Skipper Smith SA’s top target

TMG Digital


TELFORD VICE, Perth

DALE Steyn’s mood was as bright as the neon sunlight that gleamed off his mirrored shades as he swanned about the banks of the Swan River in Perth on Sunday.

The pace ace posed for selfies selflessly and signed autographs automatically, and earned probably the biggest roar of the lot when members of the Australian and South African teams were introduced to the crowd gathered at the launch of this week’s test series.

But, nice guy or not, he was still Dale Steyn.

“I want to make life difficult for everyone,” he said when asked if Mitchell Marsh, who has reached 50 only once in his last 22 completed test innings, would be singled out for special attention when the first test starts at the WACA on Thursday.

Then he took a leaf out of the Aussies’ own playbook by emphasising the importance of making life especially difficult for the captain, in this case Steven Smith.

“I think the captain is the main guy,” Steyn said. “So if you can cut off the head of the snake the rest of the body tends to fall.

“We’ve done that in the past. We’ve tried to attack the captain because he is the leader.

“Cause a bit of chaos there and sometimes it does affect the rest of the guys.”

Says who? Says history. At least, according to Steyn.

“Look at great players like Steve Waugh – he stands out. I don’t think many people can name a team underneath him but you remember Steve Waugh.

“The moment you can get hold of the captain … the rest of the players, in my opinion, rely heavily on him.”

Some might also remember that other Waugh, Mark, as well as Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, all of whom played for Australia under Steve Waugh.

But we get the picture Steyn was trying to paint.

In case we didn’t he used his metaphorical brush to slap on another layer.

“(The captain) leads the ship so when you pull the plug on it and he’s holding it you can sink it.

“It’s not very easy but there’s a way to sink it.”

Steyn puts his money where his mouth is, what with former Australian captain Michael Clarke at the head of the queue of batsmen he has dismissed most in tests.

Clarke was in Steyn’s pocket nine times in the 14 matches they played against each other, though Clarke was captain in only four of them.

Subjecting the skipper to serious scrutiny is a trick the Aussies have turned on SA too many times for it not to be noticed.

Mitchell Johnson had Graeme Smith’s number more than any other bowler – nine times in 11 tests – while Shane Warne was the least favourite bowler for Shaun Pollock and Hansie Cronje, dismissing them six and eight times in 13 and 12 tests respectively.

Then again, Johnson and Warne were exceptional bowlers who have many of the game’s best batsmen high on their personal hit lists.

Smith, under pressure after leading his team to a 3-0 drubbing in a test series in Sri Lanka in August and a 5-0 one-day hiding in SA earlier in October, will not need reminding that Steyn is in the same league as Johnson and Warne.

But Steyn, nice guy that he is, will be sure to do so anyway.

Pressure on WACA to perk up

TMG Print


TELFORD VICE, Perth

TO the list of people from whom much will be expected if the first test between Australia and SA in Perth is to live up to its billing, add that of Matt Page.

Who?

Like the Australians who hadn’t a clue who Dane Vilas was when SA’s reserve wicketkeeper was introduced to the crowd at the launch of the series on Sunday, South Africans would be forgiven for not knowing a thing about Page.

But he is an important part of the first test equation as the groundsman at the WACA – the venue once famed and feared as the place fast bowlers’ preferred to heaven itself.

Bouncers at the WACA don’t boom quite as high and handsome as they did when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson unleashed them in the days when there were as few restrictions on bowlers as there were on the size of their moustaches.

Those conditions have ebbed, and they reached a low there in November when Australia declared on 559/9 and New Zealand replied with 624 in a test that seemed doomed to be drawn from the first hour.

David Warner and Ross Taylor scored double centuries and there were four other mere tons.

It seems it was all too much for Mitchell Johnson, who took 1/157 in the first innings and promptly retired after the duly drawn match.

But memories of the WACA are not whacko for a South African squad who have known nothing but success there.

“Eight years ago we won here and a couple of years ago we won here again so it’s nice to come here and have that feeling that you’ve done well here before, regardless of the pitch,” Dale Steyn said on Sunday.

Steyn was part of the SA squad that started their triumphant 2008-09 series in Perth, as well as the side that clinched the 2012-13 rubber in the city.

For him the WACA was wonderful.

“Whether it’s going to be flying through or hitting the ankles it doesn’t really matter,” Steyn said.

“To walk into a venue you feel comfortable with always feels exciting so we’re looking forward to it.”

Steyn’s enthusiasm for the ground was not confined to bowling to opposition batsmen.

