cricket

Temba Bavuma: A Rock In A Hard Place

TembaEarlier this year I noticed a strange cricketing trend: over the last decade, the Test teams most likely to be shot out for under 100 were not underachievers like the West Indies or relative minnows Bangladesh. Instead, the most implosion-prone batting lineups on the planet were South African and Australian.

I examined this peculiar statistical blip in an article for The Cricket Monthly, and, unsurprisingly, found a few culprits: when a team crumbles for less than 100, a lot of things have gone badly wrong. But one of the most common factors I found was a weak link at No.6 in the batting order.

In this era of fluid batting orders and big-hitting all-rounders floating around between No.5 and the tail, it’s easy to forget that, for most of Test history, No.6 has been a specialist position. That’s because the player who walks out at four down needs an unusual combination of gifts: the shots and aggression to accelerate and drive home a winning position, but also the technique and restraint of an opening batsman as he sees off the second new ball. Or, in the case of a nightmare collapse, the first new ball…

During sub-100 implosions, I found, South African and Australian No.6’s weren’t even trying to play conservatively, instead throwing the bat at everything in their half. The results were dismal.

Of course, we’re not talking about huge numbers of Tests: the Proteas have collapsed for under 100 on only four occasions since readmission. But the accelerating frequency of those collapses – one in 2006, then 2011, then 2015 and 2016 – seemed to hint at a trend.

Since I wrote that piece, the Proteas haven’t crumbled to a sub-100 total again. And yet the last eighteen months have been fraught with top- and middle-order collapses. Stiaan van Zyl, Stephen Cook and JP Duminy have all been axed precisely because the Proteas have found themselves at 50 for 4 far too many times in recent series.

So why haven’t the Proteas slumped to the humiliation of a double-digit total since then?

The answer, I believe, stands 5-foot-and-change, has the heart of a heavyweight boxer, and, when needed, a bat as wide as a barn door.

a proper Test batsman

I’ve been a fan of Bavuma’s since his debut. As cricket is slowly eroded by a preference for can’t-be-arsed T20 tonkers with iffish technique and the attention spans of goldfish, Bavuma is a proper Test batsman: calm, organized, patient, and possessing some beautiful shots he keeps under strict control. In the field, he sparkles with the same magic that illuminated Jonty Rhodes, reminding us that this is all supposed to be fun while still giving the impression that a miracle catch or cobra-strike run-out are never far away.

The trouble with comparing him to Rhodes, however, is that you also have to acknowledge one unflattering similarity: like Rhodes, Bavuma doesn’t score enough runs.

This week, when he scored his 1,000th Test run, many of his admirers were quick to point out that he had reached the milestone in 35 innings, one fewer than it had taken the mighty Jacques Kallis to reach the same tally.

They meant well, and I know what they were trying to say, but Bavuma can do without those sorts of compliments. Kallis had perhaps the worst start to his international career of any South African batsman in Test history, and they’re really not doing Bavuma any favours by pointing out that he has almost exactly replicated the Kallis trainwreck. They’re also not easing the pressure on him by cooking up statistical comparisons: Kallis reached his 2,000th run in his 55th innings, so if Bavuma is going to keep pace with the illustrious run machine, he will need to score 52 runs in every one of his next 19 innings.

look at the recent past, not the future

I understand why Bavuma’s fans are reaching for Kallis’s legacy. Even his most loyal supporters have to admit that his record looks weak. An average of 31.75 after 36 innings is low, no matter how much future greatness you invoke.

But here’s the thing. If you want to find evidence for why Bavuma should be penciled into every Proteas Test XI, you don’t need to speculate on some vague, imaginary future. You can simply point to the recent past and one undeniable fact: when South Africa is under the hammer in a Test match, Bavuma is already a star.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s watched any cricket over the last 18 months.

The Proteas are 32 for 4 in their first innings at Perth when Bavuma walks in. His 51 nurses them to 242. The Proteas stay in the game, then win it.

Ten days later, in Hobart, South Africa have shot out Australia for 85 but they’re also folding fast, losing 4 for 33 to find themselves on 76 for 4. Bavuma puts his back to the castle door, grips his axe with both hands, and survives for 204 balls. The Proteas win.

Wellington: the Black Caps have put up 268 in their first dig, not a great total but still, it seems, a winning one as the Proteas fold to 79 for 5. Bavuma does a Gandalf (“You! Shall Not! Pass!”) and makes a patient 89. The Proteas post 359, and go on to win the Test.

Even Monday’s grim loss at The Oval might have been grimmer without Bavuma.

At 47 for 4 in their first innings and with England making the ball do obscene things under grey skies, South Africa were in real danger of being shot out for under 100 and forced to follow on with three days still to play. But Bavuma’s unflustered rearguard stands with Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel took the Proteas to the relative calm of the next morning with its blue skies and easier conditions. Dean Elgar has been rightly praised for his heroic, bloody-minded hundred, but it was Bavuma who took the Oval Test into a fourth and fifth day.

why is he averaging just 31?

Clearly, Temba Bavuma is a man with the temperament and the technique for hard-fought, bare-knuckle Test cricket. So why is he averaging just 31?

I had a look at his stats and I was surprised by what I found.

In the last decade, in all Test matches, the fourth wicket has fallen, on average, with the score on 166. This fairly middling number would probably feel right to most fans: if your No.6 is taking guard at 160 for 4 in the first innings, you’d be hesitant to put a lot of money on the result either way. It’s fairly solid, but 160 for 4 could become 160 for 5…

Not surprisingly, the fourth wicket falls earlier for losing teams and much later for winning ones. In the last ten years, losing teams have found themselves, on average, at 112/4, while teams that have gone on to win have averaged 207/4.

So, using the figures above, let’s extrapolate a variety of match situations that your average No.6 might walk out into at the fall of the fourth wicket:

0/4 to 60/4: a complete disaster; heroic defence, hard work and plenty of luck required to avoid a major defeat.

70/4 to 130/4: deep trouble. Requires intense discipline; defeat still the most likely option.

140/4 to 180/4: solid; probably safe for now; can’t afford mistakes but potential to kick on and start dictating terms.

190/4 to 230/4: safe, en route to a winning total. Batsmen who apply themselves can make plenty.

