TELFORD VICE, Newlands
IS anything about SA still what it was less than six months ago when they went to Bangladesh as the undisputed heavyweight champions of test cricket?
The answer came on a hot afternoon at Newlands on Sunday, a second or two after Ben Stokes had heaved a delivery from Kagiso Rabada high into a cloudless sky.
Mid-on positioned himself under the descending ball. He steadied. He cupped his hands … He dropped the catch.
Mid-on was AB de Villiers.
That’s how bad things are. Cricket’s finest fielder is making a mess of catches his not quite six-month-old son will be taking before the next New Year test.
To point out that De Villiers recovered brilliantly to run out Stokes with a direct hit on the stumps is to prove the point.
Stokes knew, like all of us thought we did, that De Villiers does not drop catches as easy as the one he had offered.
So much so that Stokes had all but stopped mid-pitch. De Villiers was under it. He would be out. Game over.
But De Villiers is no longer the wonderful player he was just a few months ago. Neither are any of the remaining giants whose shoulders SA have stood on so sturdily.
At his press conference on Friday, one of them, Hashim Amla, looked like a captain sitting in a chair on a burning deck.
The man who, famously, does not sweat enough to change his batting gloves in the course of batting for three days to score a triple century was twitchy with anxiety, even admonishing two photographers for interrupting his eye contact with a reporter whose question he was answering.
In the past, Amla has always been the iceberg. Now, he is the Titanic.
Why wouldn’t he be? Not only had Amla presided over his team’s thrashing at Kingsmead, which followed a thrashing in India, he had also been undermined by the involvement in the squad of his predecessor, Graeme Smith, in a role that neither Amla nor Smith have been able to define. Cricket SA (CSA) haven’t bothered to do so.
The same Smith, mind, who told the public what he really thought of his former teammates in Durban: “There’s a lot of uncertainty in that team. It’s in the batting line-up. It’s in the head now, it’s in the mental side of the game that they need to pull together. They need leadership to be strong and make good decisions for the team.”
You would be forgiven for thinking Smith’s return to the fold is nothing more nor less than the suits getting someone who is outside the tent pissing in to step inside the same tent.
But, if that is so, who can blame the suits? Amla is among SA’s greatest ever players, but if he stays in the job much longer he is destined to be remembered as one of their worst ever captains.
That would be grossly unfair because a large chunk of Smith’s success as SA’s captain was built on the run machine that is – or was – Amla.
Too often, Amla’s decisions do not make enough sense for even his staunchest supporters to weave an explanatory theory around.
As much as he has a responsibility to ride out the storm, he also has a duty to realise the truth that is smacking him upside the head: captaincy is not for him. Let someone else do it for the good of his team and his own game.
De Villiers is, at best, a square player in the round hole of captaincy. JP Duminy is freshly dropped. Faf du Plessis would be a good choice – had he not gone 11 test innings without a half-century.
Dean Elgar, with six matches as captain of first-class teams under his belt, is the closest thing SA have to a reasonable choice.
Russell Domingo, too, is under pressure. He is the only SA coach to take a team past the first hurdle in World Cup knockout matches and the only one to win a one-day series in India. All good, but he needs to stop this bleeding now.
Much has been made, often by racist reactionaries, of Domingo’s lack of a playing record. But what if some of those reactionaries are in his dressingroom? Do his players trust and respect him enough?
It is, of course, up to CSA’s board to clean up this mess considering they created it by sending Domingo and De Villiers onto the field with a team not of their choosing and told them to win the 2015 World Cup semi-final anyway. What the hell, why not.
If the suits don’t give a damn, why should the players, the coaches, or anyone else?