How to fix SA’s broken batting

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Manchester

IT’S the batting, stupid. Not that you needed to be clever to see that was the most broken piece of South Africa’s test campaign in England. The clever bit is fixing it. Here are the broad strokes of how to do that:

1. Prepare better batting pitches

That will mean removing the fast bowlers from their usual position at the top of South African cricket’s food chain, which will be easy enough for the Bangladesh series in September. Decent fast bowling on typical, not tweaked, South African pitches should keep the Bangladeshis under pressure. And good luck producing greentops in Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein anyway.

The real test will come against India. The temptation to exact retribution for the diabolical surfaces South Africa were given in their series in India in November 2015 will be intense, but the resolve to rise above all that for the greater good of rebuilding the confidence of the batting unit must prevail.

2. Pick Aiden Markram to open the batting

Just as there were good reasons to pick Stephen Cook, there were good reasons to pick Heino Kuhn — and to not pick Markram in England. The selections of Cook and Kuhn weren’t mistakes, but they were part of a plan that did not work. Cook and Kuhn are the past. Markram is the future, a future that is hurtling towards South Africa at a speed higher than they would like.

It’s part of South Africa’s unhappy present that their biggest opening stand in eight innings in England was 21, and that the longest Kuhn and Dean Elgar spent at the crease together was nine overs.

They were each dismissed four times, but Elgar scored 50, 80 and 136 while Kuhn reached 20 only twice and never made it as far as 35.

So, bring on Markram. But if he is picked for the Bangladesh series and makes a pile of runs, let’s not get too excited: it’s only Bangladesh.

3. As Hashim himself will tell you, Amla is only human. So is AB de Villiers

“At times we competed with the bat and England also misfired but there was always one guy that took the game away from us and we didn’t have that one guy,” Faf du Plessis said.

“That guy” was Amla, whose place in the pantheon is assured. But he scored 18 more runs in this whole series than he did in his first innings in England in 2012. He was also five years younger.

For some, “that guy” was De Villiers. “I would love AB to play – we all know how good he is and we missed him, but we’ve spent too much time talking about when he is going to come back,” Du Plessis said.

“The hope of him coming back is something we need to move past. We need to find someone else who fulfills that role.

“I don’t expect him to come back into the test team.”

It’s not easy for a cricket culture that still hankers after Jacques Kallis — who retired from test cricket more than three years ago, for goodness’ sake — to accept that age is more than just a number.

Get it already, people: nothing and no-one lasts forever.

4. Now — and for the foreseeable future — batting at No. 4: Temba Bavuma

“Your number four needs to play the way the team needs him to play,” Du Plessis said.

With South Africa often in trouble when he took guard, Bavuma did that in spades. Along with Elgar and Amla, he was the only South African to face more than 300 balls in the series and he was third among the run-scorers.

“I love what I see in Temba’s character; he’s going to be an important leader for us in the team,” Du Plessis said. “I’m a big believer that, if you see that in somebody, you give them responsibility to bring the best out in them.

“When he batted at four he was our best player in really challenging conditions and that showed me that he has the capability of being South Africa’s No. 4 for a long time.”

Amen. And when the players around Bavuma have sorted themselves out, he can focus on adding aggression to his all-day approach.

5. Remember when South Africa would refuse to be bowled out?

Regarding batting all day, South Africa last did that on day two of the second test at Trent Bridge.

That means they bowled for at least part of the last 11 days of the series. Not once in the four tests could they so much as get through a session without losing a wicket.

“There’s a lot of inexperience in our batting line-up,” Russell Domingo said. “If you take [Joe] Root and [Alastair] Cook out of that England line-up, they are losing two massive players.

“It’s like us losing AB de Villiers and Vernon Philander — they are two big players to replace.

“Hopefully in time that type of quality will come through in our batting line-up.

“At the moment it’s not there.”

Until it is, expect more of what we have seen in England.


Leading Edge: Fasten your seatbelts – a bumpy summer awaits

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Manchester

SOUTH African cricket is not for sissies. The national coach doesn’t know whether he still has a job? Stuff him. Your shiny new T20 tournament is beset by controversy even before the first cheerleader shakes the first pompom? So what.

You can’t find a pair of batsmen who can stick around together for as long as it takes, say, the ANC to make sure they smack each of their MPs upside the head and inform them which way they will vote, with their conscience, of course, in a secret ballot?

Tell them to man the hell up. The batsmen, that is, not the MPs. Although that wouldn’t be bad. Perhaps batsmen and politicians both should woman the hell up, seeing as we can’t seem to get much right in a world controlled from the male side of the gender divide.

Whatever. South Africa’s batsmen need to sort themselves out quickly. Because they will soon be asked the same kind of tough questions they failed to answer acceptably in England.

Not, you would think, by Bangladesh, who will play two tests in South Africa from the end of September. But then India will arrive, followed by Australia.

So South Africa’s batsmen will, by the end of the summer, have faced four of the top five ranked bowlers in the game.

One of them, James Anderson, claimed 20 of their wickets at 14.10 in England. Should India spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin — admittedly unlikely in South African conditions — and Australia fast bowler Josh Hazlewood — far more likely — jam like Jimmy, expect similarly underwhelming results as those achieved in England.

Fasten your seatbelts, cricket lovers. We could be in for a bumpy summer.

And to think, just more than eight months ago, South Africa were leaving Australia with a test series in the bag and a slew of pissed off Channel Nine “reporters” hounding them through airports.

We can have reasonable confidence that what’s gone wrong on the field will be sincerely addressed, because players make their mistakes in public and have to show in the same space that they have learnt their lesson.

Not so the suits, some of whom have made careers out of saying the right thing for all to hear even as they are doing wrong behind closed boardroom doors.

One senior administrator asked the South African reporters gathered in London for the launch of the Global T20 (GT20) on June 19 whether the tournament was “doable”.

Yes, was the consensus. And it remains so — we know from events like the 2009 Indian Premier League (IPL), which was moved to our country at short notice, that Cricket South Africa know how to get things done.

But how those things are done matters, and the 2009 IPL was done improperly enough for CSA to have to fire their then chief executive for breaking the law to hide millions in bonuses.

Not that CSA did so willingly. After months of dodging bullets they were forced to take action when the pressure mounted. Then they wriggled out of restructuring their board as fully as recommended by a subsequent independent investigation.

Are dodgy deals being done around the GT20? We don’t know, but doesn’t it strike you as odd that several of the former players who attended the London launch hadn’t a clue why they were there or what — if any — their role would be in the tournament? And that some of the owners of the franchises unveiled at the launch have not bothered to answer when asked, by reporters who have heard they have pulled out, whether they are still involved?

No wonder Russell Domingo was smiling at Old Trafford on Monday, despite his team having lost another match and the looming probability of losing his job.

Better out than in, hey, coach?

Another day, another donnering

Times Media

TELFORD VICE at Old Trafford

SOUTH Africa’s marathon tour of England ended at on Monday in what has become, for them, the unhappy familiarity of defeat.

The visitors, who played their first match here on May 19, lost the one-day and T20 series, and failed to escape the group stage of the Champions Trophy.

On Monday the test series, too, was tossed onto the scrapheap — England cleaned them up with a day to spare in the fourth match of the series  to complete a 3-1 drubbing.

South Africa, who needed 380 to win, were dismissed for 202 to go down by 177 runs with Moeen Ali claiming 5/69.

The off-spinner took all of his wickets in the space of 40 of his deliveries, his bowling the major factor in South Africa’s death rattle of seven wickets for 39 runs.

The visitors crashed to 40/3 at lunch, lost three more wickets in less than five overs before tea, and their last four  inside six overs of the third session.

South Africa needed 17 balls of the day’s play to end England’s second innings, which resumed on 224/8, at 243.

Morne Morkel claimed both wickets, Stuart Broad caught at point and James Anderson at short leg, to finish with 4/41.

But even in that shard of light there was gloom: the last time South Africa did not bowl on a day in the series was the first day of the second test at Trent Bridge.

It took England 22 balls to open the first crack in the visitors’ defence: Broad found Dean Elgar’s edge and the catch flew to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow.

The struggling Heino Kuhn, his left hamstring heavily strapped and his movement restricted, had insult added to his injury when England’s review after Anderson’s appeal for his wicket — for caught behind — was unsuccessful.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful, but England have wasted a review,” Michael Vaughan said on Test Match Special.

“I mean, it’s Heino Kuhn.”

Four overs later Kuhn proved Vaughan’s point when he steered Anderson to first slip.

What became the last ball before lunch was ruled, with technology’s help, to have grazed Temba Bavuma’s outside edge and earned a wicket, caught behind, for Toby Roland-Jones.

For all but the last 29 balls of the 36 overs bowled after lunch, South Africa had reasons to be not quite cheerful but not entirely despondent.

South Africa were 163/3, or still a long way from victory or even safety but significantly better off they had been at lunch.

Faf du Plessis had joined Hashim Amla, and stability came with him. But, with the partnership worth 123, Moeen trapped Amla in front for 83.

In his next over Moeen induced a rash drive from Quinton de Kock that was caught in the slips.

Theunis de Bruyn, static in the crease, edged the last ball of the over into the cordon to complete a raid by Moeen that saw him take 3/5 in 11 deliveries.

Du Plessis went for 60 an ominous 13 balls after tea, caught behind off Anderson driving at a wide one, to reduce South Africa to 183/7.

And that was just about that. Thirty-four balls later South Africa were all out and their long race was run, and lost.

Not even cold comfort for SA in England

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Manchester

“EMAWENI webaba … Silale maweni … Webaba silale maweni …” Could there be a less congruous setting for that lilt to leak into than a damp, desolate afternoon at Old Trafford, the wind whipping at the security staff’s day-glo bibs, themselves a cruelly bright joke in the gloom?

Not to South Africans trying to remember what it feels like to wear a pair of shorts. England isn’t short of rooibos and biltong, but it has about as much decent weather as Cape Town has water. Summer? Where? When?

“Homeless, homeless …

“Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake …”

Damn you and your magic spell of a voice, Joseph Tshabalala, even if you’re only doing your bit to test the ground’s sound system.

It was Thursday, the day before the start of the last test in a series South Africa can no longer win, which has followed a failed one-day rubber, a dog’s breakfast of a Champions Trophy campaign, and a T20 series that sticks in the memory only to remind us that it, too, was lost.

When did all that start? May 19 with a tour match against Sussex at Hove …

Morne Morkel and Chris Morris have been here for the duration. Test squad members Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj and Andile Phehlukwayo were also around for the ODIs, which started on May 24.

Been an age, hasn’t it?

“It’s a very long tour, and it’s an extremely long time to be away from home,” Du Plessis said. “We had a break in the middle [during the T20s], but having the tests at the end makes it even more of a challenge.”

Hang on. Du Plessis wasn’t around for the first test at Lord’s, which he watched from home while holding his newborn daughter in his arms. How clever does that decision look in light of England’s 211-run win there?

“If I have the opportunity again I’d do exactly the same thing, knowing what my wife went through,” he said. “Even if I played, mentally I wouldn’t have been there 100%.

“That wouldn’t have been fair to my team. It’s about giving the best of you when you’re there.”

Not that South Africa have given their best. Instead they’ve played below themselves, which the test series has magnified.

“On long tours like this you need to start with the test matches and end with the T20s, but that’s just the way the schedule is and that’s not an excuse,” Du Plessis said.

“But in a perfect world that would work better.”

Perfection. That seemed in touching distance while Du Plessis’ test team were reeling off series victories over New Zealand, home and away, Australia and Sri Lanka. No longer.

“We haven’t settled on what we want to be as a test team,” Du Plessis said. “The big issue is four seamers versus seven batsmen.”

Decide already: India are coming, then Australia.

George leads SA’s World Cup parade

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Manchester

NO South African has been on the field of play during a cricket World Cup final, right? Wrong. Three have, one of them three times.

They are Zama Ndamane, Brian Jerling and Shaun George, umpires all.

No South African umpire has yet stood in a men’s World Cup final, but all of the above have crossed the boundary in the women’s equivalent.

Ndamane was part of the all-South Africa officiating team in the 2005 final between Australia and India in Centurion — umpires, scorers, referee, the lot — and Jerling stood in 2009 when England and New Zealand clashed in Sydney.

But neither Ndamane nor Jerling have anything on George, who stood in the finals in 2005 and 2013 and completed a hat-trick of sorts when he was the sole South African on the field in the World Cup final between England and India at Lord’s on July 23.

George has done duty in 85 international matches. In 22 of them the players have been women. What’s the difference?

“The major difference is the pace of play,” George said. “Women’s matches are generally slower. However the skill levels regarding bowling and batting are generally the same.

“Looking back to the 2013 women’s World Cup in India, I am encouraged to see the development and tremendous growth in batting and bowling in women’s matches.

“However the ground fielding and catching needs improvement to be on par with the men’s game.”

There are other, more subtle points of departure in cricket’s gender divide.

“Because of the pace at which women bowl the tendency was that balls are rarely going to go over the top of the stumps [which is a factor in] answering lbw appeals.”

And, like they are behind the wheel of a car, where they pay less insurance than men, women are better behaved on the field: “Men have a tendency to challenge umpires’ decisions a lot more than women.”

George played 17 first-class matches between March 1987 and January 1991, all of them on the less than pristine grounds used for Howa Bowl games.

As much as he knows his way around women’s and men’s cricket, this year’s World Cup final marked George’s debut at Lord’s.

But he will always remember “walking through the Long Room with the members applauding you as you make your way to the field”.

For a third World Cup final, nogal.

Leading Edge: Philander — bowler, batsman, human

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Manchester

WE’RE all Vernon Philander. Not as bowlers: none of those who have marked out a run-up since he made his test debut in that mad game against Australia at Newlands in November 2011 — 96 all out followed by 47 all out, half of them his for only 15 — are as good at making cricket balls lie through the teeth of their seams.

“I’m shaping in,” they say sweetly, and batsmen can’t help but believe them. “Ha! Gone away. Sorry for you …”

Among modern bowlers, few have more batting ability than Philander. He marries instinct to intelligence to intent and, more often than not, reaps the rewards that come with playing proper strokes.

We are nowhere near Philander as cricketers. So, how are we Philander? As humans.

There’s a frailty to Philander that makes him one of us.

Had a fight with the boss? Ah. Happens to everybody. Let’s have a beer and talk about the obscene outrage that is Neymar’s transfer fee.

Stuck in traffic? Sterkte, mate. I’ll keep your beer in the fridge.

Woke up with stiff lower back? Careful: you wouldn’t want to, say, bowl 20 overs today.

Not that people who dodge doctors in the dressingroom to go out and bat with a broken hand would understand.

“He can’t seem to make it through series; his body is maybe not fit enough,” Graeme Smith said on Test Match Special on Friday after Philander pulled out of the Old Trafford test with, wouldn’t you know it, a stiff lower back.

“It’s been an issue but it’s becoming serious. You’re trying to build a team and if your senior players can’t get through tours then you’ve got a problem.

“He took a blow [on the hand while batting] at Lord’s and it took a crane to get him back onto the field.

“There’s been too many times where you’re fighting to get him onto the field.”

Smith said Philander needed to “find a way to front up” and spoke of “so-called injuries”.

Those words will hurt Philander, and not only because Smith was his captain in 23 tests. South Africa’s players, particularly those of Smith’s and Philander’s generation and earlier, don’t blink at hearing that sort of thing said about them by friends and foes alike.

It’s at another level that Smith’s views will hit Philander for six; that level we all know, whatever our talent — or lack thereof — for playing games. You could call it ego or you could call it what it is.

It’s the human level, which can trigger punches if the words hit hard enough and especially if they are said in a pub after a certain hour.

Whether what Smith says is true hardly matters. What does is that it’s out there, and that people will believe it.

To catch it or not to catch it? That could be Anderson’s question

Times Media

TELFORD VICE at Old Trafford

MORNE Morkel or Duanne Olivier could make history on Sunday, but neither of them will want to be part of this particular entry in the annals.

Should James Anderson dismiss either of them on the third day of the fourth test against South Africa, who will resume on 220/9 in reply to England’s first innings of 362, he will have his 23rd five-wicket haul in tests.

That’s not the historic bit.

Anderson has claimed seven of his other five-fors at Trent Bridge and four at Lord’s. He’s done it twice at Chester-le-street, Edgbaston and Headingley, and a mere once at Wellington, Newlands, Galle, Southampton and Bridgetown.

But he has never taken five in a test innings at Old Trafford — his home ground for Lancashire, the only county he has represented in his 15 years of first-class cricket, and where he had played 37 of his 212 matches at that level going into the fourth test.

Part of that strange gap in his career can be put down to circumstance: Anderson has played 20 tests at Lord’s, a dozen at The Oval, nine at Trent Bridge and eight each at Edgbaston and Headingley.

What about Old Trafford? Six before this one.

The closest Anderson has come to putting his name on Old Trafford’s honours board in previous tests was when he claimed 4/118 against New Zealand in May 2008.

Oddly, he already have his name on something rather more grand at the ground — on Friday what used to be the Stretford End was redubbed the James Anderson End.

His figures on Saturday, 4/33 — all of them taken from his own end — told of a far more dominant performance than that of nine years ago.

What are his chances of getting over the line on Sunday?

“First I’ve got to get the ball out of Stuart Broad’s hand,” Anderson said at stumps on Saturday.

Broad ended the day’s play by having Kagiso Rabada caught in the gully by Ben Stokes.

There were three balls left in the over, which means Anderson might have to think hard should Olivier, the incoming No. 11, hit one of those deliveries at him.

To catch it, or not to catch it? Now there could be a question.