240/4 and up: dominance, very little pressure on batsmen. Help yourself.

You’d expect Bavuma to have experienced all of these situations in more or less equal measure. But that was the first surprise.

rampant or wretched

Of his 34 innings in the middle order (he’s opened twice), just six have started with the Proteas in that “average” range. Which means that, in general, Bavuma walks to the crease with his team in one of two positions: rampant or wretched.

The second surprise was how Bavuma responds to those two match situations.

The history of Test cricket is pretty clear about what we can expect in both scenarios. It’s Batting 101. If you come in at 50/4, you’re facing fresh, fired-up bowlers, a hard ball and enormous pressure. Scoring runs is going to be difficult. Conversely, if you come in at 300/4, the bowlers are exhausted and demoralized, the ball is a hacky-sack, and there’s no pressure. It’s a buffet. Tuck in.

According to the fundamental physics of batting, Bavuma should be struggling when things are tough, and piling in when the going is good. Except he isn’t. Present him with a buffet, and he gets instant indigestion.

Bavuma has taken guard in a number of favourable match situations, ranging from 136/3 right up to a fantastically luxurious 439/4. His average in those innings? A paltry 23.66.

But even that figure is flattering, bolstered by just one innings: the unbeaten 102 he carved off an exhausted England at Newlands in 2016. Remove that outlier, and his average in cushy match situations plunges to an appalling 15.

So why do I remain a Bavuma fan? Simple. It’s because of what he does when things are falling apart and otherwise steady men are losing their heads.

Bavuma has taken guard 15 times with the Proteas either turning their canoe towards Shit Creek (70/4 to 130/4), or with them far up it, sans the proverbial paddle (69/4 and worse). In a couple of those he was batting at 7, moved down the order by night watchmen, but the situation was no prettier: his innings at No.7 have started at 136/5 and the ludicrously terribly 79/5.

His average in these trainwrecks?

44.61.

That’s a healthy Test average anywhere, in any game situation. But when the team is facing certain disaster? Pure gold.

Test cricket’s name is not idly chosen. The most elevated, difficult and complex form of the game is a test of technique, of psychological strength and of character. And when the questions being asked are at their toughest, Temba Bavuma stands tall and answers them with a straight bat.

I don’t know why Bavuma isn’t scoring when the table is laid and he is invited to gorge on runs. It’s possible that he believes that his role in the team is a fundamentally defensive one, and that when the top order has done its job he is somewhat surplus to requirements. Perhaps, when the stakes feels fractionally lower, he lets his focus slip, or isn’t sure how to pace an innings when he doesn’t have to fight for every run.

Whatever the reason, Bavuma is too good and focused a player not to find a solution. Every Test he plays, he understands his game a little better and comes closer to figuring out how to accept bowlers’ charity. And when he learns how to turn his cool, methodical mind and method towards domination as well as defence, he could yet be something very special indeed.

The beginning of the end

dollars-6

RIP Test cricket, crushed by a huge pile of money

“There have been a few rumours floating around,” said AB de Villiers.

The nation relaxed. At last the awful speculation would end, and in a second we would hear the good news. The rumours were media speculation. The rumours were a dressing-room joke misheard by a journalist. The rumours were mind games cooked up by touring English. All was well.

And then he finished his sentence.

“…and in most rumours there is always a little bit of truth.”

Say what now? Had AB de Villiers, national treasure, really just admitted that he had been considering retiring from international cricket? It was like phoning your mum to say hi and her mentioning that the cat had run away again, oh, and she and your dad were planning to emigrate.

A choked, childlike “Why?” hung over South African cricket for a moment. De Villiers went on. There were “big tournaments going on around the world”, he told the press conference, and some of them couldn’t be ignored “because financially they make a huge difference in our lives, and obviously you’ve got to look after that side of it as well.”

Obviously. The word was faintly shocking. We expect footballers to talk about grubby things like money and to take that subtly exasperated tone that rich people use when they talk about trying to get richer (“I mean, I got kids to feed, you know?”); but cricketers? Don’t proper chaps play solely for the love of the game and to earn the respect of other chaps?

Surprise soon eased into denial. There had to be more to the story than met the eye. Had to be. When De Villiers was given the captaincy, we nodded and said, Yep, that was it: his statement had been a cunning power play. Give me the top job or I walk. Well played, AB.

We calmed down. We told ourselves that De Villiers was going nowhere. We explained to each other that incredible hitters don’t just walk away from international cricket.

But nobody believed it. Not deep down. Because, of course, it’s already happened.

I’ve never been a fan of Chris Gayle. I can see the superficial appeal of his destructive batting, but I’ve always found it cynical; a performance he chooses to turn on or not, depending on his mood. Certainly, too many of his big Test scores were made against weak attacks or on flat tracks. But I concede that Gayle has one gift almost unmatched in modern cricket.

Viv Richards could read flight. Brian Lara could read length. But nobody has read the writing on the wall quite as early as Gayle. If Gayle has ever shown a flash of genius, it was surely the moment he understood – before most of the other players of his day – that the future of cricket was in franchises rather than countries.

Gayle is by no means the first Test star to be lured into luminous pyjamas by huge amounts of cash. Forty years ago the cricket establishment was stamping on its top hat in frustrated rage, glaring at upstart Australian Kerry Packer and his World Series. The parallels with today are striking: top players choosing cash over country; cricket marketed as an evening of glitzy entertainment rather than an austere, five-day Victorian ritual; despair over the inevitable death of Test cricket.

But Gayle, the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League are different to World Series cricket in one fundamental respect.

For Packer, the World Series was never the end goal. Today we remember it as a revolutionary event in the sport’s history, but we forget that it only happened because Packer couldn’t get what he really wanted: broadcasting rights to Australian Test cricket. World Series Cricket might have invented day-night cricket and dragged players into the professional era, but it was ultimately a petulant “up yours” to the big boys; a rich kid picking up his ball and going home because nobody wanted to play with him.

Two years later Packer finally won his precious rights, and promptly pulled the plug on World Series. What Australians wanted when they switched on the telly was white flannel and red ball; and Packer wanted to give them exactly what they loved.

