Leading Edge: Letting go of greatness

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Nottingham

CRICKETERS spend a great deal of their time not playing cricket. From being confined to various forms of transport for too many hours, to endless meetings and even more endless training sessions, to avoiding terminal boredom in hotels, to finding ways to get through rainy days and nights stuck in dressingrooms with no access to electronic or other conversations with the world outside — thanks for that, match-fixers — or a beer, their professional lives are about a lot more than what happens on the field.
But, like the nonna in the television commercial who is wheeled away into a cupboard, out of sight, out of mind, once she has cooked a pot of pasta, cricketers exist in the public consciousness only when they are playing cricket.
People who wonder what has prompted a stroke gone squiff or a bowling spell straight out a bad hair day can’t know that the player concerned spent too much of the night before arguing with a faraway partner on Skype about how many days to spend in which holiday destination, or — increasingly these days — trying to put a child to sleep.
Not that the import of all non-playing moments is as explicable. Some are downright subtle. Like the picture that painted itself as South Africa’s squad warmed up on the Trent Bridge outfield on Thursday for their last training session before the second test.
“Feel the energy,” some creature of consciousness — probably a member of the shoo-wah Cape Town contingent — felt it necessary to say as the players, spread out in a long line, waltzed a metre or two and rotated their hips balletically as they went.
On the extreme right, having opened and almost imperceptibly bigger gap towards the player to his immediate right than the rest, waltzed JP Duminy. He was maybe a quarter-beat out of kilter with everyone else, a touch out of tune.
He was also, by then, out of South Africa’s team. And it showed. He wouldn’t have wanted it to, of course, and Faf du Plessis said all the right things about how Duminy was worth much more than the runs he scored. Or, pertinently, hasn’t scored.
And you know what? It’s fine. We know JP Duminy can bat at this level. At least, we know he could. Whether he will regain that ability is unanswerable.
We also know that he has been in indifferent form for too long to stay in the test XI. Whether that has happened because he is a senior player or because he isn’t white is like asking Americans whether Hillary or Trump would make a better president: it depends entirely on who you ask.
We know, too, that Hashim Amla’s name will be spoken with reverence and with those of the very best to have picked up a bat in the cause of scoring runs for South Africa, and for the greater good of reminding his compatriots along with the rest of world that this country’s cricketers are not all cut from the same cultural cloth.
And we know that the last instance of an Amla innings changing the course of a test, going into Trent Bridge, was his 201 against England at Newlands in January 2016.
Do we know whether Dale Steyn, the finest fast bowler of the age, feted by friends and foes alike as a bloody good bloke, will be back from the shoulder he broke, for the second time, in November? No. But we’re starting to get used to not having him around.
Greatness in cricketers — proper greatness, not the stuff of commentator prattle — is double-edged. While it’s there for all to enjoy it’s a wonder of life itself. But once it fades it’s a source of anxiety: whatever will we do without the greats?
That’s exactly what was said when Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis batted or bowled their last for South Africa.
And here South Africa are, with a team not as strong as they used to be but not as bad as they were in India last November.
Greatness? Let it go, people. It’s OK. 
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