Rob Houwing

SA mustn’t gloss over flaws

2011-11-22 09:58
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - Honesty and perhaps even some tough love if necessary... that’s what is needed in the Proteas’ post-mortem as they contemplate yet another series that got away, to the justified chagrin of their supporters.


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New coach Gary Kirsten is emphatically not the type to resort to panic and pronounced knee-jerk reaction to adversity, but with a bit of luck he will also not be shy to spiritedly, comprehensively address lingering shortcomings in South Africa’s Test-match cricket in the wake of Australia’s thrilling, series-sharing victory at the Wanderers on Monday.

I believe “lingering” is very much the operative word, because the charges he has inherited continue to fall conspicuously short in major home series, and it is quite obviously seriously impeding their quest to return to the top of the global pile.

That is four headline series in a row now where the Proteas have either played second fiddle or only drawn in their own habitat, so serious questions are fully entitled to be asked by both fans and critics.

The unpalatable sequence started when Graeme Smith’s side arguably were seduced too much by their own good press and bottle-clinking bonhomie after the wonderful 2-1 triumph in Australia in 2008/09, and then didn’t “pitch” in various respects for the immediate return series back home and surrendered by the same margin.

That was a really disappointing “better try to wriggle the cork back in the champagne bottle” moment, a bit in line with the old joke we took pleasure in dishing up in these parts - in reverse - after South Africa’s legendary ODI chase against the same foes in the “438” game.

Then they failed to see off England and India in successive series with 1-1 outcomes in 2009/10 and 2010/11.

And now comes this one, which many rightly had viewed as a golden opportunity to finally rip a tenacious monkey off the back by seeing off the Aussies (ranked only fourth on the ICC ladder) on our soil for the first time in post-isolation.

When South Africa eventually prevailed by a handsome eight wickets in the rollercoaster ride that was the Newlands first Test, and with only a highly lamentable lone further battle to follow at the Bullring, circumstances just seemed so ripe for the Proteas to break the bogey, didn’t they?

After all, Australian cricket is in the midst of an often awkward, vulnerable rebuilding phase after their extended all-conquering era, and there is a case for saying it may be many years before so glorious another opportunity comes along again to crack their shell.

So the failure to close out the series at the Wanderers, where so much was in their favour to do so, seemingly sends out a clear signal: something is still missing in a South African side that labours desperately to achieve consistency and a killer touch in the five-day arena.

Even if they had achieved the series success (whether by winning or drawing in Johannesburg), continued imperfections would have needed to be acknowledged: let’s not forget that the Proteas came within a whisker of following on before they battled back for the remarkable win at Newlands.

But not getting over the series line anyway only makes even more starkly apparent now the Proteas’ difficulty in becoming a true machine in Tests in the manner of, say, the great West Indian side of the 1980s or the Aussies of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my own mind that “should be doing better” remains a very necessary element of any South African report card.

Why do they struggle to string together even two good performances on the trot? Do they really have the mental and physical hunger to get to the pinnacle and stay there?

Do they just not actually appreciate how good they should be as a unit, given the various stellar individual resources at their disposal?

Harsh? Hardly, I think: keep firmly in mind that the nucleus of this particular Proteas side has been together for a very long time.

The top seven batsmen in the current line-up boast a weighty, combined tally of 603 Test appearances - you wouldn’t necessarily have believed that had you watched their fatally rushed and impatient first innings at Wanderers - whilst the country also retains comfortably the best-performing fast bowler in the format in Dale Steyn, backed up by the emerging menace offered by Morne Morkel and now the latest revelation Vernon Philander.

With apologies to the traditional sign in the Chinese take-away shop, “Please be patient, good food takes a little longer to prepare”, that sort of plea doesn’t cut it any longer in terms of the national Test cricket team: they’ve had time enough together yet simply can’t seem to deliver on-field fare of a routinely lofty quality.

It is right that we laud Australia for a massively gutsy fourth-innings effort to win at the Wanderers, breaking some records in the process - their achievement was so impressive that there is no special cause to curse any clear-cut ineptitude or shortcoming by the opposition in the field in this particular instance.

But the great merit of the Baggy Greens’ effort is also not enough to stave off something that is all too apparent: South African under-achievement at home has become a dangerously entrenched phenomenon, not a fad.

Are they going to be humble and realistic enough to realise that?

We wait to see if there is truly constructive remedial action, whatever that may require ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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