“The nets always seem to do more than the middle so hopefully we’ll make some of the batsmen jump around,” he said.

The first Sheffield Shield match of the season at the WACA this week yielded two declarations, three centuries and a first innings of 505 by South Australia, who batted second – and won by 10 wickets.

“The Western Australia boys who played on it said there was a little bit there for bat and ball,” Josh Hazlewood said on Sunday.

“Last year was a bit disappointing and hopefully there is a bit more pace and bounce and it gets back to its traditional way it usually plays.”

WACA groundsman Page said he would help that happen by leaving more grass on the pitch than he did last season.

But the cooler temperatures that have visited Perth in recent days could prove to be a speedbump.

“To get the hard, fast pacy wickets that are expected here we just need the hot weather to bake the surface,” Page was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.

“It is what it is weather-wise; we just get on with it and we’ll produce the best possible wicket we can under the circumstances.

“We’re pretty confident it will be a good surface, even if it doesn’t have the real fly-through pace and bounce that you expect at the WACA.”

Worse yet, neither squad harbours a fast bowler who boasts a monster moustache.

SA culture club breeds success

TMG Digital


TELFORD VICE, Perth

THE season has barely started but SA are already having far more fun than they did in 2015-16.

Then, they lost five of their eight tests in series against India and England.

Now, they are going into a test series against Australia on the wings of the confidence earned by beating New Zealand 1-0 in August and, in particular, the 5-0 hiding they handed their Aussies in a one-day rubber in SA earlier in October.

What has turned things around so successfully?

“It’s the culture inside the team,” Dale Steyn said on Sunday.

“We had this camp two or three months ago where we got everything sorted out again.

“We seemed to be playing for no reason and things can drift along when you don’t really know ‘what are we doing?’

“So we re-set our goals of what we wanted to achieve and where we wanted to go and made some short-term goals and some long-term goals and we’re starting to tick those boxes again.

“I felt like up until the 2015 World Cup, we had planned up to that point and then everyone kind of just disappeared and we didn’t quite have a goal or anything in mind.

“We knew we wanted to go to Bangladesh (last July, when rain ruined the test series and the home side won the ODIs), but did we really know what we wanted to do? – no, we didn’t.

“We sat down for a couple of days, put that all together and dissected it and decided that this is what we’re going to do and we’re starting to tick those boxes again.

“Obviously we see this tour on that list, and if we can tick that box and win this series then we’re definitely going in the right direction.”

So well have SA righted themselves that they have beaten New Zealand and Australia without the injured AB de Villiers, who will also be missing in action in the test series that starts in Perth on Thursday.

“You’re always going to have big players coming out of the team for injuries or some new guy stepping in,” Steyn said.

“I remember when we came here eight years ago Ashwell (Prince) was a major player for us and he broke his finger.

“JP (Duminy) stepped up, hit the winning runs in Perth and went on to score 166 in Melbourne.

“I think the culture in the side is one that when a new player steps into the side we want him to automatically throw out those big scores or put out those big performances with the ball.

“That’s what we really focus on. When you lose a player like AB it’s a massive loss but we saw that a player like Rilee (Rossouw) got his chance … (in first ODI against Australia) and ended up being man of the series.”

Rossouw, a squad replacement for De Villiers, initially cracked the nod when Hashim Amla was ruled out through illness.

He scored half-centuries in the first two matches and hammered a century in the last game – a stunning repayment of faith that earned him selection in the test squad.

“He wasn’t even supposed to play in the series, so we really focus on the culture and how welcome we make players feel when they step into that side so they can perform at their best,” Steyn said.

SA’s home from home: Australia

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

PERTH is a strange place for a range of reasons, not least as the setting for the opening act of a test series involving South Africa.

It is an undeniably Australian city – in what other country might you stumble into a bar called “The Lucky Shag” – but if you venture north to the outlying Clarkson you will find “Die Gereformeerde Evangeliese Kerk van Australie”. And that’s only the original: there’s another congregation in Palmyra.

Lucky shags? There’s probably more of them around the place, too.

But, all jokes aside about the sacred and the profane, Perth is also where Australia and South Africa will be this week to prepare for the first test at the WACA on Thursday.

Which is puzzling. South Africa have not lost any of the three tests they have played there. Indeed the WACA is where they struck the first blow in their successful 2008-09 series, and where they clinched the 2012-13 rubber.

