Not for nothing are the men in black often described as flinty. Historically, star players have they few. So how much can it matter to them that Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor, Trent Boult, Tim Southee are not in the mix, and even that Martin Guptill could be ruled out with a wrist injury?

But none of that matters to Tahir: “I’ve been playing cricket for quite a long time all over the world and all the situations I have been in have given me confidence. I love challenges.”

Does he ever, and a challenge he shall have on Sunday. If he rises to it, with his passion on parade as it always is, Potch will kiss him.