Category Archives: saffas

4006 days of Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith trampled the grass between the slip cordon and the pitch, until he was level with David Warner. Then he let go with some straight talking about Joe Root and other home truths for Warner. Smith stood barely a metre from the batsman, towering above, but looking in another direction. Then, when he was sure Warner, and anyone with access to the stump mic, had got the message, he strolled, letting play continue once he was back in his spot at slip. That was Biff.

A short time later Morne Morkel was trapped in one of his overs from hell. Smith saw it, and ran up to help his lost fast bowler. He gave him the large paw on the shoulder, and deciding that Morne could use a bit more support, he stayed at mid-off until he was satisfied Morne was okay. Only then did he return to fill the massive hole he left at slip. That was Biff.

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The squat is the same. So are the massive shoulders that his massive jaw is virtually on top of, clearly visible beneath a massive helmet. The arm guard is pointed straight at the umpire. His toes bobble up and down. There are two precise slow taps of the bat. Knees bent, back hunched like he is too big for his equipment, too big to even be that good at batting. He holds the bat like only he could lift it, not so he can swing it, but more so he can drop it on the ball.

And he faces Glenn McGrath. McGrath, the seasoned veteran who still looks like a boy, bowling to the confident boy with the man’s body. In any sort of hand-to-hand combat, McGrath would likely be crushed. But with the ball, against a young kid thrown in at No. 3, McGrath wins often. Caught by Ponting, for 3.

In the second innings, Smith fights back. He turns balls from off stump to the leg side with that twist of his arms you will know so much you could imitate it drunk at 3am. When facing Shane Warne, he’ll lean forward, eager to show he is not afraid of Warne. Then, when the ball suits him and he gets some air, he’ll race at Warne, stamping his feet and lofting over mid-on with a beautiful lack of elegance. Eventually Warne will take the brash kid’s wicket. Caught behind, by Gilchrist, for 68.

At Newlands, in 2002, that kid making his Test debut was dismissed twice, by four legends of the game.

Smith’s form continued and he thought, rightfully, that he should have been in South Africa’s squad to play the 2003 World Cup at home. And he wanted to make his point. He did it by demanding he captain Western Province against South Africa in a warm-up match. A bold move from someone his age. What was supposed to be an intra-SA friendly match turned darker and tougher when Smith demanded that his players take it seriously and take down the main team.

It could have gone horribly wrong. Considering the players on both sides, it probably should have. Western Province won by seven wickets and almost 20 overs to spare. That’s not a contest. In the later games, which Smith did not captain, the senior team smashed their opposition. They had been burned once.

Smith’s biggest impact might have been when he and Shaun Pollock went toe to toe during one of those matches. The issue was trivial. Smith was upset that Pollock wasn’t adhering to the fielding conditions of an ODI match. He wanted it done properly, Pollock was just happy to have a warm-up. Here was a player in and out of the national team standing in the face of Pollock, a legend and captain. That is something people notice.

Smith had captained Gauteng school teams many times, and had experience in a few other senior games. But basically, that game he won for Western Province and him leading South Africa A in a comeback 2-1 win against a good Zimbabwe side was about it. And Shaun Pollock was captaining South Africa in the World Cup. Graeme Smith wasn’t even in the squad.

Hosting the World Cup was a monumental deal for South Africa. They wanted people to see that they were growing, that they were changing and that their part of the world was getting it right. On one day of the tournament, someone who brought the old South African flag into a ground was turfed out. None of that, people are watching, we must be at our best.

Their team wasn’t. They were so bad it even made news in the US when they crashed out of the tournament before it really began. Smith came in for three games, after Jonty Rhodes was ruled out with injury, and averaged 40. In Durban, he made 35 opening the batting against Sri Lanka. That’s not what people remember from that game. They remember that South Africa got their Duckworth-Lewis calculation wrong. They became a laughing stock to the world, but at home they were upset.

So upset that despite being the second-ranked ODI team, the second-ranked Test team and having won 13 of their last 16 Test series, Pollock was out. They needed someone new.

It was stupid and reactionary. A jumbo panic button to stop the yelling. Cricket administrators are nothing if not adept at offering sacrificial lambs for the press and fans to slaughter. Graham Ford was upset Pollock was gone, “Polly was a soft target. All I can conclude is that people hit on him in order to save their own jobs.”

Former South Africa coach, the late Bob Woolmer, said during that World Cup, “There is a vacuum in South African cricket. South Africa is not producing the type of cricketers it used to anymore. Many cricketers, both black and white, are not sure what the future holds for them.” It wasn’t just Woolmer thinking this. Allan Donald and Rhodes were done. Gary Kirsten was next. Pollock was embarrassed.

It wasn’t a vacuum, but a monumental chasm. And it needed to be filled.

