They Call it Madness

There can be little doubt that South Africa, and the South African cricket community, expected to beat England. In fact, I think a lot of people probably didn't expect England to be at the races.

The fact that the series was drawn - whether England deserved it or not - has led to one of South African cricket's periodic bouts of blood-letting, even if the reasons for it are much more long-standing and complex.

Rumours abound. One of them suggests that Arthur resigned because the wind seemed to be blowing in the direction of Jacques Kallis's omission from the forthcoming Indian tour. And today I read that Graeme Smith isn't the most popular player in the country. In the words of one Kevin McCallum:

Smith is resented because he seems so sure of himself, because he scores his runs in such an ugly manner, and at such a rapid rate. This fear of confidence in South Africa is utterly bizarre. The perception of Smith is based more on emotion than the make-up of the man.

Just in case anyone hadn't noticed, Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith can both bat a bit.

Are these people mad?


Nothing Special

Ignoring the main point of discussion about the England team for Bangladesh, which seems to centre on the fact that Andrew Strauss is giving the tour a miss (I'm firmly in the anti camp), I found myself looking up Ajmal Shahzad's details on Cricinfo the other day as Michael Vaughan kept going on about him on TMS.

I keep a fairly close eye on county cricket and couldn't remember him doing very much, but thought I must have overlooked something as Vaughan kept talking about him as though he was the best thing since sliced bread.

Cricinfo revealed that he's taken 53 wickets at 35 from 22 matches, with a best of 4 for 22. Nothing special, and for a moment I found myself wondering what was up and how we could even consider picking someone for a Test squad when they'd never taken five wickets in a first-class innings. It wouldn't have happened in the old days (as Fred Trueman might have pointed out).

But then I remembered that Wayne Parnell and Nathan Hauritz were in the same boat when picked by South Africa and Australia respectively. Indeed Hauritz's average was well over 40 and he's done okay, so perhaps it doesn't matter all that much.

We'll see. The chances of Shahzad actually playing in Bangladesh look slim, not that that's enough to prevent him being dropped. Just ask Adil Rashid.


Hard As Nails

England's evisceration at the hands of Steyn and Morkel was quick, it was bloodless and it had been coming. With Steyn closer to his outstanding best than ever before against England and Morkel looking once again like a bowler who could terrorise the world, something had to give, and with England's two best batsmen continuing to struggle and the lower order failing to compensate (just what was Prior thinking?) it was always likely to be the precarious lead which they brought north from Cape Town.

On England's side it was a series for low-key heroes; less so South Africa, with the immense Kallis and Smith doing what they do best, although yesterday it was refreshing and appropriate for the frequently overlooked Mark Boucher to take his share of the limelight.

Despite their strange flirtation with Thami Tsolekile and AB de Villiers (not sure what happened to him) under Ray Jennings it's now very hard to imagine or remember a South African side without Boucher behind the stumps. Low-slung, perennially scowling, shuffling up and down the cut strip for hours on end and catching chance after chance off the seamers. His trademark celebration - a leap in the air and the ball thrown skywards - is an island of relative flamboyance in a sea of businesslike reserve.

Boucher now stands as one of the greatest post-isolation South African cricketers; a wicket-keeper of class and consistency, a batsman of timing and fortitude who's at his very best under pressure, a hard-as-nails senior pro who's seen it all and more, and who, with Ntini gone, represents, along with Kallis, the final link with the Cronje era.

He's never exactly been a cricketer to warm to, but this time of all times he didn't deserve to end up on the losing side.


Hard Rain

One of the great things about the British institution that is Test Match Special is that it can often be at its most entertaining when there's nothing happening on the field.

So it was today. England were being taken to the cleaners by South Africa when it rained. Really, really rained. And listeners in the UK were treated to the sound of Jonathan Agnew failing to suppress what sounded suspiciously like a scream of terror as a very loud clap of thunder reverberated around the ground. In the meantime Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Vic Marks compared recollections of great ground-flooding storms of the past, like The Oval '68 or The Gabba '98, while Michael Vaughan complained about the draught as the wind began to whistle through the commentary box.

The Twitter feeds of Agnew and David Lloyd reveal the life of the professional cricket commentator in all its glory - a staple diet of expenses paid cricket-watching, sunshine, travel and fine dining, interspersed with regular 'holidays' and fat-fee (if not fat-free) after-dinner speaking - so it may not have been a bad thing for them to suffer a rare bit of hardship.

High Veldt storms can be fierce and unsettling. As someone said, the thunder was so loud that 'even Daryl Harper would have heard it'.


Everything's Fine (unless you're KP)

As usual, after England have done something few people expected them to, everyone's views on the topics of the moment appear to have changed. Ian Bell is a master batsman, and his place in the side can never be doubted again, while KP may be finished, owing to a combination of off-field distractions ('lack of hunger' some people call it) and dodgy technique.

This is rubbish. I've always liked Ian Bell, but, by Centurion, I'd started to doubt. Since then he's batted very well, and, most importantly, he did so in Cape Town under intense pressure, but more is needed for a lasting judgement to be made

KP will come good again. Don't worry, and, if you are, just dig out recordings of some of his finest innings for England (The Oval 2005 should do it). He might have been out cheaply a few times recently but he really can bat.

The only things everyone can agree on are that Paul Collingwood's one hell of a tough bugger, and for someone who can't really bat, Graham Onions has batted quite well in some difficult situations recently.

I hope he isn't required at the Wanderers, though.


The Umpire's Decision is Final (unless the umpire is Daryl Harper)

It's been a tricky and tedious week, with too much time spent trekking to and from work amid the snow and ice to allow me to see any of the live action from Cape Town.

I have, however, managed to catch each evening's retrospective on Sky, and found last night's especially entertaining, although that had nothing to do with anything the players did.

A theme which has occasionally surfaced here over the years - and something which I find genuinely mystifying and shocking - is the question of how on earth an umpire with such a record of utter incompetence as Daryl Harper has remained a member of the ICC Elite Umpires' Panel for as long as he has.

One of the few pundits who's consistently given Harper his due over the years is the inimitable Bob Willis, and, after the howlers of yesterday and the day before (both thankfully rendered insignificant by the UDRS), he was the usual model of splenetic restraint.

Delving into the depths of his vocabulary for a word rarely if ever heard before on a major sports programme, Willis appropriately described Harper as a 'nincompoop'.


Ramifications of Failure

With the dust having settled a bit I wonder if it's now possible to make any sense out of what happened at Kingsmead a few days ago.

Because of the ease with which England had built their lead I wasn't expecting South Africa to have too much trouble batting out time. The potential movement, for both Swann and the seamers, looked slow, the South African batting line-up looked experienced and capable, if just a little short with Morne Morkel at eight. Sitting on a sofa a few thousand miles away all looked fine and dandy.

It soon became clear, though, that things were far from fine. We had Amla offering an exemplary display of how not to drive at a big turning off-spinner, followed by Kallis, de Villiers and Duminy all temporarily forgetting that in seaming conditions it can often be just as dangerous to try too hard not to use your bat as it is to use it.

Kallis's decision not to play a stroke at a ball from Broad which, even if it hadn't moved, would have come very close to his off-stump, looked like an especially bizarre misjudgement. But why?

Well, the trite explanation (but also the correct one) is to say that the pressure got to them. When their team's unxepectedly up against it and their minds start to be infected by the negative ramifications of failure, players, even great ones, do very strange things.

But it seems to me that the current South African side are perhaps more susceptible to this type of collapse than many other teams of the past with whom they'd like to rank themselves. I do not feel that they yet have the depth of confidence that goes with a record of sustained achievement, nor the type of settled attack which instils confidence in their batsmen. It's surely unquestioned now that the sentimental, possibly politically-influenced, decision to play Ntini at Durban was wrong, and it heaped further pressure on a team that was more vulnerable to the type of bristling counter-attack which England came up with than they'd have liked us to have believed.

This is a good team, if you let it play. If you get in its face and do what it doesn't fancy, like trying to get people out with orthodox off-spin from the first ball you bowl, you've got a chance.

And Kallis - immensely experienced, technically-sound, but inclined to be a little too predictable, one-paced and cocksure - exemplifies their vulnerability to opponents who do what they least expect.

Whether, given their terrible post-isolation record there, England can do the same in Cape Town in the face of what's bound to be an intense South African backlash, remains to be seen.

As someone who spent the early days of 1996 in the shadow of Table Mountain and who still comes out in a muck sweat at the mere mention of the names of Dave Richardson and Paul Adams, I know what can happen out there on the Newlands acres.

We await Sunday morning with interest.

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