What Now for Wounded Protea’s?

30/12/2009

Exactly a year ago South Africa was experiencing their greatest cricketing day, defeating Australia in the Boxing Day Test to clinch their first series win against the Aussies. The future looked bright and the Protea’s were expected to dominate Test cricket in a new era of South African cricket. Today’s humiliating innings defeat to the touring English means that South Africa’s Test record in 2009 reads; Played 6 Won 1 Drawn 1 Lost 4. Hardly the successful new era that we were expecting after last years epic victories, including a first series win in England to go with the win in Oz. So where to now in 2010 for the Protea’s?

South Africa only has a few days to get over this thumping loss and make sure they are better equipped to draw level in the New Year Test, starting on Sunday, and then the final Test in Joburg shortly after. What they need to make sure are that lessons are learned and action taken. This side was ranked number 1 in the world not so long ago and they haven’t become a bad team since.

The first issue to address is the bowling. Ntini, based purely on form, should not play in the final two Tests. Whether that should be the end of his Test career is not a matter for this weekend. The time off my give him pause to think about what else he wants from his international career, whether its time he hung up his boots, or come back a different bowler, a containing change bowler, and not a strike bowler. De Wet’s impressive showing on debut in the first Test means that he should be given a run in the team, something that should have happened with this Test. Fortunately for South Africa they still have a chance at winning the series, though the number 1 Test ranking is no longer attainable during this series.

One of the few good things to come out of this Test was the bowling of Morne Morkel. He was far more consistent, cutting out the no balls, and was the only Protea bowler who looked like getting batsmen out. Steyn and Kallis both got a good work out and should be better in the next Test, but it was Morkels bowling that would have pleased the selectors the most. Now the decision needs to be made about who takes the new ball with Steyn. Morkel or de Wet will both be keen to do so, but perhaps it’s time Morkel be given the responsibility. Maybe this is the start of the next chapter of his international career, as Ntini’s winds down, Morkels may be about to take off.

In truth no bowler in contention have put their hands up for selection. The three bowlers just outside the squad, Parnell, Tsotsobe and perhaps CJ de Villiers, have had poor Super Sport Series form, and aren’t doing enough to suggest they be given a chance. The leading bowlers in the Super Sport Series are Philander of the Cobra’s and the Dolphins duo of Louw and Friend. Philander is lacking in pace to be considered for the Test team, and the selectors don’t seem to have the Dolphins duo in their plans. The only change to the bowling attack should be de Wet in for Ntini, and there is little point in keeping Ntini in the squad if he’s not going to play, he’d be better suited taking time off or perhaps playing for the Warriors. So maybe it would be a good idea to select Friend or Louw and have them in the squad where they can be assessed by the team?

As far as the batting is concerned, there won’t be any changes made. The top 6 have done a good job over the last couple of years and drastic changes are not needed. The next two Tests may be telling though. Prince, after a great knock against the Aussies, opening for the first time, is struggling a bit with that role right now. He either needs more time to get used to the role, or changes are needed. Duminy, who will be a Test star of the future, is still working out Test cricket, and needs to be given a chance become the player we have seen glimpses of, just as Kallis was at the beginning of his career. Of the batsman waiting in the wings Alviro Petersen, Dean Elgar and Riley Rossouw are worth keeping an eye on. None will get a chance during this series, but the players in the team should know that there are others waiting for a chance. To drive the point home maybe one of those should be called up to be part of the squad.

The Protea’s are used to having to come from behind to win a Test series, particularly at home, and will take comfort from the fact that they have done it on a few occasions. The nature of this loss will hurt the team and that should inspire a better performance in Cape Town. Lets hope they take it out on the English. In order to do so the selection needs to be right. If it is, England should prepare for a backlash.

pic from cricinfo.com

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Fading Great

28/12/2009

As I sat in the blistering heat, near the boundary, in the South Stand, Ntini, between balls, signed every bat, cap and match programme held out to him. He smiled, had a word, and joked with each an every person that hung out something for him to sign. Ntini is a legend of South African cricket, and a great guy. His speed may be decreasing with age, but his smile, patience and enthusiasm have not.

However this is sport. If being a great guy was enough to keep you in a team then Ntini and Shaun Pollock would be leading the South African attack forever. The way Strauss took Ntini apart in his only 3 overs on day 2 had the Protea’s alarm bells ringing loud and clear. There were calls in the media for de Wet, the debutant who was the pick of South African pace bowlers in the first Test, to keep his place at the expense of Ntini. However Smith and the Protea selectors back Ntini and he kept his place. Whether it was sentiment, hope and true belief matters little, for Ntini is not the bowler that has lead this attack for so long. Like all mortals his time has come.

Today, day 3 of the 2nd Test, has seen Ntini bowl better than his opening spell yesterday. But he is not effective. He doesn’t look like getting a wicket, no matter how hard he tries, and with Ntini the effort is never in doubt. As Cook and Collingwood take control of the match Smith is burdened with what is really a two man attack. Kallis is not fully fit to bowl, Harris is having a rare off day, Ntini is running in to no real avail, and Steyn and Morkel have to much to do in the sweltering heat.

Whatever happens in this Test, with 2 days and a session to go, all options are still open, the Protea’s must act accordingly and realise that they are lucky mistakes were made with games still to make up. In Cape Town next week de Wet should play in place of the fading Ntini. If political reasoning bully’s selection then either Tsotsobe or Parnell must play. Sentiment has no place in professional sport, no matter how much we think it should.

Watching Ntini with the kids one hopes that he can prove people wrong and bowl South Africa to a win here. All South Africans would love to see that. But this isn’t a player short of form, this is a player who’s age, and long career, have caught up with him. The extra yards of pace aren’t going to return through will. Ntini is a legend and must be remembered as such, and not as the fading speedster who’s struggling to make an impact.


Times Up for Legend Ntini?

24/12/2009

Firstly, reaching 100 Tests is a milestone that can not be underplayed by anyone. What Ntini has achieved in his South African career is outstanding and for that he must be commended. When looking back on his remarkable career, those who remember him as a black South African cricket do him no favours. Politics has always merged with Ntini’s career, something he has never liked, but that is the world he lives in and there was no escaping that. Ntini has been a legend in South African cricket, as a South African cricketer, and not as a black cricketer. It’s important to see his achievements for what they are and not to skewer them with politics. His stats and records stand up with all the best players and that should be the defining marks of his career, not his skin colour.

Unfortunately with all our sporting hero’s there comes a time when they aren’t able to back up their stats and career moments on the field. The passage of time catches up to us all, and for sportsmen it can be most cruel. Ntini reached a milestone in the last test that few others in world cricket have. He became the 5th South African to reach 100 caps in Test cricket. The 4 others he has joined are Gary Kirsten, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher. That’s pretty good company. However his ability to take wickets has waned over the last season and being a strike bowler that is a problem. When Pollock, Ntini’s strike bowling partner for much of his career, and indeed the most successful parts of it, began to lose pace and wicket taking ability, he was replaced with Dale Steyn. Pollock hadn’t lost his line and control, was still able to do a containing role with the ball, was able to contribute with the bat, and hadn’t lost any drive or desire, but the selectors wanted wickets – 20 wickets win Test matches. Ntini has arrived in that exact situation. His experience has helped the new generation of fast bowlers in the Protea set up, but there comes a time when he can’t do it anymore and needs to gracefully move on. He has already lost his place in the ODI squad, and perhaps the hope was that by concentrating on Test cricket, they would be able to prolong his career. But the Ntini legs have done a lot of work during his career, and while they may still be willing to run in all day, the wicket taking ability is gone.

His performance in the last Test, his 100th, followed that of the last season or so. He never stopped running in, he didn’t quit trying, but it wasn’t there. He took only 2 wickets, and one was a ball that didn’t bounce. He was out shown by debutant de Wet. With Steyn set to return this weekend the logical thing to do would be to replace Ntini with Steyn and go in with an attack of Steyn, de Wet, Morkel, Kallis and Harris. However politics do come into affect in South African cricket and there will be a call not to drop Ntini, more so for his skin colour then his form. Is that right? Would Ntini be happy with that? I don’t think so. Replacing him with Parnell or Tsotsobe would also be an idea, both would give the attack a left arm variety that would be more than useful, but de Wet did enough on debut to keep his place. It would be highly unlucky, and unfair to drop him. This being South Africa that could very well happen.

For those throwing the race card out, suggesting that dropping Ntini would be a racist move, especially as he would be replaced by a white player, for those people I would suggest they think carefully about what they are saying. There views would be racist and not the dropping of a player short of form for one in great form. By reducing Ntini to a skin colour, they are making him a token in a racial argument that has no value or baring on the situation. They are suggesting that he has only been in the team for the 100 tests he has played because he is black. They are hurting Ntini and South African cricket. Ntini has played 100 Tests because he has been a great player. He has achieved all he has because of superior ability, and despite the hurdles that have been placed before him by such racist views.

Ntini needs to be remembered as a legend of South African and world cricket. He is a black South African but that is not the reason he has been in the South African team. He should be remembered for all the joy he has brought cricket fans and whenever his career winds down, be it this weekend or years from now, the end should be celebrated for all that has come before it and not be allowed to turn into a racial argument.

Salute Ntini, a proud member of the 100 Test club, and Proudly South African.