A vetting committee to help find a captain was formed. It was the national professional selection advice committee, or something like that. They didn’t have many options. Kirsten was not going to last long. Mark Boucher was a wicketkeeper. Jacques Kallis was who he was. All they had was a young lad who had presence.

Presence is like an X-factor, hard to explain, but Smith had this immense presence when he was in front of you. Monstrous confidence radiated through him. Somehow he comforted the leaders of South African cricket, and they completely forgot their history as a conservative cricket nation, and Smith bustled his way through.

Smith was the youngest captain of his country. Almost 50 years earlier Ian Craig had been the same for Australia – a teen prodigy who had taken the job when Australia desperately needed someone. The idea was he would lead a youngish side into the promised land. He had already toured England, and captained New South Wales to a Shield win, and with six Tests to his name he took over the main job. He was practically the same age as Smith when he took over.

Despite having no quota system, a solid year of captaining older men behind him, no 24-hour news cycle or the internet, Craig, the young batting genius, captained in only one Test series – series he won, but in which he made no real runs and tried to drop himself for the last match. Due to illness and bad form, and without the backing of senior players, Craig was ruined.

There were some in South Africa who were worried that something similar would happen to Smith. So there was a compromise that was considered, a thought that Smith could be an apprentice to Pollock. Pollock said no, Smith said no. They were different men. Pollock backed Smith. Smith backed Smith.

Thirty-five days after his Western Province team had beaten South Africa, Smith was captain of his country.

He had barely played outside South Africa – a few ODIs in Sri Lanka – and he knew little of international cricket. But Smith knew he wanted to conquer it. He knew he wanted the team to lead, and with eight Tests and 22 ODIs to his name, he went about it.

Smith quickly distanced himself from disgraced (but still loved) former captain Cronje at his first press conference. What was left of Cronje’s team was also leaving. He also distanced himself from Pollock as a leader.

Pollock was laid back and magically gifted. It had been bred in him. Smith was a worker and his team would be more like him. South Africa would get to the ground earlier, and train harder and longer. More would be made of the nationalistic side of playing for the country. Smith wanted his men as inspired and prepared as he was.

Smith also said stupid things in the early days. People didn’t like him for it. He was not the only 22-year old to say stupid things, but he wasn’t a normal 22-year old. Australia seemed to hate him on first sight and felt betrayed that he mentioned their sledging in public. Some in South Africa felt he was more mouth than talent. And he arrived in England full of words.

It was in England that his career as captain really started. With Matthew Hayden sledging him from many time zones away, and Nasser Hussain’s massive insult of “wotshisname”, Smith was learning that being captain involved more than just turning up half an hour earlier at the ground. So he reacted in a brutal way. He scored 277. His second double-century in 11 Tests. In his 12th, he would score another. Hussain retired. Hayden looked silly.

From there, Smith built an empire based around the all-round brilliance of Kallis, champion bowlers of different eras, two of the sexiest batting talents in modern cricket. He balanced all this on his frame. No matter how good the other players were, or how amazing their feats were, everyone knew who the leader was. He was at the front, and hard to miss.

Smith made a bunch of runs in the second best chase in Tests and the best chase in ODIs. He added Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss to England captains he saw off. He was in charge when South Africa were the No. 1 ODI team. He was in charge when they were the No. 1 Test Team. And it was under Smith that Australia’s reign as the best team finally ended.

He did it all while opening the batting. When Smith is on the field, he has a little telltale sign that he is thinking hard, or something is going wrong for him. He slips his cap back a bit on his head, and rubs the front of his hair. Unlike most captains, he hasn’t gone grey or even started to bald, despite that hefty duke rubbing his head several times a day. Then, after all that thinking, Smith goes out to bat. When he does that he averages 48.

With a dodgy technique, a frame too large for batting, political pressures on selection, the chief executive who gave him the job sacked, the pressure of captaincy for over a decade, a few coaches, a public split with an ‘it’ girl, growing into a man, dealing with a friend’s career-ending injury, choking at World Cups, a long-distance relationship, and kids with illnesses, Smith still kept that average. That is a feat of a hungry giant.

But nothing is ever enough. In 2011, South African crowds booed Smith shortly after his team lost the World Cup quarter-final to New Zealand. A forensic examination of that South African team suggested a middle order that could be a problem under extreme temperatures. But, they had Hashim Amla, Smith, AB de Villiers and Kallis in the top four. Chasing a total of 221, I mean, come on. South Africa had tried to promote the phrase ‘C is for Champions’. But after that, well, C went back to its old friend Choke. Smith was one hell of a leader, but even he could not carry his team to a World Cup victory, or even a final.

After the game, the South African players went home to show how sad they were at the airport. Smith did not. He went to Ireland. This seemed to infuriate everyone. It would turn out that he was doing to so seal the deal with the current Mrs. Deane-Smith. But he didn’t take his punishment from the fans.

So the most successful captain in South Africa’s history, the man who took his team to No. 1, who slayed Australia and burnt down English captains, was booed by his crowd. Some never forgave Smith for being brash when he was young. Others simply never stopped loving the confessed match-fixer Hansie Cronje (voted 11th greatest South African in a SABC poll in 2004). Even in Port Elizabeth, where Smith orchestrated a comeback win against the odds, there was a man wearing a Cronje t-shirt in the crowd. Cronje wasn’t the batsman Smith was. He wasn’t the leader Smith was. He wasn’t even the man that Smith was.

But if you search the internet with questions about who the better captain was, you’ll get bizarre answers like “Hansie WAS the best, unfortunately due to circumstances apparently beyond his control … he was forced to do the ‘devils’ work.” And ” I suppose it also depends on whether you like Graeme Smith or not! Personally I cannot stand him. I loved Hansie and he was a brilliant sportsman”. It’s hard to argue that Cronje was not a good tactician in the field, certainly more adventurous than Smith, but Smith averaged 12 runs more, beat Australia in Australia and England in England when Cronje never did, lost the same amount of World Cups, has a similar win-loss record, captained a team to No. 1 in two forms of the game and never ever sold out his country for a leather jacket.

And Smith did it all after starting as the youngest captain in his nation’s history, and then becoming the longest serving.

Smith has been in charge for 4006 days. In that time, a boy band could form, become No. 1, tour the world, split up to do solo stuff, end up in rehab, and then reform as retro throwback to appeal to their original fans. In 2003, we didn’t know what an iPhone was, there was no Facebook and Julian Assange was an angry Melbourne hacker. There are 15-year old kids who have grown up only knowing Smith as captain. He has longevity, results and integrity. He isn’t perfect, and has certainly spent years trying to prove that left-hand batsmen aren’t actually more aesthetically appealing than right-hand batsmen. But he deserves to be respected as brutal, ugly monolith of world cricket. The large guy who was always there.

Since the age of 10, Smith had been saying he wanted to captain his country. He put goals on his fridge, and he accomplished them. Then he helped his country finally live up to its potential, while guiding a whole generation of players. But he isn’t that kid anymore, he now has his own kids, one with an illness whom he needs to spend more time with. He isn’t the angry young man demanding to get into the team, he isn’t the bullish guy spraying people at press conferences, he is the old guy looking at a quieter life with his family.

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Smith barged out onto the ground. His partner well behind him. The crowd stood. The officials rushed. The cameramen buzzed. Everyone looked miniature in comparison. Like a giant ape climbing a New York building, all eyes were on him. Smith the giant.

Australia waited in formation to honour him. The giant squeezed through them and out onto the pitch. His Western Province wicket. Clutching his GM chunk of tree, he would lead his country one last time. Them always behind him. He’ led. He led for a long time. He led well. The brutish behemoth. Biff leads. Then Biff leaves.

Leaving a tremendous hole that would take more than one man to fill.

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An afternoon in Port Elizabeth: a thorough retelling of an epic destruction

The first ball after tea Alex Doolan edged Vernon Philander behind to AB de Villiers. It could be out, it should be out, but the cameras say it could have bounced. Then Doolan edges to slip, and it doesn’t carry either. Doolan looks like a walking knicker. Finally Morne Morkel gets an edge from him that carries.

Shaun Marsh comes and goes, for a pair. He has now scored less than four in more than half his Test innings. On other days, this would be talked about much.

Michael Clarke has not made runs since Adelaide. He edges first ball. It doesn’t carry. You have to really earn a caught behind the wicket right now. Steyn’s first over after tea. He looks like that Dale Steyn. Angry and hungry. Clarke just guides one to slip after being worked over by reverse swing. Smith barely arrives at the crease and is out.

At 126 without loss it sounded like de Villiers shouting “150 for 4 here”. De Villiers was wrong, it was 156 for 4. With four wickets down, you could smell the fifth day fading.

South Africa were now throwing it all on the line, Australia’s saviour in the Ashes was allowed on strike with fielders on the boundary for Chris Rogers. Oh, Rogers, he had barely scored. He had barely looked like going out. He was just there.

Steyn could virtually taste Brad Haddin’s wicket. After four balls of strike, he removed his middle stump with a ball Haddin knew where it would pitch; with a ball Haddin knew how it would swing; with a ball that Haddin could have predicted an hour before it happened. Haddin still lost his middle stump.

Mitch came out with his massive batting average against South Africa. Mitch missed a short swinging delivery from Steyn by roughly 4.7 kilometres. Then he had a ball pole vault out of the footmarks and take the shoulder of the bat. Mitch was being attacked by ground and foot.

Smith was now so sure this was the last day he was throwing reviews away. The fifth day was dead to everyone.

Johnson stays out of the line to one from Philander. He tricks Richard Illingworth, but South Africa review anyway; damn you day five. They are right. Johnson is out.

South Africa have given up on bowling out Rogers. So Steyn bowls wide to Rogers to keep him off strike. It is called a wide. Morkel hits something down the legside so South Africa throw another review at it: not out. The umpires are staying pretty sharp despite the yelling and craziness. The clouds are now encroaching on the pitch like a Fritz Lang baddie.

How many wickets down do you need to be to enforce the extra half an hour? Everyone has a different answer. It’s not a real thing. It could be seven, maybe its eight. But Ryan Harris and Rogers look settled as the minutes creep up to 1759, one minute from the normal close.

Morkel is down the leg side again, he seems to be working to some sort of leg-side-or-be-damned plan. This time Rogers has wood on it, de Villiers has dived like a superhero. But did it carry? South Africa think yes. Has it bounced, maybe, yes, maybe no. The sun seems to be on every TV screen in the ground, the glare makes people doubt themselves. While it is all happening, it is beyond six. It’s either bounced or been foreshortened. Will that be it?

Aleem Dar decides it is not out. But the umpires on the field decide that the extra half an hour can be called. Rogers is livid, he complains uselessly. He deserves it to be the close of play. Australia and South Africa deserve to have an extra half hour.

Steyn is bowling to Harris, and there is another edge down the leg side that is almost caught. Then Harris hits the ball into the ground, it bounces high in the air (higher than any delivery in the match), it is not going near the stumps, but he hits it away, and does it very badly. It hits the back of his bat and almost goes onto the stumps.

Two balls later Steyn hits Harris high and leg side. South Africa are convinced it is out. Kumar Dharmasena takes forever to compute, then he gives it out. Harris reviews. It is still out. Only just. Harris keeps looking at Dharmasena as he walks off.

Rogers faces a full over from JP Duminy. Perhaps he’s bowling to get through the over quickly to allow Steyn a go at Peter Siddle. He cannot get off strike. The last ball he tries to take a run, but decides only a run out would happen. So he says no. The sun goes behind a cloud. It suddenly gets very dark.

Siddle gets stuck with Steyn. An inside edge happens, but safely. Then Siddle hits out on the off side, he takes the single, as Duminy stops it by flopping on the ball with his ribs. He can barely breathe. The phsyio comes out, but there is no time, he is sent back. The light metre comes out, and South Africa can’t knock that back. Duminy is in massive pain. He keeps running into the wrong position because he can’t listen to anyone through the pain. He’s taking up seconds and light.

Steyn gets angry and smashes Rogers in the back of the helmet and it goes for four leg byes. He wants Rogers on strike so Philander can bowl to Siddle. He wins. Steyn is down on his haunches at square leg after his last couple of bouncers, barely breathing. He has bowled nine overs, he looks like he has bowled a hundred. You just know he will try bowl another.

Siddle handles Philander very well. Very, very well. It now looks like Steyn or nothing.

Rogers faces Duminy, who has done well to recover, but both teams are playing like tomorrow will not happen. Rogers pushes the ball wide of mid-off, to the right of Alviro Petersen, who earlier in the session was fielding like he was in a coma. Now he is awake, picks it up, flicks it and hits the stumps. It looks out. South Africa are sure it is. The first replays show Rogers well short when the ball hits the stump. South Africa get the thumbs up and celebrate. But for drama, the bail takes a year to come off. Dar has noticed this. It takes maybe two years for the bail to come off. And in that time, maybe Rogers is in. There are about 27 replays. Dar has seen enough, he gives it out.

Rogers, who played with ease alongside David Warner, and then hung on to the wreckage of the Australian order to stay afloat has run himself out in the dark, in the final minutes. Steyn, as buggered as he is, runs over and shakes his hand. So does Smith.

It is Siddle and Nathan Lyon, better than most Nos. 10 and 11. They can bat. They are okay. They need to face less than two overs. It is now darker than before. Siddle does well against Duminy to end the over. He even pushes into the covers for a two.

At the other end Steyn takes off his hat, goes to the end of his mark. He will give it one more over. But Illingworth and Dharmasena are alternating on who they help. They decide it is too dark. Instead of facing Steyn, Lyon will face Dean Elgar. The man who called himself a pie chucker at the end of the first day. Left-arm orthodox. The very opposite of Steyn in practically every way.

The first ball is an actual pie, and Lyon had enough time to eat it. The second ball is better, but Lyon plays it well. The third is a quicker ball, it’s wide and full and Lyon just leaves. The fourth, the fourth.

It is short of a length on the stumps, it spins, it holds up, Lyon is hit on the pad. Lyon is OUT. SOUTH AFRICA WIN. DEAN ELGAR HAS TAKEN A WICKET.

Lyon stands there as Elgar mounts his team-mates, they laugh, they smile, Lyon stares. Unimportant replay show a possible edge and problems with height.

Thirty minutes later, Lyon is in the changing room, still staring, still unable to change anything.

South Africa have won. Dean Elgar has taken the wicket.

In 36.4 overs, South Africa have taken nine wickets. They have beaten Australia. They have beaten the apocalyptic rain. And they have made Lyon stare.

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4 years. 3 balls. 2 wickets. Wayne Parnell.

To fix Wayne Parnell, Vincent Barnes used some rope.

Barnes was at one time South Africa’s bowling coach but now he is involved with the high performance squad, and something had to be done to get higher performances out of Parnell. The young talent had been lost in a sea of professional shirts. Delhi Daredevils, Eastern Province, Kent, Pune Warriors, Sussex and the Warriors have had their piece of Parnell. And he is only 24.

Somewhere between airport lounges, he lost what they all wanted, and South Africa cricket was losing him as well.

Early in his career, which started when he was still 17, it looked like Parnell was going to be a long-term hit. A fast-bowling left-hander who could get movement and bat a bit. Of recent times his batting had disappeared. His bowling had lost its accuracy and movement. And South Africa simply moved on.

Marchant de Lange, Kyle Abbott, Ryan McLaren, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Rory Kleinveldt have all been used while Parnell was out of Test cricket. Not to mention Vernon Philander, who has fitted 100 wickets at better than 20 into that timeframe. If any team in world cricket could walk away from someone like Parnell, it was South Africa.

But Kallis is gone, so things have changed quickly. So despite only two First Class matches with some success this year, he found himself in a squad to play Australia. And four years and three days after his last Test for South Africa, Parnell was running into bowl on a pitch the Australia bowlers and South Africa batsman had gone out of their way to prove had less life in it than a dime store mannequin. Australia took two wickets with seam, Parnell was the fourth seamer. It could have gone very wrong.

This is a bowler who has found himself in some trouble in the past. He was sucked in by the good life of cricket. He was in the South Africa team at 19, playing for Kent at the same age. He had money and a bright future, you can see how he found himself at a raided rave in India. His heart even had an irregular beat at one stage, putting even more doubt into him coming back to International cricket.

Parnell has changed. Young players who show promise often disappear just as quickly. If they are really good you hope they either find a mentor, or fix themselves. Parnell has had both. With some rope and cones to correct his run-up, Barnes has clearly got him bowling very well. He looks upright and relaxed at the crease, and if you can get movement on this pitch you must have a superior wrist.

But Parnell has also clearly changed himself. He has a new faith, one that means he doesn’t want certain sponsor logos on his shirt. At 24 he has tasted something that he hadn’t at 19: failure. So now the new bowler is back, having seen off two others in the squad who have been used in his absence with only eight first-class wickets this season.

For a seasoned Test bowler, looking at this pitch was like looking at a hard day waiting to happen. For a young guy getting a surprise second chance after being out of Test cricket for a sixth of his life, it must have looked like heaven.

The second delivery he bowled was left alone.

The first ball squared up Alex Doolan from a good length. South Africa had run out of options with Doolan and in one ball the guy with a first-class average of 32.94 and a huge collection of frequent flyer points had taken Australia’s new No. 3.

The third ball was full, it drew Shaun Marsh into a shot, then it moved away, more than virtually all the sideways movement achieved by Australia’s bowlers combined, and he had more wickets than any other seamer in the match.

Later he would come back in and, after wasting an over with short balls to Nathan Lyon, he was right back in there and should have taken this third wicket (making him more successful than Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and even the mighty Mitchell Johnson combined) only for JP Duminy to drop Lyon at gully. Australia found no edges that carried to anyone, Parnell took three.

In six overs he out-bowled the world’s top four, according to the ICC rankings, including the best (Dale Steyn) and the most in-form (Johnson).

He might not take another wicket this Test but by bowling as well as he did, he has already given his side a chance of winning a game that people were already marking down as a dull and dreary draw. His hair made everyone interested, his wickets kept them that way. Suddenly the option to pick a fourth seamer wasn’t a mistake, but a masterstroke.

It was a long four years. A short three balls. And a glorious two wickets. It might be a long time before he gets four years off again.

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Standing in the shadow of giants armed with a clipboard: the Domingo/allrounder story

When David Warner was dropped for the second time, it became clear there was something really wrong with this South Africa team. Morne Morkel came in, unlike many times when he simply almost came in, and the ball took off one of this Centurion pitch’s many uneven parts and Warner cut hard at a ball that was flying upwards. The edge went very quick, and kept going up, in the direction of second slip.

It was a hard catch, and it went down.

Second slip is where Jacques Kallis stood during the last three decades.

Ryan McLaren and Graeme Smith were quite clear that the reason South Africa chose to bowl first was because of history and statistics. Michael Clarke thought the pitch might play up for a session, then even out after lunch. Australia lost three wickets before lunch, one after lunch. Sometimes you can look at the numbers and read them exactly right, and still be wrong.

Smith would have made this decision in conjunction with the stats-loving Russell Domingo.

Domingo is sitting in the chair that Gary Kirsten used to sit in as South Africa’s head coach.

Old-school cricket wisdom, the sort that leans on bars and tells you why the youngster won’t make any runs against a real attack, tells you that how a side acts in the field shows where they are mentally. Well South Africa acted like a side that didn’t believe in themselves. They fielded like a side without hope. And they did it on day one, before they truly felt the power of Mitchell Johnson.

They held most of their catches that day. But they fumbled almost everything else. Morkel moved around the field terribly slowly, except for the moment he hit the ground incredibly slowly. Hashim Amla walked past a ball in the outfield. There were overthrows. And if they had a plan, Smith’s captaincy did everything they could to hide it.

By day three, when they had already been Johnsoned, they added dropping multiple catches to the overall act.

They did all of it without a fielding coach. Mike Young, fielding coach under Kirsten was gone (to Australia), and had not been replaced. The former conditioning coach, Rob Walter, was also heavily involved in preparations for fielding but he is now the Nashau Titans coach.

There are many who think there are too many people around a cricket team as there is. But surely in modern cricket, fielding is a part of the game that needs a full-time person in charge of it. And it might be too simple to say that South Africa only fielded that way because they didn’t have a fielding coach.

But surely it couldn’t hurt.

India turned up with a new team in South Africa. They played like young men trying to make a point. Their batting line up looked like something that will haunt people for the next ten years. And they handled the South African attack well, although often not all at once. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane all played top knocks. They went very close to winning the first Test (and then losing it). In the second Test, India made 334 in the first innings. South Africa made 500. Kallis made 115. South Africa won the Test, and the series.

Had Kallis not played in that series, it is possible that South Africa would have lost that Test.

Against Pakistan in the UAE, South Africa lost the first Test and won the second, drawing the series against a team ranked well below them. Kallis took no wickets and made 12 runs in that series. It was the first Test series that Kirsten was not coach for. Domingo had not started brilliantly.

The only thing faster than Mitchell Johnson at the moment is the speed at which sides start to do emergency introspection after he has bashed them. There is something about playing Australia (and by that I mostly mean Mitchell Johnson) that strips every part of your game to the bone. If South Africa were going to play any opposition after Kallis retired, Australia was certainly the worst choice.

South Africa love allrounders. They love them more than any other country, and they provide more than any other country. And they lost a king.

But they couldn’t replace him with a king. Sure they could have tried someone like Obus Pinaar, to see if he was the next chosen one (a double century in first-class cricket and a bowling average of 24.16 bowling left-arm quick). But they didn’t take the chance with him.

Instead they replaced Kallis with two allrounders: McLaren at No. 7, Robin Peterson at No. 8. Two players who have done all they can to get the most out of themselves, who can provide in many different ways. But they aren’t proper Test allrounders. Peterson is not strong enough to bat at seven consistently and in 15 Tests he has taken 38 wickets at 37.26. McLaren has only three first-class three hundreds from 100 matches. He has bowling talent, but he is not in the best five seam bowlers in South Africa.

They are both bandaids over the open Kallis wound. Carrying a partially covered wound is not the way to play Mitchell Johnson.

McLaren batted at No. 7 against Australia, Faf du Plessis batted there against India. In this Test, du Plessis moved up to No. 4 – the Kallis spot.

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Gary Kirsten was a tough son-of-a-bitch cricketer, who put as high a price on his wicket as almost any before him for over 100 Tests. He scored 188 not out in a World Cup game. He coached India to the top of the test Test rankings and helped them win a World Cup. He was a South African playing legend and a winning coach. He was tough, and smart. It would have taken a real maverick, or someone properly stupid, to not listen or follow his advice. He took on the batting coaching himself, as he had done when working with MS, Virender, Rahul and Sachin.

The man who replaced him doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and his name is spelt incorrectly on the South Africa cricket team Wikipedia page.

Domingo was the man who gave Kirsten his first coaching job. He has a good record in domestic cricket, helping the Warriors to limited-overs glory and also a runners-up finish in the Champions League. But he wasn’t a first-class player. He is a career coach. And he has taken over the best group of cricketers on the planet.

Domingo is friendly and personable. Few have a bad word to say about him. But just because he was groomed by Kirsten doesn’t mean he is going to have the same impact. Grooming coaches can go horribly wrong. As an assistant you are a shoulder to cry on, a man of responsibility, but not the man. And it can be hard for everyone to start thinking that way about you. Especially if you’re not the barking type, and the captain is a long-standing leader and legend.

Then there is the basic resentment towards coaches that cricket has. The young players might be used to having them around. But many ex-players still don’t trust most coaches, and they certainly don’t trust coaches who haven’t played at the highest level.

So all Domingo has to overcome is being a non-playing coach who was groomed to replace a legend while ex-players sharpen their swords and whilst being deprived of the most important player his country has ever produced.

It was Domingo who recently stated that Kallis’ maturity; calmness and presence will be missed in his retirement. It was maturity and calmness that could have helped when Johnson almost tore Smith’s head off in the first innings at Centurion.

When Australia made the (very brief) world record score in that eventful ODI at the Wanderers, it was Kallis who joked that Australia’s score was under par to lighten the mood.

A joke like that, from a man like Kallis, could do wonders.

Also the stern nature of Kirsten might have come in handy as session after session South Africa came off having fielded like the game was new to them. Kirsten got on well with senior players but wasn’t afraid to set clear boundaries and demanded the best from his players. While he was there, they often played exactly as he asked them.

Ryan McLaren took a rocket to the side of the head. He turned from the crease and did a slow walk and kneel as people came from everywhere to see if he was okay. Even with a helmet, it looked like brutal treatment. Without a helmet it would have resulted in much more than a small trickle of blood. He faced up to the next ball, and played it well. After tea he faced some more short balls. This time all he could do was find some glove through to the keeper.

There is little coaching you can do to play Johnson. According to AB de Villiers, you have to be willing to take some on the body. McLaren went one better. But he is a tall man with a first class average of 30.26; right now, to Johnson, that is chum. Peterson decided to just swing away, trying to confuse Johnson.

There is no coaching technique or advice from a legend that can help you through that.

Russell Domingo now has a 2-2 record from five Tests with the world’s best team (at least statistically) playing for him. He is playing two more Tests against a team with the seeming ability to burp magic rainbows on demand. If he pulls this off, and turns his team around by surfing into the tidal wave, he might be on his way to legendary status.

Right now, he looks very much like he is standing with a clipboard armed with stats, history and two average allrounders in the shadow of two giants, and doing all of it against a fire-breathing wyvern armed with nuclear weapons.

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Johnson and Smith: a short rough love affair

February, 2014

The ball punches the pitch, and cracks into Graeme Smith who seems to react only as the ball leaves him. It loops up slowly and the crowd make noise accordingly. It is just off the pad. Not out. It is the first ball Smith faces from Mitchell Johnson.

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There is not much time to think between the ball leaving Johnson’s hand and the batsman having to deal with it. It is like a camera flash, or a political back-flip.

You can have a plan, you can think it through, but the ball just comes out of his hand and you react. There are some batsmen who revel in that. See ball, hit ball.

Not enough time for clear rational thought. There is not enough time to think about past deliveries, or history, it just happens.

January, 2009

A full ball that that should never have damaged anyone, but spat up and took the left massive hand of Smith. His hand disappeared like he had been zapped by a ray gun. For a second Smith was lost, the pain confused him, he was walking around in a circle towards point. And only then did he eventually find the culprit, which had gone off to fine leg to allow him to get off strike. But the damage was done, and he would only come back into to bat at No. 11, with a broken hand.

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There is a bowling machine that players have used to try and learn the mystery and tricks of certain players, the Pro Batter. You can face Morne Morkel, Lasith Malinga or even Mitchell Johnson.

But you can’t program it with superhuman confidence. You can’t give it artificial menace. And you can’t play against it like it is a real force of nature. It is a computer game with real elements. Nothing more. All you can do is try and pick up a few tricks that you hope the next time you play will come in handy.

South Africa have used the Pro Batter, they have also faced Johnson at his old best. They should know how to play him. Smith has faced him more than most. They have survived him at the WACA, after he took 8 for 61, they milked him on their chase beyond 400 to win, they have played him ten times. They know him.

Well, they knew the old him. This new one is relentless and brutal, like a zombie girl group, or a current affairs reporter. This Mitchell is worse and better than anything that can be made with CGI or the old model.

March, 2009

Off the ground, looking at point, one hand off the bat, the right hand protecting his throat and being smashed into the bat handle. That is how Smith found himself as he just tried to survive a delivery. The ball did not take his wicket, he did end up in hospital.

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Smith is respected all over the world. He has scored almost 10,000 Test runs. He has done that at almost an average of 50. He has 27 Test centuries. He is the captain and leader of the world’s best Test team.

Smith is South Africa’s top order monolith. Strong, calm and reliable. The young warrior who took over the side and pushed them higher than they had ever been. All with a bottom handed technique that makes even his best shots look like a solid uppercut.

His place in the world of cricket is safe and secure, and he could retire tomorrow and be remembered for decades.

In nine Tests he has been dismissed by Johnson five times and sent to hospital twice. Today Johnson tried to do both in one ball.

February, 2014

The ball leaves the pitch with a mission to break the jaw or eye socket of Smith. There is no time. There is nowhere to hide. There is no way out. Smith can ever be hit in the face, or try and play the ball. His body is doing in one direction, his face another. His bat is jerking upwards not like a cricket shot, but like he is fending off a surprise Pterodactyl attack. The ball hits the bat, more by pure chance than design. The ball flies high, and all of the slips, (there are a few, but it seems like hundreds), arch their necks up at once, and watch it float behind them. Shaun Marsh chases, and chases, while the batsmen easily cross, and at the last minute he reaches the ball to barely take the catch.

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Graeme Smith faced two balls from Mitchell Johnson today.

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South Africa’s parody

The Book of Mormon is a musical parody of the Mormon Church. It takes apart the church block by block in an amusing and intelligent way as people swear, dance and sing. The crowd love it.

South Africa’s batting display was a parody of South Africa. It was neither amusing nor intelligent, and made people swear. But it was a different kind of parody, one that was to imitate feebly. The South African crowd did not love it.

The shots were a collection of comedy worsts that should be part of a Father’s Day DVD in the near future. Leaving and being caught behind. Swiping across a straight one. Wildly swinging at a wide one. Cutting a full one. Stumping yourself by slip. And whatever Faf du Plessis’s shot was.

JP Duminy faced 11 balls. It seemed like he was dismissed on everyone one of them. At once stage every single South African batsman decided every single straight ball should be hit to the leg side with the bat faced closed off. It was madness. Horrible disgusting putrid madness.

But even this madness should be evaluated. The shots were so poor, random and odd it is hard to even take them seriously. But their thinking, which wasn’t under pressure but would have been thought out of sober analysis and pre-planning, was just as bad.

The repeated assertion that Colin Ingram couldn’t open died down a bit when he actually made 73 against West Indies. But it doesn’t change the fact that he is a makeshift opener with a first class average of 34.45 taking on a Test bowling attack in a must-win match. It’s not solid thinking. Ingram has been a success down the order and South Africa have a spare opener in the squad. With Alviro Petersen making runs in county cricket, opening with Ingram seems like a risk you don’t need to take.

Then to back him up with Robin Peterson, who has batted in the top order six times in 72 matches is actually insane. Why back up a makeshift opener with a makeshift No. 3? The ball is moving, you have proper Test hundred scorers in your line up, and England are already on top with an early wicket. That Peterson spent any time at the wicket was a testament to what a strong gutsy cricketer he is. That he was eventually out when James Anderson bowled four straight outswingers and then one that didn’t was not a surprise, he did well to last that long.

To back up Colin Ingram with Robin Peterson, was insane. Why back up a makeshift opener with a makeshift No. 3.

In the place of Ingram and Peterson should be Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. You can’t replace them. Although if you are going to do so, adding a No. 9 at No. 3 and a makeshift opener is probably the worst way to try.

But this team still had class batsmen. Hashim Amla is a God who cover drives among us. JP Duminy averages over 40 in ODI cricket. Du Plessis has started his Test career like an alien monster in a bad mood. And AB de Villiers can do absolutely every-damn-thing, except write pop songs that aren’t overly emotive. They were all there. All batting in the middle of The Oval. Facing England. As their country was reduced to 80 for 8.

In the end, it was a T20 slogger with a first-class Average of 29.57, and a bowling allrounder who managed to delay the inevitable and ensure that the score was not so embarrassingly low that South African fans couldn’t see the number without vomiting in their mouth.

David Miller played the sort of innings he is unknown for, a composed international sensible knock. A man with none of the pedigree of the rest of his batsmen, and less of the technique, managed to play the right shots to the right ball. He did it on an incredibly flat pitch once the ball had stopped swinging. Mind you, had any of his team mates struck around, they could have done the same. The player who stuck with him was Rory Kleinveldt. Who as a batsman is solid, dependable, and bats much like any No. 10 in club sides the world over. He’s clunky and unromantic, but you can’t help but enjoy any success he has.

That partnership will help those two players. But it didn’t help the team at all. All it did was prolong their misery.

De Villiers tried everything he could in the field. Had it been allowed, he would have suggested his bowlers try fancy dress and had his fielders singing Duckworth-Lewis Method songs in falsetto. His first three overs were by Chris Morris, Peterson and Duminy. After 11 overs, he’d tried five bowlers. He was essentially throwing bowlers at a wall, hoping one would fall down and trip the English batsmen. Few did.

After the match Alastair Cook said South Africa didn’t choke, Gary Kirsten said they did. It doesn’t really matter; they don’t mark scorecards with choke or non-choke. If they did put random words on the scorecard, choke might be the most popular, but parody probably suits best. As whether it was in the satirical or imitating sense, that is what South Africa were doing today.

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Iain O’Brien and I talk about muddy Kiwis

Imagine talking to a former kiwi cricketer about their total of 45.

You don’t have to, I did it for you.

We talk all sorts of nerdy stuff about bowling first, and how old Bruce Martin is.

It’s just two guys talking about NZs happy tour of South Africa.

Ronchi.

Listen here.

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