It was the players who kept that love alive in Australia: the last greats of the 1970s; the strugglers of the 1980s; the new titans of the 1990s. For all their toughness and sledging, every one of them was entranced by the romance of the five-day game.

But Gayle is different. He is the prototype of a new breed of player, one who apparently feels very little for Test cricket; who is not an Australian or South African or Indian but simply a performer who knows his worth; who understands that he has only a few years in which to make his millions; and who plans to wring every dollar out of the game he has mastered.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that cricket’s first true mercenary is a West Indian. The West Indies are not a national team. At their most cohesive, in the 1980, they were the embodiment of a regional ideology. At their worst, in the 2000s, they were a confederation of malcontents. Without a shared nationhood to bind them together, and with a losing culture sapping all the pleasure out of the game, it was inevitable that the bonds of nationalistic zeal – of patriotism – would fray first.

On the face of it, these observations should comfort Proteas fans. De Villiers is not only a South African, and therefore still steeped in old world notions of patriotism, duty and gees, but he is a famously dedicated team player, and, as of January, the captain. He seems to be the antitheses of Gayle; the last man you’d expect to play for pay rather than pride.

The trouble is, pride only takes you so far.

De Villiers has been frank about what he wants to achieve. Years ago he declared he wanted to be the best batsman in the world. When he was appointed captain, he said it was the realization of a lifelong dream. For a driven, ambitious man like De Villiers, milestones and accolades are sustenance. They not only motivate, but they give shape to a career, turning it from an amorphous blob (“Played for South Africa from 2004 to 2019”) into a distinctive narrative with highs and lows, light and shadow.

De Villiers has just turned 32. There’s still plenty of time for him to rack up all sorts of extraordinary records. There’s no reason why he couldn’t claim the highest individual Test and ODI scores for himself. He’s also got one more shot at a World Cup win, in England in 2019.

The problem is, though, that champion cricketers don’t only want the whiz-bang records that get broken on a single day. They want the slow-burning ones too; the big, potent records that speak to endurance and consistent excellence year after year: most runs, most wickets, most wins…And unfortunately most of those records – the sort that might keep De Villiers interested – are probably already out of his reach.

It’s basic arithmetic. South Africa will simply not play enough Tests over the next half-decade to give De Villiers a shot at the endurance records. Even if he doesn’t miss a Test for the next five years, he’s likely to fall well short of Sachin Tendulkar’s 15,921 runs; and he’s taken over the reins too late (and with too weak a bowling attack) to challenge Graeme Smith’s record for most wins by a South African captain.

Given these realities, how difficult must it be to commit yourself to another five or six years of nets and shuttle runs and buses and press conferences and camps and more shuttle runs and more buses and interviews and yet more buses, knowing that you can’t end up with your name at the top of all the columns? How can you not start looking east to the IPL or the Big Bash, awash in hard currency, and wonder how much longer you’ve got? When does the window start closing? Do you push past 35 and hope your knees and eyes can still earn you a few million a year, or do you go the Gayle route, and make hay – and millions – while the sun shines? Yes, you love representing your country, but if you’re 32 you’ve only got another six or seven years in which to earn the money that’s going to see you through the next sixty. It seems a mad question but you’ve got to ask: at what point does playing Test cricket become a financial handicap?

In January it was De Villiers doing the asking, but right now dozens of Test stars are wondering the same thing. Some have already made up their minds: Brendon McCullum has retired from international cricket at 34. Many more will follow in the coming years. (For the record, my money is on De Villiers giving up Tests in 2018 and ODIs after the World Cup in 2019.)

All of which brings us, rather oddly, to the ICC World Twenty20 bash, arriving amid a school of minnows on March 8, as Zimbabwe take on Hong Kong and Scotland face up to Afghanistan.

When the tournament debuted nine years ago, most pundits viewed it with a mixture of disdain and horror. Snobbery was only partly to blame: T20 cricket, still relatively new, was largely unwatchable. Nobody knew what a good score was, and batsmen flailed at everything or got out trying. Captains set fields by guesswork. Spectators were uneasy, unsure if they were supposed to party for forty solid overs or if they were allowed to sit and focus on the strategy.

Since then the format has figured itself out, becoming if not more sophisticated then at least more formalized. It has even managed to grow something resembling a very short history: we now have a vague memory of one or two memorable innings; a couple of standout bowling spells; a thrilling finish here and there. Slowly, T20 is transforming from the shameful love-child of marketing hacks and cricketing sell-outs into a sport with its own lore, and above all, its own fans.

For traditionalists like me, that is superficially reassuring. We want the young upstart to grow up as fast as possible. We want its rough edges to be smoothed, its juvenile aggression to mellow into more mature forms of attack. We want, in short, to draw T20 into the grand traditions of cricket; to install it as a sort of naughty younger brother to Tests and ODIs – a cheeky ruffian that is good for a laugh but which ultimately defers to the more traditional formats.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. And those of us who believe in a Victorian hierarchy of cricketing virtue, with Tests at the top and T20 at the bottom, are about to be brushed aside as dismissively as Chris Gayle plonking a half-tracker into the second tier. Because we’ve badly misread the state of the game.

The World Twenty20 might have “ICC” ahead of its name and feature national teams, but what purists need to understand is that it isn’t a World Cup. It isn’t even a competition. It’s a stall set up in the middle of a marketplace, a pop-up shop where the best hitters in the world take on the best anti-hitters (because that’s what bowlers have become), and try to catch they eye of franchise money men. All vying to become like Granddaddy Gayle, the millionaire who figured it out first.

When stars like De Villiers start leaving Tests and ODIs toward the end of this decade, those formats will die astonishingly quickly. When that happens, many fans will want to blame the players and accuse them of all sorts of things. Some may even quote Kerry Packer’s crude proposition to the Australian Cricket Board back in 1976: “There’s a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentleman. What’s your price?”

But moralizing and finger pointing will be useless. Because when it comes to 20-over franchise cricket – the future – it’s really not personal. It’s just business.

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Published in Business Day Sport

South African cricket: build or become croquet

nelson-mandela-soweto-michael-atherton_3402391Twenty years ago, everything was different. Twenty years ago, everything was the same.

In the summer of 1995, South Africa was a country consciously, self-consciously, trying to build something better. These days it’s become fashionable to dismiss that period as a naïve fantasy – the worst thing a white liberal can be accused of these days is “rainbowism” – but for all its faults and delusions, it was a time of genuine hope and effort. We spoke about the past and the future, instead of hunkering down in the endless, cynical, eroding now. We tried.

No one tried harder than Nelson Mandela, head of state, brand builder, and fantasist in chief. That was why he was at the Soweto Oval in late October that year, meeting a star-struck England team. The paint was still tacky on the picket fences, the outfield a work on progress, but nobody minded. That was the point. We were building something. And Mandela was coming to check that the work was going to schedule.

The English were impressed by the missionary zeal of South Africa’s cricket administrators, even if they didn’t understand very much of what they were seeing. In Wisden, veteran correspondent Scyld Berry explained that Ali Bacher and his team were trying to “create from scratch an interest among the African population”. Even now, few South Africans know the history of black cricket in this country, so perhaps one could forgive a visitor for getting it so wrong. But I also I think Berry was misled by the zeitgeist of the country: back in 1995, everything felt like a building site. We were all starting from scratch.

The Soweto fixture and the spontaneous meet-and-greet by Mandela were good political theatre, but they were also an important statement of intent by South African cricket. England, inheritors of the oldest and richest cricketing traditions, would play before the people who would inherit the new South Africa. It felt honest. And when Lulama Mazikazana held the South Africans’ tail together with 44 in the second innings – the second highest score after Hansie Cronje’s half-century – one could imagine that this was more than window-dressing. This was the start of a plan.

Twenty years later, that plan seems to be mouldering. England’s itinerary says it all. Twenty years ago, every fixture resonated with historical or political significance. First, a social outing against a Nicky Oppenheimer XI at a private oval: a nod to the Randlords who initiated the first cricket between England and South Africa. Then, a one-day warm-up against Easterns at Springs, a no-frills neighbourhood for a raw franchise looking to inject some mongrel into the domestic scene. Then Soweto. Then, a four-day game against Border in the heart of the Eastern Cape, the spiritual home of black cricket.

Today, England’s itinerary has all the political will of a soggy cucumber sandwich. First there’s a thing against some guys at somewhere called Senwes Park, a meaningless name for a forgettable stadium in a place of no cricketing consequence. Next is a kerfuffle at Pietermaritzburg’s City Oval, a cricket ground famous for nothing except having the most literal name on the planet. And then? The most ridiculous fixture of all.

But first, a small digression.

Cricket is dying. That’s not me being pessimistic. It’s a measurable fact. Melburnians and Capetonians still pack their respective stadiums every Boxing Day and Tweede Nuwe Jaar, but attendances are plunging pretty much everywhere else. Worse, a lot of those absentee fans haven’t decided to stay home so they can watch the game on the telly: according to the Times of India, Indian television audiences for cricket dropped by 40% between 2008 and 2014.

I’ve seen no statistics about the local situation but my gut tells me that interest in cricket in South Africa is gradually waning. Now and then I see a cardboard cut-out of AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis marketing some brand or another, but it’s a far cry from the 1990s when you couldn’t walk ten paces without seeing a cricketer hawking energy drinks or running shoes or, in the case of Jonty Rhodes, “fashion trousers”. And it wasn’t just cricketers. Remember how we went ape over Elana Meyer? Josia Thugwane? Baby Jake? Penny Heyns? Today, De Villiers dominates his sport more than any of them ever did; yet his most loyal and vocal fans are in India. And I’d bet more South Africans would recognize Hansie Cronje than Dean Elgar or Imran Tahir in a line-up.

In this climate of general ambivalence, November’s letter to Cricket South Africa (CSA) from disgruntled black players, in which they asked CSA to stop using them as bench-warmers and window-dressing, should have sounded like the crack of doom. Whether or not CSA was sympathetic to their complaints, it should have sprung into a public flurry of fence mending and brand-building. Black stars are the end product of the entire transformation machine, and if they’re miserable enough to risk their careers by writing letters to administrators, then it suggests the machine is broken. More importantly, it suggests that CSA has a crisis of perception on its hands. If black players or whispering about being overlooked or sidelined, then black fans are going to be shouting about it. And South African cricket cannot afford to lose a single black fan.

If cricket in this country is to survive another twenty years, it needs to become a sport played, loved, watched and argued over by the majority. It must become a home for black excellence and black pride, where black superstars play the game without being defined by white teammates or predecessors. Our domestic and national teams must become mostly black. The crowds watching them need to be mostly black. Demographics and economics demand no less.

So. Given that the global game is shedding fans, and that the future of South African cricket depends entirely on finding new black converts, you might have assumed that CSA would have used the opening Test of an historic series to create some sort of buzz. You’d assume that it would draw parallels between this tour and the one in 1995, evoking the memory of Mandela or Steve Tshwete or Khaya Majola, and reminding us that we started a job back then that isn’t anywhere near completion. You’d assume that it would understand the value in awarding a historic, politically important first Test to Port Elizabeth, and get Makhaya Ntini or Professor Andre Odendaal to recall the mighty deeds of African greats like Frank Roro and Eric Majola, and remind us that, in the 19th Century, St George’s Park was the first venue to host a Test played outside England and Australia, and the last to host a Test before South Africa went into sporting isolation in 1970. You’d assume that that, in the week before the Test, members of the England and Proteas squads would play with local cricketers in a one-day exhibition match at the Dan Qeqe Stadium in Zwide.

So has CSA planned any of that? No. It’s decided that a potentially historic, empowering series will start in a city that doesn’t give a damn about Test cricket.

I have nothing against Durban. Some might claim that the sun sets early there because it’s just too bored to stay in the sky, but not me. Durban is a lovely place to view from a passing airliner. But Kingsmead, ah, that’s another story.

Kingsmead, you might recall, is the place where Jacques Kallis played his last Test. Actually, you probably don’t recall, because there is absolutely nothing memorable about the place. That’s mainly because it’s always empty. Always. Because of its large Asian population, Durban invariably gets Tests against Asian tourists, but it really doesn’t make a difference. No matter who’s playing, Durbanites can’t be arsed. In 2013, just 4700 of them bothered to pitch up to watch the greatest South African cricketer of all time take guard in his last innings.

By the close of the day Kallis was on 78. The next day – the day on which he would score a final hundred – was a Sunday. A cricket-loving city like Cape Town would have filled the 25000-seater ground half an hour before play started. Hell, Bloemfontein probably would have managed 10 000. But not Durban. That Sunday, just 7000 people dribbled through the turnstiles. And that wasn’t even an anomaly. Opening days at Kingsmead rarely see more than 12 000 people show up, and the remaining days usually only get between 3000 and 7000. In short, Kingsmead is an irrelevant backwater, and anyone who tries to tell you that Durbanites love their cricket is flat-out lying to you.

Thankfully, England travel with a large contingent of fans, so Kingsmead will probably only be half empty instead if the usual two-thirds. But the fact remains that by launching the series in Durban, CSA has wasted the opportunity to make it mean something. Itineraries are statements, and this one reads like a corporate report, a bland affirmation of business as usual. It needed to be a simple, honest statement: “This is a special series, and because it is special, we will use to remember why we’re doing this. We will remember our determination, 20 years ago, to make this a game for all South Africans, not just something we shunt into townships when the Sports Minister is on our backs. And, in the spirit of 1995, we renew our intent to make cricket an African game.”

But that’s not what’s happened. And so the series will play out, and we’ll all have a great time, and then we’ll return to the confusing recriminations and wrathful sound bytes of the so-called “transformation debate”, which is not really a debate, and which revolves around something nobody seems to have defined clearly.

Certainly, there is still no intelligent input from the man pushing the “debate”, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, whose genius for rhetoric allows him to sound both belligerent and completely helpless. Transformation, he crossly insists, isn’t happening – implying that it is some sort of organic process that can only be encouraged but never enforced. A moment later he waxes stern, vowing that he will make it happen – now implying that it is merely a question of the right legislation. It’s a surreal Sméagol-Gollum double act: claiming on the one hand that it’s all terribly complicated and on the other that the time for excuses is over. Bizarrely, Mbalula often ends up threatening himself.

Then again, I don’t blame the Minister for not having easy answers. I don’t know if quotas force open the doors for young black players and give black kids instant role models, or if they demoralize players who feel they’re not there on merit and who are duly crushed by a lack of self-belief. I don’t know if talent can magically spring up in the veld, or if it needs time and money and food and care. Maybe all are true. Can transformation be a gradual process, its slowness preventing alarm but also allowing it to be endlessly deferred? Or must it be a drastic intervention, say, a decision that the Proteas will field only two white players in every Test, hoping that upheavals in the short term are an investment in a long-term future for the game? Would the International Cricket Council allow such a move, or would it see it as political interference and ban South Africa all over again? I don’t know.

But I do know that the South African game needs new blood, new passions and new histories, or else it will atrophy. It will become a historical curiosity, played on festival days alongside jukskei and croquet. And I know that in order to find new blood, it needs to leave the boardrooms and the manicured outfields. It needs to get out into the dust and heat and vast spaces of our country. Once out there, it needs to seduce hearts and thrill minds. It needs to remember the spirit of 1995. It needs to think deeply about why Mandela walked down that line of blushing English players and shook their hands.

It needs to build.

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First published in Business Day Sports Monthly

Pitch and moan

how India sees SA

Right. Hashim Amla held on heroically but we’ve been thumped, to add to our hammering in the first Test and what was probably a stay of execution in the second. We’ve lost our first away series in nine years, and we’re pretty annoyed about it, because we didn’t lose to a cricket team. We lost to whichever suits ordered the pitches and the obedient groundsmen who prepared them.

India knew they couldn’t compete player for player so they went scorched earth, preparing these wickets in the hope that, in a low-scoring shoot-out, South Africa’s batsmen would be worse against unpredictable spin than theirs.

Of course, most people have seen through it. Michael from Australia was diplomatic…

Michael Clarke

…whereas Michael from England was less so…

Michael Vaughan

Such opinions have not gone down well with Indian fans, who have responded as maturely as they often do.

PhotoELF Edits: 2009:12:09 --- Saved as: 24-Bit 98% JPEG YUV444 --- batch crop --- crop 2009:12:07 --- Batch Resized File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.0

Anyone accusing India of producing rubbish wickets has been called a crybaby and presented with the following argument:

Whenever we tour South Africa, you prepare green tops and your fast bowlers massacre us. So now it’s our turn. We’re going to prepare wickets that turn from the morning of day one because fair’s fair. And stop the ridiculous double standards. When we get bombed out by your quicks you say we can’t bat, but now that you’re getting rolled over it’s somehow the pitches’ fault? Grow a pair, South Africa.

You’ll see this view splattered across most of the internet, repeated by a surprising number of semi-respected pundits. Surprising, because it’s complete bullshit.

The facts simply don’t support it. The “South Africans are crybabies who can dish it out but can’t take it” argument boils down to the assumption that Indians can play spin but are uncomfortable against pace while South Africa can handle pace but aren’t happy against spin. Fair enough, and probably true on sporting wickets. But if the wickets were half decent, playing to India’s traditional strengths, wouldn’t we have seen India’s batsmen plaster South Africa’s modest spinners all over the park? Wouldn’t we have seen at least one of them make a hundred? Instead, all we’ve seen is India looking almost as nervous and unimpressive as South Africa. Virat Kohli, their star, has scraped 68 runs in 4 innings. In fact only two batsman – Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara – have managed to average in the 40s in the series so far. Almost 600 overs of Test cricket and just four half-centuries…

Indian fans and administrators can repeat all the affirming mantras they want but the figures don’t lie. Batsmen are getting massacred in this series, irrespective of their country or their ability to play Test cricket.

And that’s because the pitches ordered by the BCCI haven’t been cricket pitches. They’ve been long strips of clay held together by the nocturnal erotic emissions of spin bowlers.

Historically, the greatest spinners, bowling in their favorite conditions against their most helpless opponents, have usually taken a wicket every 7 or 8 overs. Shane Warne made his reputation humiliating Englishmen in England, but it was in Sri Lanka where he committed some proper atrocities, striking every 39 deliveries. Muttiah Muralitharan was also more or less unplayable in Sri Lanka, claiming a victim every 43 balls at his favourite hunting ground at Kandy.