Why would Cricket Australia put the first test in Perth rather than in, say, damp, chilly Hobart – where South Africa have played five one-day internationals but no tests, and where the second match of the series will be contested?

And from there it’s on to Adelaide, the scene of the famous fightback inspired by Faf du Plessis’s century on debut in 2012-13. Surely that’s also not too clever.

Not that Australia have many places to hide from South Africa at home these days.

If you had to ask for a show of hands in South Africa’s dressingroom to find those who have been on the losing side in a test series in Australia only two would go up: those belonging to Neil McKenzie and Charl Langeveldt, the batting and bowling coaches.

AB de Villiers would have been on that shortlist were it not for the surgically repaired elbow that has kept him at home, but none of South Africa’s other players know the particular pain of putting up with a bunch of triumphant Aussies in their own backyard.

South Africa’s hosts have been generous in another way by allowing two tour matches before the start of the series and another during.

Getting the Saffers to agree to play with the pink ball was part of that decision, but still.

That said, from the distance of the scorecard things didn’t go according to plan for the visitors on their last day of preparation under match conditions against a South Australia XI in Glenelg on Friday.

Not to worry, left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj said after South Africa’s bowlers conceded 435/8: “The scoreboard is not a reflection of what we’ve worked on.

“We just wanted to execute our plan as we would do in the test matches to come. I wouldn’t worry too much about what we saw here – we had a plan in mind and we’ve executed it as best we could.”

You know a team is getting somewhere when even the uncapped kids don’t blink at spinning that kind of flimsy wordplay.

But such is South Africa’s assuredness going into the series that Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada didn’t bother bowling on Friday. That’s confidence of an Australian order.

Or is it, finally, South African self-belief?

What SA need to get right in Australia

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

A lot changed in South Africa between 1910 and 2005, but not the fact that when their cricket team ventured over the horizon and far away to play test series against Australia they did not win.

They drew three of them – on the bounce between 1952 and 1993 – but lost the other five.

The Aussies, it seemed, were always too cocky, two steps ahead, and too good.

But not in 2008-09. Nor in 2012-13. South Africa won both those series, and handsomely.

What, then, are the differences between the South African teams who have lost in Australia and those who have won?

Leadership

Many are capable of captaining a cricket team, far fewer of leading it. 

When Graeme Smith first took South Africa to Australia, in 2005-06, he had scored 10 test centuries and captained his team in 31 tests. Had he led? Yes: in England in 2003, when he scored double centuries in consecutive tests.

But leading in England is different from leading in Australia, where going out to bat with a broken hand is worth a century in respect. Smith, famously, did so in Sydney in January 2009. Australia won the match but Smith won hearts and minds – and with them the series. That’s leadership.

Confidence

Gary Kirsten admitted last week that the South African teams he played for were “intimidated” by Australia. Contrast that with Neil McKenzie’s assertion this week that “most of the guys are worried abut losing their wicket, not of the fear factor – that’s how it probably should be”.

Damn straight. Australians are masters at making opponents think themselves out of the game. JP Duminy refused to let that happen in Melbourne in December 2008, where he scored 166 and South Africa clinched the series.

Continuity

Duminy scored one in his first innings of that series, in Perth, where Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers made half-centuries. In the second innings Smith and De Villiers banked hundreds, Duminy came up with an unbeaten 50, and South Africa won by six wickets.

In Melbourne Smith passed 50 in both innings, Neil McKenzie scored 59 not out and Dale Steyn, bless him, made 76.

Gone were the days when Kallis or Kirsten stood tall amid the debris of another failed innings.

Consistency is handy, but there is no defence against the continuity of quality performances from different players.

Cohesion

A cricket side is, of course, less a team than a collection of individuals fighting for the same cause. Sometimes they will be unified. Other times they will be in competition with each other, often in cutthroat fashion.

Less rarely than we might think players in the same team cannot stand the sight of each other.

South Africa have fallen into this dangerous trap less than other teams.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to guard against it happening, especially against opponents who know only too well how to divide and rule.

Finishing

This was the sensational match of the tour, the South Africans suffering defeat by 89 runs when everyone thought they had the game in their hands.”

That was Wisden on the Melbourne test that started on New Year’s Eve, 1910. But much the same could have been written about many South African performances in Australia down the ages.

Not so at the WACA in December 2012, when South Africa turned a first-innings lead of 62 into a target of 632 thanks to innings of 196 and 169 by Hashim Amla and De Villiers.

When you’ve tied those kangaroos down sport, make sure they stay that way. 

Leading Edge: SA’s food for thought in Aussie kitchen

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

EVEN the best restaurants get things wrong, nevermind those who cannot be counted among the best.

At one of the latter, a spot on Cape Town’s Mouille Point, customers were amazed to be told the place had run out of bread. They knew of at least two excellent – and open – bakeries within three minutes’ walk.

A few months ago in that city that good manners forgot, Joburg, an Illovo cafe manager accused a patron of counterfeiting for daring to pay part of the bill with a stack of newly-minted R5 coins that had been spat out as change from a nearby parking machine.

And try getting decent service anywhere in Durban in December. Perhaps all the competent waitrons have gone home to Zimbabwe for Christmas. Perhaps all the rest think they’ve been crucified. Perhaps they should be.

Right now Faf du Plessis and Russell Domingo run a restaurant that got things badly wrong the last time we visited for a proper meal.

That wasn’t for the fun but frivolous fandango that was the one-day series against Australia. What was 5-0 and all that? A palate cleanser.

How we needed one after last season, when little was well done and even medium was rare. Five out of eight tests went vrot in the faulty fridge of defeat, the No. 1 ranking was burnt to a crisp No. 7, and the star chef – Dale Steyn – kept lopping off his fingertips with his cook’s knife.

But here’s the thing with restaurants that get things wrong: what matters is how they fix them.

Had the Mouille Pointlessnesses said, “We’re all out of bread but someone’s fetching a piping hot batch of loaves as we speak”, or had the Joburg jerk come back from the brink of bumptiousness to say, “Actually, what shiny new coins! And thanks for all the change”, things would have been fixed and the customers they miffed might have been inclined to return.

Not that will be quite so straightforward for Du Plessis and Domingo and the rest of the South African squad who, from Thursday, will feel the heat of the kitchen that is a test series in Australia.

They have, of course, started to fix things by slicing and dicing New Zealand in their test series in August.

But roasting a couple of kiwi birds is a damn sight less difficult than getting a kangaroo onto the spit, much less cooking it properly.

Everybody is on the same side in a decent restaurant. The customers want to eat good food. The kitchen wants to prepare good food. The waitrons want to serve that good food well. The management want the staff to sell and serve good food well enough to make those customers want to come back.

That’s not the case in a cricket match, where one team’s meat is the other’s poison.

Nevertheless South Africa have a chance to fix what went wrong. Best they don’t spoil the broth.

Domingo keeps his job, but questions will be asked

TMG Digital


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

SA’S results this season have prompted Cricket SA (CSA) to extend Russell Domingo’s contract as coach of the national team.

Oddly, CSA have done so in terms of their review of domestic cricket and without waiting for the outcome of the ongoing review of the national team’s performance.

Victories in a test series against New Zealand in August and a one-day rubber against Australia in October would seem to have taken the edge of SA’s performance last season, when they lost five and won only one of the eight tests they played against India and England.

“Naturally the performances of the Proteas was a key factor in the board’s unanimous decision,” CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat was quoted as saying in a release.

“The recent 1-0 … test series win against New Zealand and the impressive 5-0 win in the … ODI series against world champions Australia, resulting in us being the first nation to achieve a clean sweep against them, were noted.

“In addition the excellent Proteas discipline and the positive culture throughout the coaching team, the player leadership group and the rest of the players were viewed as exemplary.”

Domingo’s current contract expires at the end of April, a month after their tour to New Zealand.

The extension keeps him in the job until the end of SA’s tour to England in August, which means he will also be in charge for the imminent test series in Australia, Sri Lanka’s tour to SA, the New Zealand tour and the Champions Trophy in England in June.

“As part of the domestic cricket review we are currently evaluating the entire coaching framework in SA and the board believed the best approach at present was to extend the tenure of Mr Domingo until the end of the England tour in 2017,” Lorgat was quoted as saying.

“This decision is final and is not dependent on the national team review which is currently in progress.”

That is sure to spark theories that CSA secured Domingo’s future to protect him from the national team review’s recommendations.

He has been in charge for 136 matches across all formats of which SA have won 75 and lost 50.

Domingo became the first SA coach to win a test series in Sri Lanka since 1993 in July 2014, and in March last year he became the only coach to take SA past the first knockout hurdle at a World Cup when they won their quarter-final against Sri Lanka.

But SA have won only nine of the 25 tests they have played since Domingo took charge.

Before last season’s disappointments SA had been on top of the rankings for all but three of the preceding 39 months.

They spiralled to No. 7 and are now fifth.