Cape Town – The return to a dedicated fielding coach by the Proteas appears to have come in the nick of time.
When head coach Ottis Gibson revealed his back-up panel a few days ago, the installation of Justin Ontong was more of a surprise, perhaps, in terms of who assumed the role than the actual principle of having one.
Clearly Gibson had made a mental observation or two, even as he remained on England’s books as their bowling coach, about the declining standards in the field by the South Africans, who toured – and lost to – that country earlier this year in all three formats.
While watching recent activity in the local franchise environment, too, he would almost certainly only have strengthened his resolve to make more of a specialist fist of the fielding department among the Proteas.
So Gibson has acted very sensibly, even if it naturally remains to be seen how well the affable, unassuming Ontong translates his own, known lofty standards as a fielder into tutoring and drills for the national players.
At least it has been confirmed now, through weekend media reports from the proverbial horse’s mouth, that the almost 38-year-old Ontong will officially end his own franchise career when he begins his Proteas job in mid-December, in reasonable time for the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe in Port Elizabeth.
It is an uncomfortable truth that, quite feasibly, the general fielding culture in South African cricket at various levels is at its worst since the return from isolation in 1991.
Most often in the intervening years, it has been excellent; in the last four or five summers, it has been in almost inexplicable, too-noticeable decline, suggesting that a certain complacency may have crept in, a fatal assumption that South Africans will field well just because they are … well, South African.
Certainly as the former pace-setters in the world – especially in the phase when Hansie Cronje was a captain utterly insistent on high fielding and fitness standards, and inspiring figures like Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs thrillingly backed him up – the Proteas have gradually been hauled in and then, gallingly, overtaken by several teams who probably even used them once as poster factors in that area.
Beyond the much-publicised fall from grace and then tragic death of Cronje, South Africa largely prevented rot setting in too markedly because of the almost unfailing, bucket hands of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis in critical, close-catching areas.
But then they followed each other into retirement and the net result has been the Proteas progressively shedding both panther-like characters in the outfield and routinely metronomic, specialist catchers in the slips and environs.
AB de Villiers will always be a wonderful, utterly reliable fielder wherever he is stationed within the ropes – or with the gloves -- but he is also no spring chicken (turning 34 in February) and sometimes labours with shoulder and other niggles these days, whilst Aiden Markram has shown strong early signs that he will help rejuvenate standards in both the Test and limited-overs arenas.
Temba Bavuma has much of the instinctive, quicksilver brilliance of Rhodes, but bear in mind that his Test place could become pretty insecure if the Proteas opt for a “six batsmen” formula in many of the plethora of late-summer Test matches on home soil, including keynote visits from India and Australia.
Beyond those names, though, truly special fielding qualities are in relatively short supply among the national squad.
Indeed, a few incumbents might take a leaf from the book of someone like Imran Tahir, the evergreen leg-spinner in the ODI and T20 sides who, despite being a ripe old 38 himself, seems to have consciously worked on upping his mobility and agility as a fielder – a department where he was once rather closer to a liability.
What is particularly worrying, of late, is the sometimes almost comical standard of fielding that has gripped the ongoing Ram Slam T20 Challenge like some sort of undesirable virus.
Catches are going down dime a dozen, whether at close range or in deeper spots, and the various SuperSport commentators like Kepler Wessels, Eric Simons and Brett Proctor not slow to pick up on the phenomenon in some angst.
The ground-fielding seems tardy, too, with more than a few costly through-the-legs incidents near the boundaries that have had bowlers rightly issuing dirty looks and unflattering mutters.
Good luck Mr Ontong, the scene is certainly set for you to make a difference at a time of tangible need.
And at least we know that Ottis Gibson is aware of a mushrooming problem …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing