cricket

The Luckiest Cricketer in South Africa

Duminy

Well left, JP.

In cricket, one name stands alone as a monument to unrealized potential and endless, frustrating failure: Graeme Hick.

The big Zimbabwean-turned-Englishman hit the English County scene like a club to the skull, and he seemed destined to become the square-jawed matinee idol of the international game. Season after season he put County attacks to the sword, eventually amassing 41,000 First Class runs including 136 centuries. But when the inevitable Test call-up came, the results were a crushing disappointment.

Sixteen years after the end of his international career, Hick remains the go-to reference when talk turns to underachieving players.

Which must be a great relief for a certain JP Duminy, AKA the Luckiest Cricketer in South Africa.

Duminy’s most recent Test innings, embarrassingly ended by an unchallenged straight ball in the second innings at Hamilton back in March, was his 72nd in Tests, and took his career run tally to 2086.

After 72 innings, Graeme Hick  had scored 2591 runs.

You read right. The game’s greatest underachiever had outscored Duminy by half a thousand runs at the same point in his career.

Of course, one can’t base on argument on just one example, so here are a couple more that show just how hopelessly out of his depth Duminy is.

Neil McKenzie was thrown a lifeline in 2008 after last playing a Test in 2004. He responded by scoring 1073 Test runs that year, more than Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Clarke and AB de Villiers. Three months into 2009 his Test career was over. (Duminy has never scored more than 419 runs in a year.) After 72 innings, McKenzie had scored 2599 runs to Duminy’s 2086.

Hansie Cronje revitalized South African cricket in the mid-1990s and played some mighty knocks in his time, but most pundits agree that he probably wouldn’t have had a Test career if he hadn’t been such a charismatic captain. He was weak against the short ball, and far too often made an attractive 35 where a dogged 135 was needed. But after 72 innings the often-fragile Cronje had managed 2352 runs.

Just behind Cronje, at 2290 after 72 innings, is Jacques Rudolph, who was facing howls of criticism at this point in his career and was a year away from being permanently dumped out of Test cricket.

Some Proteas didn’t even last 67 innings: they were axed by selectors who considered them to be a grave liability or simply not up to Test standard any more.

Remember Andrew Hudson? Hudders who, in the late 1990s, was considered almost supernaturally dismissal-prone and someone who needed to be ditched as soon as possible? Hudson played 63 Test innings in total and yet he still managed to score 2007 runs. After 63 innings, JP Hick, sorry, Duminy, had scored 1797: 210 runs fewer than a man who was considered a walking wicket and lucky to be selected.

More recently there was Alviro Petersen, eased out of the international game after 36 Tests and 64 innings. Petersen played some memorable knocks but nobody ever seriously believed that he was a Test blue-blood. And yet in his 64 innings he amassed 2093 runs. Duminy has played 8 innings more than that, and has yet to match that tally.

The bottom line, evidenced by comings and goings of players over the last 20 years, is that JP Duminy is not a Test batsman and is fantastically lucky to still have a career.

Yes, say his supporters, but that’s unfair: he’s not a Test batsman, he’s a Test allrounder. You can’t judge him by batting standards.

Well OK, but if you’re going to play that game then you need to measure him against other spinning allrounders, and the stats are still damning.

After 56 bowling innings, Duminy has bowled 441.3 overs and taken 42 wickets @ 37.6.

After the same number of bowling innings, Hick had bowled 497.3 overs, taken 22 at 57.09.

By comparison, Duminy looks pretty good.

That is, until you compare him to some spinning allrounders who can actually bowl.

For starters there’s Bangladeshi star, Shakib Al Hasan. After 56 bowling innings, Shakib had bowled 1382 overs and taken 122 wickets at 33.39. Oh, and after 72 batting innings? He’d scored 2554 runs at 38.31… #JustSaying.

Then there’s a certain R Ashwin. After 56 innings he’d bowled 1444.5 overs and taken 162 wickets at 26.64. So more of a specialist bowler, right? Well, Ashwin hasn’t batted as many times as Duminy – 69 innings to Duminy’s 72 – but after those 69 innings Ashwin has scored 1903 runs at 32.25. In short, Ashwin is more or less Duminy’s equal with the bat, and vastly superior with the ball.

The most telling figure here, though, is Duminy’s relatively tiny number of overs bowled.

Historically, South African allrounders have bowled about 20 overs per Test. Brian McMillan lumbered his way through 26 per Test, Andrew Hall and Lance Klusener contributed 23 per Test, and even Jacques Kallis, used ever more sparingly later in his career, averaged just over 20 per Test. Duminy’s contribution? 9.8 overs a Test.

We all know he can bowl and break partnerships, but the point is that he doesn‘t bowl. This is understandable given the potency of the SA pace attack, but the simple fact is that Duminy is being used as a part-time spinner, which means he’s being selected as a specialist batsman. And he simply isn’t that. Not by a long shot.

So next time you hear Graeme Hick’s name being used as a synonym for cricketing failure, suggest that it’s time for an update.

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

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

Up into a clear blue sky

ballThe story of leg-spin is a history of Test cricket itself.

The great names conjure not only their deeds but their entire eras. In the jerky newsreel footage of the 1930s we find Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett bowling in tandem for Australia, a fearful prospect on uncovered pitches; and yet, even as they reach their prime, their partnership suddenly in danger of becoming an anachronism as fast bowlers begin their rise to power in the post-Bodyline era.

By the early 1960s, Tests have become staid: Subhash Gupte and Richie Benaud wheel away to polite applause. Attrition trumps dynamism, but still, Gupte works such magic that Garfield Sobers later declares the Indian to be the best leggie of all time, better even than Shane Warne.

Soon, though, the game is shocked awake out of its genteel slumber and pitched headlong into a back-street brawl as Australia and the West Indies cry havoc and let slip the pace quartets of the 1970s and 1980s. Spin, it seems, is dead: the only leg-breaks most captains want are fractured tibias. But one leggie survives, even thrives, in this bellicose atmosphere. Abdul Qadir not only keeps the subtle art alive as crude brutality rages all around him, but he reinvents the role of the modern leg-spinner, integrating it with the new aggression in the game. Gone is the gentleman fly-fisherman flicking a lure across a pool. In its place is a tiger, wading out to grab its prey by the throat. Graham Gooch later declares Qadir – you guessed it – better even than Warne.

But the pace monsters don’t rule forever: by the early 1990s they are a dying breed, and batsmen emerge to sniff at a brave new world in which they can score freely without getting killed. Enter Anil Kumble, a sniper disguised as a myopic accountant; cue run rates straight out of the early 1950s, and batsmen self-destructing from pure frustration. And then, of course, we come to Old Trafford in 1993, and Mike Gatting settling over his bat as a young Australian gets ready to bowl his first ball in Ashes cricket…

It’s a grand history that should have bequeathed us a grand present, but that “better than Warne” refrain is telling. No doubt Sobers and Gooch honestly believed that the top leg-spinners of their respective eras were better than Warne, but that fact that they felt compelled to put it in those terms is proof of how the Australian has become the standard against which all others are compared. He is the high-water mark of wrist-spin, and that, unfortunately for us, implies that the art has declined since his retirement. The story has reached its climax, the the subsequent chapters feel a little haphazard.

But perhaps a disrupted narrative is entirely appropriate. Leg-spin is by its very nature unorthodox. It barely obeys its own rules: look back at the great leggies and you see almost as much variety as in an over by Qadir. There are O’Reilly, Warne and Stuart MacGill, ripping it diagonally with a low arm, getting late, crazy drift and huge turn. There are Qadir and Mushtaq Ahmed, chest-on, arms coming over high and whirling, making them look as if they were bowling off the wrong foot, immaculate lengths allowing their googlies to jag between bat and pad. There are Kumble and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, whipping down medium-fast deliveries that just deviate enough to qualify as leg-breaks. And then there is the spidery, probing method of the disgraced Danish Kaneria, showing glimpses of past greats; the Qadir googly, Warne’s aggressive leg-break, Kumble’s bounce.

The story of leg-spin is so full of intrigue and drama that it’s easy to get seduced by the past and to neglect the present, where another Pakistani is eagerly wrenching his wrist for South Africa. Last month this column admitted that some of us might have misunderstood Morné Morkel’s role in the Proteas’ attack; that we have been frustrated by his perceived failure to turn into a helmet-ratting spearhead when in fact we should have been enjoying him as a vital member of the supporting cast. But if we admit that we are measuring current fast bowlers against the legends of the past – Morkel has been compared to tall West Indian greats more than once – then we must also admit that we judge current leggies against masters of the recent past.

Indeed, Warne and MacGill have so addled our perception of what leg-spin is that many fans, myself included, have an unconscious irrational belief that leg-spinners are the ultimate strike weapon. I remember watching Tests in the late 1990s and desperately wishing that Glenn McGrath, perhaps the best seam bowler of all time, would stay on for a few overs more just to delay the spin apocalypse. Perhaps it is inevitable that people who grew up watching the ball drift outside leg-stump and spit viciously into the top of off-stump should look it at Tahir and see a gangling pretender, a clownish also-ran who either buys his wickets or has them handed to him by bad shots.

Comparisons might be inevitable, but they are also odious. But how do we un-remember Warne? I’m not sure. Gymnastics and figure-skating are scored using a “trimmed mean”, a simple but effective way of removing bias from the judging process whereby the highest and lowest scores are discarded and the gymnast or skater is awarded an average of the remaining scores. Perhaps, when we judge Tahir, we should try a similar method; discounting the once-in-lifetime phenomenon that was the Australian.

Once we manage that, and accept that the Ball from Hell isn’t likely to happen again, or that a new version of the flipper is not about to be invented, Tahir’s contribution becomes clearer and more impressive. Suddenly, as we begin to see what we actually have rather than what we hoped for, we see a hard-working, old-fashioned leg-spinner, and everything that that entails: beautifully controlled spells that go unrewarded; awful deliveries that capture wickets; sharp turn out of nowhere on the second day; listless, barely deviating fodder on the third.

Tahir works hard and has managed to survive in the modern game, bringing passion and aggression to his performances. He is blossoming into an important part of the one-day team, bowling not only with economy but also with exceptional penetration: after 12 ODIs, Muttiah Muralitharan and Waqar Younis had taken 12 wickets each, Wasim Akram had 14, Dale Steyn 15, Shaun Pollock and Glenn McGrath 19, and Warne had taken 24; Tahir has taken 26. Not bad for someone whose international future was bleak a few months ago. And yet, for all his competence in cricket’s more modern incarnations, he remains a throwback to an era before Warne, perhaps even before Qadir. There is something of the Benaud in Tahir. He loops and lopes; he is a bowler who smiles and hopes for the best rather than one who glares and imposes himself on a game. He reminds us that leg-spin is an eccentric art, made for the pleasure of the bowler, and that successes are joys rather than entitlements. If his plans fail more often than they succeed, well, such is the true nature of the sport: cricket is not an exhibition; it is a work in progress.

Besides, it’s not as if South Africans are strangers to erratic spinners. Paul Adams romped to 100 Test wickets faster than any South African slow bowler before him, despite telegraphing his flat, skidding wrong-un and bowling one helping of pie almost every over.

Tahir turns 35 in March, which makes it unlikely that he will threaten Adams’ record. If all goes well, the Proteas’ physiotherapists might be able to massage another three years of international cricket out of Tahir, but this will not be long enough to help spawn a new generation of leg-spinners in South Africa. Slow bowling is not a skill; it is a culture. It is not taught via coaching manuals or marking on a pitch; it is absorbed through the skin, into the heart and the gut. Like all art forms, it is a compulsion that makes no logical sense; an itch that has to be scratched. The true spinner is born, and while his classmates lie awake fretting over girls or school or parental injustices, he imagines the glorious sensation of letting go of the perfectly flighted, viciously spun leg-break. As he drifts off into dreams, he can almost taste it; the fizz of leather off dry grass, the magic of an immense deviation, the chaos in the batsman’s reactions.

Yes, the leg-spinner is born; but needs to be born into a healthy slow-bowling culture if he is to flourish. He has the compulsion and the gift, but he needs role-models: it is not surprisingly that Anil Kumble looked so much like Chandrasekhar, or that Mushtaq Ahmed was so reminiscent of Qadir. We learn by copying our heroes, and South Africa is desperately short of slow-bowling heroes. Indeed, it is an indictment of our one-dimensional approach to bowling in general that Hugh Tayfied is still our most successful spinner with 170 Test wickets. Every other major cricketing country has produced a spinner capable of reaching the 200-wickets mark – even tiny New Zealand managed to find and nurture Daniel Vettori – and our obsession with pace is no excuse either: the West Indies’ Lance Gibbs was for a time one of only two bowlers in the 300 Club.

No, the first South African slow bowler to take 200 Test wickets is going to have to have spent the first decade of his life watching a good spinner play for South Africa; and that means we’re not getting any closer to producing that bowler. Tahir will retire relatively soon, and there is no-one else on the horizon.

Of course, he might appear out of the blue, a kid inspired by the legacy of Warne or Kumble, or simply one who, like a cricketing Harry Potter, one day discovers that he has magic in his wrist. But even if there is a seven-year-old Warne about to enter the schooling system this year, whom luck and history have blessed with two supportive parents and enough money to let him play sport, his problems are just starting. The moment he rolls out his first leg-break, he will be an object of   confusion. Coaches will tell him to bowl medium-pace a foot outside off-stump. If he persists on bowling spin, they won’t know what he is or where he belongs, and they certainly won’t allow him the space to fail and try again. It will seem terribly unfair: young batsmen with horrible techniques, backing away to leg or flailing across the line, will be picked again and again for junior school teams; but should our young spinner be slogged once or twice, he will soon be relegated to the reserves

If his talent is pure enough to survive the ravages of primary school coaches, he will face a new threat: teenaged captains, conservatively South African to their cores, raised watching ODIs and fixated on restricting runs and therefore totally unwilling to risk a few boundaries in return for wickets. His new captains will see that he bowls leg-spin – Hurrah! The ultimate weapon! – and will demand perfection. When he doesn’t bowl the Ball from Hell, their shoulders will droop and the slips will go quiet. When he gets slogged for runs, his teammates’ disappointment will become annoyance, and he will be banished to the outfield three overs before he is able to hatch anything like a plan.

But if he perseveres; if he is eccentric enough to stay true to his belief that bowling the ball with a flick of the wrist is life’s only true pleasure, then he might push the incompetents and the doubters aside and finally emerge among kindred spirits, people who recognize and nurture his rare gifts. And then…the sky is the limit; that lovely blue sky, made just for him, so he could flight a cricket ball into it, and listen to it hum away down the track, bewitching the batsmen, delighting the watchers; perhaps bringing him fame and wealth, but most important of all, joy.

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Published in Business Day Sport magazine

The Prince is gone

BrianLaraUkexpatThe farewells and testimonials have been effusive, befitting someone of the stature of Brian Charles Lara. But, behind the carefully complimentary prose and the staggering, almost numbing, statistics, there have been both a tension and a hollowness.

A tension, because it would not be proper for seasoned journalists to write thinly veiled love letters to a player who has reminded them that beauty and grandeur are still part of professional sports, and a hollowness because last month Lara was in the cricketing world and the sun shone, and this week he is not, and everything is a little dimmer, and a little less worth doing.

At some point in the next few months, Sachin Tendulkar might regain some form, and peel off a couple of his perfect, soulless centuries, and the decade-old debate comparing him to Lara will resurface briefly. If he plays on for another two seasons, the Indian should pass Lara’s record test runs tally. Eventually, both men will be eclipsed by Ricky Ponting, if form and favour spare the Australians.

The current wave of genuinely awful international bowlers and batter-friendly pitches swamping the sport will no doubt also conspire at some stage in the next 20 years to catapult some hard-charging entertainer past Lara’s record score of 400 not out. But, whatever the lists look like when the last Test is played, or whatever the water-cooler debates insist about the merits of Tendulkar, Lara’s legacy will stand unchallenged. For nobody in the history of the game made as many runs, in such dire circumstances, quite so beautifully.

To watch Lara bat was to see the perfect combination of technique, intent, improvisation and confidence: genius, in other words. Before excess weight, hamstring injuries and horrific pressure plunged him into a form trough in 2001 and forced him to revisit his technique, every delivery he faced was a spectacle.

First would come the two-footed hop into position, back and across his stumps, as his body bunched and his eyes got low: future generations will struggle to reconcile those eyes, serious and intent in every action photograph, with the high voice, the shrugs at post-defeat press conferences, the wide, boyish smile in the few happy times.

Then came the back-lift, flashing up to the vertical, samurai-like. An instant of stillness. A flash of sunlight on willow, as an idiosyncratic flexing of the wrists sent a ripple of adrenalin through the blade: it was the same pulse one sees in the haunches of the big hunting cats before they launch.

And then the stroke, technically familiar, but eternally reinvented. The guillotine-like forward defensive, the bat slamming down in front of excessively high elbows, head bowed in an exaggerated pose of caution. The spanking cut, as vicious and cheeky as if he had rolled up a wet towel and whipped the passing rumps of an elderly dame at a health spa, and scampered off grinning. The famous raised-knee pull; the slightly wild hook, with its chaotic swivel, the crunch of spikes ripping up pitch as he rode the hurricane over backward square leg.

And, at last, the stroke one had come to see, and the stroke that made all the miscued shots or jogged singles worthwhile: the cover-drive, a flashing pronouncement of intent and domination, offset by touch and grace. To be hammered through the covers by a Tendulkar or a Ponting is to have bowled a bad ball; to be smoked to the ropes by Lara is to have been part of something great.

Many of those who have written eulogies for his career this week have mourned the fact that he failed to flourish in his final international appearance. It was an odd observation, partly because it overlooked the fact that almost all of the greats have stumbled at the last hurdle, but more so because it also seemed to ignore the reality that Lara’s one-day career since 1999 has been entirely forgettable, a procession of half-starts, bored surrenders and frenzied, ill-fated onslaughts.

Certainly, Lara was too great a player and has too refined a cricket brain to pay very much attention to one-day cricket. But perhaps there was more to it. After the England game he tried to insist, one last time, that he was a team man, but no genius is truly a team player.

When Lara batted, he was entirely alone, testing himself in a rarified space that only a handful of batsmen in history have known. To someone able to score 400, or to summon the will and aggression to beat Australia single-handed as he did in 1999 with what is widely considered the great Test innings of all time, an unbeaten 153, the nonsense and haste of one-day cricket must have seemed less than mildly irritating: the frenzy of ants caught in the beam of a magnifying-glass held by children or sponsors or committee men.

“Did I entertain you?” he asked as he tried not to cry in Barbados.

If only you knew how much, we replied, also trying not to cry.

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First published in the Mail&Guardian