South Africa completed yet another great comeback to square the three-match series against Australia 1-1. Graeme Smith has lamented the lack of South Africa playing together as a group and he has every right to, considering the Proteas have been suckling on scheduling’s hind teat for the last five years - despite an emphatic record. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Here we are again: same story, different series. Over the last year or so, South Africa have played what coach Russell Domingo calls “catch-up cricket”. They start a series slowly and then bounce back quite convincingly. After being hammered in the first Test against Australia, South Africa squared the series in emphatic fashion. They looked like a different team and, with three changes to the side, they basically were. Still, once the team hit their straps, they looked like the number one side everyone has come to know in recent months. The fielding still left much to be desired, but the batting and bowling was world-class and many might have wondered: why can’t they play like that all the time?
Ask Graeme Smith and he will lament the lack of Test cricket South Africa plays. Although they were completely blown away by Mitchell Johnson at Centurion, much of the team looked quite rusty. Sure, Johnson was in the form of his life and he managed to be consistently fearsome and irksome, but there was a distinct tinge of rust which coated the Proteas in Pretoria.
While Australia are fresh off a five-Test series against England, South Africa had a paltry two Tests against India which, as many will remember, also started slowly. They have played two Tests in four months as preparation for such a massive series. The scheduling is completely skewed and the players are the ones getting shafted.
It’s nothing new. Since the start of January 2009, South Africa have played the same number of Tests as New Zealand and fewer Tests than everyone except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Comparatively, in the same time period, Australia have played 66, England 62 and India 51.
In that time, they have a better win/loss ratio than anybody else, having lost just ten Tests and won 21 – almost half of their games.
Their results away from South Africa are even better, with just two losses in 15 Tests in the five-year period. Nobody else has a better record. That they have managed to maintain their number-one ranking despite the pedestrian scheduling is something of a miracle, but it is a great shame. While England and Australia have just had two five-match series back-to-back, South Africa have not played a five-match series in the last five years.
Smith rightfully laments the lack of “playing together as a group” as part of the reason why South Africa seem to be so slow to get going. No amount of domestic hit and giggle can prepare players for Test match intensity and nothing can prepare batsmen for a barrage of balls which will be no balled or wided in limited overs.
South Africa’s preparation for this series was the best that it has been for ages, with ten days of net sessions and a practice match against the “B-team” to ensure they got as much time out in the middle as possible. But that prep isn’t anything remotely close to Test level, and that a side who has been so impressive for so long still gets treated like a second-class citizen is a shame.
There is some relief. In July of this year, South Africa will travel to Sri Lanka for a tough two-match Test series, the same Tests which were postponed last year. Other than that, though, their schedule is pretty underwhelming, with one Test against Zimbabwe and three against the West Indies over the December holiday period. Sri Lanka is the last place where South Africa lost away and the series will be one of their toughest challenges in recent years, but once again, there will be no Test match preparation leading up to the tour. After a three-month break from Tests, Sri Lanka will be one of the cruellest places for South Africa to visit in July. As it stands, there is very little that can be done in order to ensure that they are adequately prepared. All the Proteas can do is suck it up and play as best they can and keep on proving that their comebacks aren’t just flukes. That needs to start against Australia during the third and final Test which starts on Saturday. A win there will secure their first series win on home soil over Australia since readmission and will, for now at least, assert their number one status while they continue to be mistreated.
With cricket’s new world order signed off, the Future Tours Programme being done away with and bilateral series returning, things could get even worse for South Africa. Australia and England have agreed that they will tour all nations, which is a good start. How many Tests those tours will consist of remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the current South African team deserves more Test cricket – home and away. DM
Photo: South Africa’s players celebrate the wicket of Australia’s David Warner (not pictured) during the third day of their second cricket test match in Port Elizabeth February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí