July 16, 2017

Reputations can be acquired quickly in sport but they can also take a very long time to lose.

Despite playing some of the more adventurous test cricket in the last decade, South Africa are still regarded as “conservative” according to the suddenly suffering English supporters and commentators.

There is a great deal to be said for the infliction of pain and suffering in test cricket. Not for sadistic reasons or because you believe in revenge for the times you have suffered, but simply because by making your opponents tired, miserable and grumpy – and hopefully squabbly among themselves – you significantly improve your chances of victory.

A frustrated crowd started slow hand-clapping the Proteas batsmen at a couple of points during a day in which the seizure of complete control of the test match was meticulous, ruthless and, yes, brutal. England’s bowlers have had to toil on all three days of the test match and that always leads to conflict between the bowlers and batsmen – especially when grumpy Jimmy Anderson is involved.

“He is undoubtedly the grumpiest cricketer I ever played with or against,” said Graeme Smith with a smile. “Having had to warm-up for a bowl on all three days will not have pleased him in the slightest.” Anderson’s long-time friend and teammate, Graeme Swann, concurred: “He will not have been happy with the batsmen, make no mistake about that. None of the bowlers will be.”

All the more reason, then, for Faf du Plessis to delay the declaration and keep the suffering going for as long as possible. And didn’t they do it brilliantly. Every time Hashim Amla stretched forward and blocked the ball after lunch, it was another prod at the blisters and aching muscles of England’s weary attack. And every time you heard an English commentator say: “Why don’t they just get on with it?” – you knew it was the right strategy, and that it was working.

Dean Elgar set the perfect tempo, Amla was imperious and the captain, Du Plessis, thankfully added some important runs to his highly intuitive and intelligent leadership so he has, at least, got something tangible to show for what ought to be a long-remembered victory, mostly for it’s unlikeliness given what happened at Lord’s.

There are eight scheduled days off until the Oval test – nine if the Proteas win tomorrow – and several of the squad, those with young families like Amla and batting coach Neil McKenzie, have opted to return home for the best part of a week to spend a few days of the school holidays doing what ‘normal’ parents do. Former captains and current commentators, Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith, will be joining them in the comfortable section of the aeroplane, at the front.


July 15, 2017

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a plan coming together for a test match captain and bowler, whether it is one conceived on the spot or hatched over many days with the aid of hours of video analysis and technical research.

Even better if it results in a potentially crucial batting collapse and even contributes to a victory.

It may sound like it couldn’t get any better than that, but what if it also transforms the successful bowler, lifts him out of a malaise of doubt and inconsistency and perhaps even changes him for the rest of the series. It is perfectly possible to see that happening to Chris Morris.

England were already in deep trouble at 168-5 but Moeen Ali was once again threatening to haul the hosts back from the abyss at 199-6 when Du Plessis, having encouraged and cajoled both Morris and the equally struggling Duanne Olivier all day, came up with a plan. The slower ball, which Morris has learned to bowl so well in the IPL, full of length and outside off stump, to tempt Moeen into the drive and he’ll lob it to cover. So confident was Du Plessis in the plan, or at least that’s what he wanted his bowler to believe, that he placed himself at cover point for the catch. And then promptly caught it.

England lost two further wickets on the same total and the game was utterly transformed. Morris had gone from having a shocker of a day (3-0-20-0) to finishing with 3-38 and helping to earn an almost certainly decisive first-innings lead of 130 runs.

Olivier was less erratic than Morris in his early overs but the returns were equally bleak. Du Plessis was constantly encouraging, not in a prescriptive way (fast bowlers hate nothing more than batsmen telling them how to bowl) but in a supportive way. Philander was excellent, again, and Morkel mostly so. England were rubbish.

“The problem I have with the test team,” said former captain Michael Vaughan, “is that they fail to read the situation. Joe Root played a stunning, counter-attacking innings but as the best batsman in the team he needed to recognise that Morkel was coming towards the end of a brilliant and very unlucky spell, he just needed to see him out of the attack. Instead he played an expansive drive and was caught with Morne probably only a couple of deliveries from being taken off.”

Graeme Smith shared the view that England had contributed massively to their own downfall. “I’m all for positive, attacking cricket but sometimes test cricket doesn’t allow for that. England need to find another gear in their batting,” he said, referring to a lower one rather than a higher one. “I like the approach of ‘that’s how we play’ but if it means you get bowled out in 50 overs then obviously you need to reconsider how you play sometimes.”

Keshav Maharaj bowled spectacularly well and made a stunning comeback from an awful test at Lord’s, Philander’s half century and the support from Morris with the bat were crucial, and the fielding was so much better. It was a brilliant day for the Proteas. It was a delight to share a press box with so many head-shaking, muttering local writers after England’s triumph last week.

But much as it seems counter-intuitive to give the player-of-the-day to someone who took a couple of regulation catches, and as reluctant as we should be to build him up as an iconic leader, today was a crystal clear example of what great captaincy is all about. The influence Du Plessis has on the team, the shape he gave to this test match, and possibly the series, is unlikely to be as clear as it was today.

“It was a superb day for South Africa,” Smith said. “Obvious intent, clear targets, good plans… and the captaincy was outstanding.”

It is South Africa’s test match to lose now. Surely (I’ve said this before!) only bad weather can deny them a series-levelling victory.


July 14, 2017

At 240-6 with around 20 overs left on the first day, AB de Villiers tweeted that Philander and Morris needed to get the score up to 300 “which is a good score on this wicket.”

It was sentiment shared by many who know the ground and English cricket well. Philander the bowler, they say, will be a constant threat. I fancy Duanne Olivier to make an impression.

Hashim Amla’s insistence on playing the hook shot was peculiar. He played half a dozen, got three top edges, one splice, one play and miss and a total of three runs before his fourth top edge was caught at fine leg.

In the days when he didn’t play the shot he received his full quota of bouncers, and often more than.

It was perfectly natural and, indeed, laudable that he wished to improve his game by adding a scoring option against the bouncer and he worked harder than most will ever realise one winter in the Kingsmead indoor school.

He never really ‘nailed’ the shot but he certainly played it well enough to put a doubt in the bowler’s mind, which is really the point of the exercise.

Still, it wasn’t his day - or the right surface – to be playing it and, once the first couple of top edges had dropped nervously close to the fielders in the deep, he might have put it away for the rest of the day.

But when you have played 100 test matches and reached 8 000 runs, you almost certainly know better than anyone else what is best for you and the team.

Still, he’d be especially disappointed at getting out for 78 when an unbeaten century might have put the team en route to 400 and a position of complete dominance. They may still get there.

We expected Quinton de Kock to bat at number five or number six with the decision having finally been made that he is wasted down at number seven.

It was a surprise to see him appear at number four but he, apparently, happy to bat “wherever the team needs” him.

The captain really should be batting there himself, but he seems rather too emotionally attached to the number five spot. Nonetheless, De Kock looked superb, as he does anywhere.

It seemed a brave decision to bat first under cloudy skies but was based on the fact that the grass was cut shorter than is usual on the match pitch which would result in less seam movement and a tendency for it to play lower and slower as the match progresses.

No doubt Faf would have been aware of that. He is an excellent researcher.

You have to sit pretty still in the press box at Trent Bridge positioned directly above the sightscreen at the Radcliffe Road end behind untinted glass.

Several batsmen over the years have backed away following journalistic movement and there are notices in front of every second seat reminding you that working conditions are slightly different than in most press boxes around the world.

While “evenly matched” was the most popular assessment of the day’s play, former England captain Michael Vaughan had no doubt about where the advantage lay after 90 overs.

“There’s plenty in the pitch to encourage the bowlers, so, with South Africa playing four seamers in this game, I’d rather be in their dressing room tonight than in England’s.

The partnership between Philander and Morris definitely swung the day in South Africa’s favour.

The Trent Bridge Inn was a happy place for the usual posse of Proteas supporters.


July 13, 2017

Joe Root considered his answer carefully but then admitted that, for a team of South Africa’s reputation for fighting until the bitter end and never giving up, he had been “a little bit surprised” by the ease and rapidity of their demise in the first test at Lord’s.

“Having said that, it was a difficult wicket and we bowled well, especially our spinners.” Indeed. Why on earth would he say that the opposition were below par and disappointing? That would serve no purpose other than to inspire them.

Faf du Plessis was cuttingly honest, as always, but there was more to read between the lines than usual. He has made his reputation by cutting out the ‘nonsense’ from the daily lives of his players, the politics and the insecurity it brings to their performance. It was evident at Lord’s, and for weeks beforehand, and he was aware of it. The disappointment of not being here to start the test series was undisguised, but quite rightly not apologised for.

“It is incredibly important that we bounce back now from what happened so far, from the ODI series and the Champions Trophy. I would have loved to be here for the Lord’s test but now we face a test of character that we have seen before and come through,” Du Plessis said.

“From the moment that JP was told he was being left out he dedicated himself to helping the team, and that is crucial to the philosophy of this team, it is part of the journey of where we have come from and where we want to go. Helping and supporting each other is what we are about.”

Having insisted that transformation targets were made public a year ago, he spoke with complete authority about the fact that only four of the required six players of colour had been selected for this test match. Actually, it wasn’t with ‘complete’ authority because, having said he was about to use ‘a big word’, he forgot what it was. The word was “extenuating” and it applied to the suspension of Kagiso Rabada. Instead he settled for “special”.

The selectors can dip below the national requirement in any match because the ‘target’ requirement is measured over the course of a season, but a selection such as this one does require an explanation. Or extenuating circumstances.

On the final couple of days of the Lord’s test the pre-game warm-ups were limp. There were no high catches and the fielding drills, normally so clipped, looked lacklustre. It appeared a little haphazard. The desperately sorry loss of head coach Russell Domingo’s mother would naturally create a sense of bewilderment, but far less so had the remaining coaching staff had a sense of their own future.

Not in a decade has there been a more overbearing sense of doom during a series. And yet… Duanne Olivier. Maybe he can be the spark at a venue that traditonally favours seam and swing? Theunis de Bruyn – a career-defining innings waiting to happen?

The best part about low expectations is that you can only be pleasently surprised.

 


July 12, 2017

One of Faf du Plessis’ greatest strengths as a captain is his honesty, not only publicly but to the team.

There was no messing about with the results produced by J-P Duminy, for example. “He will be the first to admit they are not good enough. He is an important member of the leadership group but runs are what count,” Du Plessis said.

Morne Morkel was in a similarly honest frame of mind – or at least tried to be – in admitting that there “was no excuse” for bowling no-balls, saying that they were more likely to be eliminated when he “had rhythm.”

Du Plessis was sympathetic, to a degree, but added – with a suitable degree of ‘edge’ in his voice, that “whatever we are doing at the moment is obviously not enough and we will have to do more to eliminate them. Morne has taken 12 wickets with no-balls in test cricket…that is unacceptable.”

All the right noises are being heard between test matches. There is an acceptance that the Lord’s defeat was not only undesirable, but shocking in its nature. Dropped catches cost over 200 runs, no-balls another 50 or so and batsmen reaching 50 without converting to centuries were errors the team has not made for the last year.

Du Plessis admitted that the uncertainty of coach Russell Domingo’s future has not been ideal but offered his support to the current coach should his re-application for the post be successful. “But only if he really wants it.”

The weight of responsibility and the many duties outside batting, bowling and fielding – added to his recent bereavement – may have contributed to a desire for a fresh challenge.

Du Plessis also spoke about the possibility of playing four seamers in the second test in Nottingham at the expense of a specialist batsman, although he admitted that selection posed “many challenges.”

There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but at this stage it is no more than a distant flicker.


July 11, 2017

It should probably be taken as a compliment that the vast majority of England’s cricket writers and commentators are somewhat bewildered at the meekness of South Africa’s capitulation at Lord’s.

They have become accustomed to a fight which lasts a long time and tests every fibre and sinew of their cricketing characters.

They have also become used to seeing (and, in the case of the commentary team, playing against) South African teams which are militarily disciplined.

Dropped catches are so rare they still have names for them over here – “Boucher’s drop against Hussain in ’98” – and they are accustomed to long periods in which English batsmen have to scrap for every run, often with scampered, risky singles off good deliveries.

By now the Proteas will have held the first of several ‘debriefs’ following the debacle at Lord’s.

They will face up to their personal responsibilities and vow to do better. And they will have to.

Notwithstanding South Africa’s remarkable record at Lord’s until last week, no post-isolation series between the countries, home or away, has been decided by more than a single test.

The way things looked at Lord’s last week, the home side will fancy their chances of gaining an unbeatable advantage at Trent Bridge in Nottingham on Friday and then pulling away from there.

Although I don’t believe it will happen, it’s hard not to admit that the signs of a series, and tour, going into freefall are there for all to see.

That most esteemed of cricket writers, former England captain and renown psychologist Mike Brearley wrote an article in The Times headlined: “De Villiers absence a sign of crisis.”

“Here is an absence whose symbolism highlights the impending crisis in world cricket. AB has played 106 test matches (more than two years of a lifetime if one allows a week for each match), with a batting average of 50. He has a young family, who would like to see more of him, no doubt. And he is probably tired from weeks of T20 cricket and travel.

“But the 33-year-old’s choice suggests a worrying trend. How many leading players will be seduced by the big dollar to be had from a few T20 matches in domestic leagues, and what damage will such a trend do for international, and especially test, cricket?”

De Villiers is not THE cause of the current malaise in the Proteas squad, but he is a very significant part of it.

The main cause of doubt and uncertainty is the future of the coach Russell Domingo and the rest of his team.

They comprise a very large portion of the squad. A new coach will be appointed at the end of the tour and, in all likelihood, he will want to appoint the majority of his backroom staff.

That uncertainty and doubt filters through to the players.

One of the keys to the successful captaincy of Faf du Plessis has been his ability to call upon the players to perform for each other and to remain ‘in the moment.’

Now is his greatest challenge. With so many complications in selection for the second test with the banning of Kagiso Rabada and the fitness concerns over Vernon Philander, the swirling atmosphere of confusion will take some clearing.

Richard Pybus, Rob Walter and Geoffrey Toyana are among a currently short list of applicants to take over as head coach.

They understand the difficulties of the job and obviously back themselves in the most testing of conditions.

Many other significantly qualified coaches were simply too daunted to fill in the application.

Even Graeme Smith, who was encouraged to put his name in to the hat, decided against it – although it is certainly too soon for him anyway with three young children.