In the current series, Imran Tahir has taken a wicket every 26 balls.

Imran Tahir.

The guy who can’t buy a wicket on South African pitches has taken his sticks at twice the rate Muralitharan managed on his favourite, tailor-made ground.

The rest? Just as silly. Ravichandran Ashwin has taken one of his 24 wickets every 25 balls. Ravindra Jadeja has taken one every 31 balls. Even Dean Elgar has taken 5 for 63 in 19 overs.

So. These figures trash any claims by Indian fans that these are sporting pitches and that South Africa just aren’t any good at playing spin.

But what of their claims that this is justifiable “revenge” for the seaming monsters their team has to face in South Africa?

To check this, I looked at every Test in which India has been shot out for under 200 in South Africa, and here’s what I found.

Durban, 1996.
The bloodbath that gave rise to India’s notion that South Africa produces unsporting green tops. India was evaporated for 100 in the first innings and 66 in the second. It was pure carnage. But was the pitch impossible to bat on? Andrew Hudson seemed to manage, with 80 in the first innings and 52 in the second. Adam Bacher got 55, Brian McMillan 51. Hell, Allan Donald made 26. South Africa’s two scores of 235 and 259 (and ten wickets in the match for Venkatesh Prasad) suggest that this surface offered considerable help to good seamers, but an unsporting spitting cobra? No.

Cape Town, 1997.
India were gunned down for 144 in their second innings, but it had nothing to do with a pitch that had produced showers of runs. After South Africa racked up 529 for 7 (with hundreds for Gary Kirsten, McMillan, and 102 off 100 balls from Lance Klusener), India replied with 359, including exhilarating tons from Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin. The cause of India’s dismal second innings? Good seam bowling from South Africa and bad batting from India. Not the pitch.

Durban, 2006.
Again, India succumbed in their second innings, managing only 179. And again, it was a dismal performance on a pitch that had offered a great contest between bat and ball. Ashwell Prince had made 121 in South Africa’s first dig, backed up by fifties from Herschelle Gibbs and Mark Boucher, while the South Africans had declared on 265 for 8 in their second dig. The culprit? Bad batting by India. The pitch? Acquitted

Cape Town, 2007
Dale Steyn took 4 for 30 to smear India all over Newlands, dismissing the tourists for 169. A spiteful pitch? Nope. Just a great fast bowler working over batsmen making bad decisions.  India had looked imposing in their fist innings, Wasim Jaffer’s 116 helping them to 414. They still managed to lose the Test though, and they had nothing to blame except themselves. Pitch? Acquitted.

Centurion, 2010.
Centurion, people. Cen-fucking-turion. The most batsman-friendly wicket in South Africa. And still, India managed to get put through the wood-chipper, dismissed for 136 in their first innings thanks to a Morne Morkel five-for. South Africa then proceeded to do the wild monkey dance all over the visitors, racking up (the following my disturb sensitive viewers) 620 for 4. Kallis made 201*, Amla 140, and AB de Villiers pulped 129 off 112. A real snake-pit, right? Just to prove there were no demons in this famously friendly pitch, Tendulkar and Dhoni then helped India to 459 in their second innings – a huge score and still an innings defeat. The pitch? Gloriously acquitted.

And that, boys and girls, is every instance in which poor, persecuted India were cruelly ambushed on South Africa’s unsportingly green pitches.

In short, Indian fans can go suck it. There is no tit-for-tat pitch war happening. There’s just South Africa, preparing pitches that reward seam bowling and disciplined strokeplay, and there’s India, preparing a steaming pile of horse manure.

*Drops mic. Onto an Indian Test pitch. Mic goes through surface, deviates by 30 degrees, spits up in a puff of dust, takes the shoulder of the bat.*

Damned lies and cricket ratings

ratingsWhen Australian batting star Steven Smith leap-frogged from fourth to claim the top spot in the ICC’s official ranking of Test batsmen this week, it felt like heresy.

It wasn’t the size of the leap, but rather the players he surpassed to become the first Australian since Michael Clarke in 2012 to seize the crown. When you knock off demigods like Kumar Sangakkara, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla in one fell swoop, the faithful are going to get antsy.

As startling as it seemed, Smith’s surge up the rankings was inevitable. The ratings tend to reward consistency, and Smith has been on a blinder over the last year. His last eight Tests have produced 1226 runs at 102.16, with five hundreds and five fifties – evidence of a man with a Bradmanian passion for occupying the crease. In some respects he’s already surpassed the Australian god of cricket: the 769 runs he made against India late last year broke Bradman’s 67-year-old record for the most ever in a series of four or fewer Tests. Not bad for a player who was initially earmarked as an all-rounder offering some useful leg-spin.

Smith’s avalanche of runs was bound to light up the ICC’s algorithms, and they have rewarded him with a cumulative rating of 913 points and the temporary title of the world’s best Test batsman.

The trouble with the ratings, though, is that they tend to be much better at showing form than class. The moment you start comparing players from different eras, even from different seasons, they start to look rather silly.

For example, the all-time ratings reveal that Smith has surpassed any total ever accumulated by either Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar. Indeed, according to the official ratings, Tendulkar – widely believed to be the second-greatest batsman after Bradman – never even passed 900 points.

Nobody can deny that Smith is a superb player. At just 26 he could yet become a giant over the next decade. He’s unflappable, a good tourist, and apparently at ease anywhere in the batting order. But is his current run really better than any string of glorious performances ever put together by Lara and Tendulkar? Pull the other one.

The algorithms reportedly try to incorporate the quality of the opposition when awarding points, but here, again, they seem to have stumbled. The Indian attack Smith dismantled in Australia was distinctly ordinary, buying wickets at almost 53 apiece; and as for the West Indian bowlers he’s just demolished, well, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

But perhaps the main problem with the ratings is that they encourage fans to disparage achievements of new stars to protect the luster of past or current greats. By going to number one, Smith has made us all jump to the defense of De Villiers or Amla or Lara or Tendulkar; whereas without computer-generated lists we might be more inclined to sit back and enjoy the rise of one of cricket’s next superstars.

We certainly don’t need lists to tell us that AB de Villiers is still the best batsman in the world. Everyone in the game knows it, including Smith. South African fans can relax and remember: when it comes to cricket, there are lies, damned lies, and the ICC player rankings.

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First published in The Times

Steyn has nothing to apologize for

An average Bangladeshi Test pitch

An average Bangladeshi Test pitch

Dale Steyn has dished out some short and nasty stuff over the years, but this week he was on the receiving end. Granted, it was only moderately nasty, but it was very short: 140 characters, to be precise.

The South African giant turns 32 next month, and on Monday hinted in an interview that he might want to sit out a couple of games on the upcoming tour of Bangladesh since it didn’t make sense to “waste” any of the few thousand deliveries he believes he has left in his body.

Bangladeshi Twitter wasn’t impressed and started steaming in off its long run. Steyn, however, has always shown courage and technique when attacked, and he quickly went back and across, got into line, and tweeted a solid apology. “Waste”, he said, might have been the wrong word.

I understand his apology. No public figure wants to alienate a country with a population of 156 million. But those of us with less to lose, like, say, columnists, can still call a spade a spade – or a pointless series a pointless series – and point out that Steyn has nothing to apologize for. Every ball he bowls at a Bangladeshi is one fewer he’ll bowl at an Australian or Indian or Englishman. And that is a waste.

Bangladeshi fans would insist that their team, although weak, is trying. I agree. Bangladesh is extremely trying. The pitch they prepared for the first Test against Pakistan recently was a crime against cricket, producing 1515 runs, 26 wickets, and five days of tedium. If their fans want to get angry with someone they might start with their groundsmen. But really, as supporters of a team that has won just 7 of its 90 Tests (and 5 of those were against Zimbabwe), they should probably just sit down and be quiet and let the nice man decide for how long he wants to grace their country.

In the same interview, Steyn explained the logic behind rationing his bowling over the next few years: he wants to win a World Cup for South Africa. It’s a noble ideal but I suspect one that is well out of reach. A year ago I predicted that his international career would be coming to an end more or less now. He’s proved me wrong, but I still hold that he’s been mismanaged and over-bowled. He’s already flung down hundreds (and, in some instances, thousands) of balls more than elite speedsters like Waqar Younis, Michael Holding and Jeff Thomson managed in their entire Test careers. The cumulative strain on his body is unimaginable.

Still, there are more attainable glories to be achieved. Steyn is just four scalps away from becoming only the 12th bowler to take 400 Test wickets. He’s implied that he wants to sit out the One-Day Internationals on the upcoming tour, but surely his host of fans would want him to skip the Tests? That would allow him to reach the magical number later this year against much worthier opposition, either India or England. Against Bangladesh? That feels like a bit of a waste.

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An edited version of this was first published in The Times and TimesLive

Don’t quota me on that

Sports ministryThe bombshell landed with more of a thud than a bang. The country had other things to worry about.

Trevor Noah had just become the most influential South African in pop culture. Eskom had just fired the guy who replaced the guy who replaced the guy who dropped the bolt into the machine that wasn’t malfunctioning because there isn’t a crisis. Maybe we were just all cried out over the World Cup semi-final.

For the die-hard fans, though, it was a shocker. Within hours of the Proteas touching down at OR Tambo International, reports citing unnamed sources inside the team were claiming that the suits had panicked about the paleness of the semi-final team, and had forced AB de Villiers and Russell Domingo to include the out-of-sorts Vernon Philander in the starting XI.

The rumours were angrily denied by Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s Minister of Twitter and a man who sometimes moonlights as our sports minister. He knew exactly which racist ‘dinosaurs’ had invented the story, he claimed, and urged South Africa to look in the other direction and not do pointless things like ask questions or do any thinking.

The names of these counter-revolutionary Jurassic crackers? Well, Razzmatazz was less forthcoming about those. But as Cricket South Africa boss Haroon Lorgat weighed in with his own denial, it looked as if a veil was being drawn over a non-scandal that was quite possibly the work of racists looking to pin a World Cup exit on a coloured bowler and a black sports minister.

The problem, though, was that the pesky story refused to die. The next day an Afrikaans news website reported damningly specific details: that Lorgat had sent Domingo a text at midnight; that De Villiers and Philander had been so angry they’d threatened to sit out the semi-final, but they’d been compelled to play.

At the time of writing that was all we knew. It’s possible more of this story will leak out over time, like oil seeping to the surface from a submerged shipwreck. The truth will be interesting. Either our suits were lying, or someone senior in the team was, or a journalist was.

Truth. It’s a tricky thing when it comes to World Cup exits. For a few hours after that fateful evening in Sydney, a few people tried to insist that the truth was the Proteas had choked. When the SMS story broke, some South Africans claimed the true villain of our exit was Philander. The fact he had conceded far fewer runs than the hugely disappointing Dale Steyn didn’t seem to register in their version of reality.

But the one truth that seemed to unite most commenters was that sport and politics should not mix. Ever. Not if the last two people on the planet were a politician and cricketer. Never.

It’s a widely held belief in South Africa. It’s also a naive one, and it reveals we don’t really understand what sport is. We cling to a childish notion that sport sort of just is. We seem to think it somehow ticks along like a perpetual motion machine, lubricated by passion and shouting and corporate sponsors. Basically, we believe in sports fairies who make the whole thing run on green and gold magic.

Like missile tests and Eurovision, sport is a way for countries to assert themselves

No wonder, then, that many think politics and sport shouldn’t mix. Why on earth would you let politicians with their sordid materialism intrude on this fairy kingdom of gees and honour? How could politicians possibly be of benefit to a self-running system that automatically sorts the men from the boys, the sheep from the goats, and the metaphors from the better phrases?

The trouble, though, is that not many fans even get this far in their thinking. For many, the ‘truth’ that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is simply received wisdom, a hand-me-down factoid that feels true  because it confirms their suspicions about politicians. It’s not backed up with any real knowledge of what sport is, or why it runs the way it does. Because, of course sport is politics; a nationalistic ritual that helps prop up the idea of the nation state. Like parades, missile tests and Eurovision, it is a way for countries to assert themselves in the community of nations; somewhere between trans-border cock-measuring contests and a sweaty sort of diplomacy.

This is why countries spend hundreds of billions of dollars on developing excellence in odd sports like gymnastics or badminton or rugby; why Australia and China ploughed a large chunk of their GDP into winning gold medals at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics. It’s why the apartheid government of South Africa made all the little white boys want to be rugby stars instead of physicists. It’s why Indian fans burnt effigies after their semi-final defeat. Nationalism is macho to its core, and sport is the ideal way to act out its ambitions and values. Keep politics out of international sport? You’re basically demanding that petrol be kept out of cars.

This is why I get annoyed with those who claim that transformation in South African sport will happen ‘naturally’ or ‘organically’ without ‘meddling’ by politicians. It’s as ignorant as believing that a poor black child in a shack will become upper-middle class if you just leave her alone for long enough.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that politicians should pick teams. Far from it. If the reports are true and some stooge texted the team at the precise moment they needed to be united and focused, it was yet another appalling bungle by our bungling political cohort. But I absolutely believe that politics belong in sport. Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of South African cricket understands the debt it owes to politics, whether it was Steve Tshwete risking his political life to negotiate with white administrators in the late-1980s, or Indian politicians deciding that South African cricketers were no longer sporting polecats. For me the question is not whether they should be linked. The question is how they should be linked, to ensure the greatest benefit to the sport, the fans and the country.

In theory, those questions are easily answered. Politicians should build fields, provide team minibuses, employ administrators to keep account of funds and facilities and leagues. They should act as a bridge between nationalistic sport and private corporate money, persuading sponsors of the branding- and nation-building benefits of parting with their cash. In practice, though, it’s a different story.

transformation now consists of text messages, denials, and threats

I concede that transforming South African sport is difficult. The economics alone are terrifying, as the government tries to give poor people access to activities that need middle-class incomes, time and facilities. And, of course, there’s white resistance to many of those who do crack it. Sometimes it’s overt racism. Sometimes it’s just the insularity of coaches or players who favour their mates (and their mates just happen to look like them …).

But even the most disinterested observer would have to admit that the transformation of cricket in South Africa is a pantomime of foot-dragging, buck-passing and name-calling. Indeed, if the latest debacle is anything to go by, transformation now consists of midnight text messages, denials, and threats by the minister about revoking national colours. That’s not transformation. That’s complete dysfunction.

Four black African bowlers have played Test cricket for South Africa. Four. In 25 years since readmission. Batsmen are expensive and difficult to produce, but to produce bowlers all you need is a ball, a set of stumps, a usable run-up, a concrete pitch, and a coach. I understand the complicating factors. I know that poor kids often don’t have the luxury of parents who can ferry them to practice. I understand that proper childhood nutrition is needed if you’re going to bowl fast at elite level. And yet … four? In a quarter of a century? To me that doesn’t suggest a broken production line. It suggests a non-existent one.

It’s a crisis that needs efficient, hard-working politicians. And yet our minister seems more interested in Twitter than in his much-vaunted mandate of transformation. Instead of making tough decisions and unpopular speeches, he emits a cloud of jokey rhetoric that obscures one damning truth – that Fikile Mbalula could transform cricket (and rugby and all the rest) overnight if he wanted to.

Why does he simply not name, shame, and transform cricket?

The ruling party got a gigantic majority in the last election. Very few politicians in the world could even dream of having such a strong mandate. So if his efforts  are being blocked by racists like those he claimed fabricated the Philander story, why does he not provide details so that all South Africans can unite in our condemnation of those shadowy conspirators? He is a minister in a government whose entire international image is built on the fight against white racism. Why does he simply not name, shame, and then transform cricket in line with his vision?

The answer, perhaps, is because there are no names (at least, not in the Philander fiasco). There’s no vision. And there’s no plan, other than reacting to short-time crises with bluster and finger-wagging. Yes, we need politics in cricket. But we do not need these kinds of politics in cricket.

There are so many conversations we need to be having but aren’t, precisely because the wrong kind of politician is arguing with the wrong kind of fan. Basically, the debate has been hijacked by the people least equipped to have it.

But we need to talk; not only about fine points of policy but about basics too. For starters, what does transformation mean? Are we talking about creating a team that reflects the racial demographics of the country, or is there also some vague attempt being made to improve the lives of the very poor through sport? If it’s the latter, does anyone know if this is a practical idea? Are we sure all this time and money and political intrigue is worth it? And can we try to remember that when we talk about ‘transforming’ cricket, we’re actually talking about a ludicrously tiny niche – ultra-fit, highly co-ordinated young men between the ages of about 15 and 30. About 120 of them play first-class cricket. How large is the pool that keeps those 120 men at the top of their game? Perhaps 5,000? So are we aware that the debate about democratising and opening up this sport is aimed at perhaps 0.01% of South Africa’s population? That’s a lot of politicking and money and arguing over something that affects almost nobody.

Nobody, that is, except the fans who want their team to win. And that’s the next tough conversation we need to have: quotas. It’s another that’s been hijacked by non-producing ideologues on the left and racists on the right. It’s a pity, because if we could only have this talk, calmly and openly, we might be able to come to some sort of consensus over what quotas are for and whether they work in achieving those ends. I don’t know what we’d decide. We might all end up agreeing that they are a long-term experiment in social engineering with a real shot at good results in 20 years. We might agree that they don’t do much for the players involved but help lure millions of eager new converts to the sport. I don’t know.

Of course, it’s unlikely we’re going to have this chat any time soon, because it would require both sides to accept facts they find unpleasant. The politicians would have to accept that it is not racist to believe that quota players weaken a team. This isn’t a subjective judgement call. It’s basic logic: if you are good enough to play in a Test match, you’re not a quota player. Quotas and merit are mutually exclusive, and any politician who tries to sell the two as the same thing is selling you a crock of horse manure.

Those opposed to quotas must also accept that our national teams are just that: national teams. They are constructions of nationalist identity. The specific demographics are negotiable, but they cannot deny that we are an African country, and we need an African team. In non-fudging language, that means we need a team that looks – that is – predominantly black African.

But what we need most of all is intelligent, efficient leadership. We need it right now. 2040 is too long to wait to see four more black bowlers.

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First published in Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly and SACricketmag.com