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Cricket news - Nothing special about SA and their pickle in Pune
As Keshav Maharaj was taking his 100th Test wicket in Pune on Friday, it was heartening to know that the Cricket South Africa (CSA) publicity machine were doing their bit from the other end.
Maharaj's 100th victim, Ajinkya Rahane (58), had barely got his pads off before CSA released a statement of congratulations, pointing out helpfully that, in so doing, Maharaj had become the 17th bowler (and 13th of the modern era) to reach the milestone. "We look forward to his continuing [sic] to be leader of the spin attack for some years to come," said CSA's Acting Director of Cricket, Corrie van Zyl glowingly, as Maharaj was putting in a monster 50-over shift that saw him end with eye-catching figures of one for 196.
For those whose lives are full of better things to do, consider it a public service announcement to be told that CSA is pedalling an awful lot of this nonsense at the moment. Not a week goes by without an obituary to some obscure administrator in some far-flung corner of the land, or a release about some minor sponsorship deal for energy drinks or playing kit. Next we're going to get a release about pre-season seating plans at Kingsmead.
So brazenly cynical has the machine become that there are weeks you instinctively know that they're hiding something. What's operating is a kind of index of reverse importance, which goes along the lines of the more spam they produce, the more they are trying to obscure or hide something. It calls to mind George Orwell's famous quote about "he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past".
In this case, what might they be hiding? Ten days ago CSA dismissed the entire Western Province Cricket Association Board (WPCA) for trading under "distressed conditions", and then rubbed salt in the wound by threatening to withdraw the Newlands Test against England in early January.
The backstory to this act of bellicose CSA heavy-handedness is that Western Province are selling off some of their land on the Newlands B field and entering into a partnership with a property developer to do so, a deal that will enable them to not only honour their outstanding obligations to CSA but become financially independent of them. Rather than sort out the matter around a table, CSA dismissed the entire WPCA board and installed an interim administrator. The manoeuvre is straight out of the tin-pot dictator playbook.
Perhaps with the Proteas leaking 245 runs in the final session on Friday afternoon, the Maharaj release was intended to obscure the fact that the pickle in Pune was largely self-inflicted. Indeed, against a gun batting line-up this South African attack was always going to struggle to take 20 wickets, a fact evidenced in the first Test in Vishakhapatnam.
True, in Vishakhapatnam, Dane Piedt wasn't at his best, but why have him in India for three weeks bowling with the A side, and then drop him after one game in which he was savaged by Rohit Sharma? Piedt can't have suddenly fallen from being the second-best Test spinner in the land to the fourth or the fifth in the space of a Test. He needs to be helped and loved and given another chance.
There are two consequences from dropping him in the panic-stricken manner that he was: he will now never play for South Africa again, and might be lost to the local system entirely. And without an off-spinner in the attack, the Proteas looked very Bangladesh-like - in that spinning duties were shared among three left-armers, Maharaj, Senuran Muthusamy and Dean Elgar, providing little variation with the off-spinning delivery that turns the other way.
The "20 wicket conundrum" doesn't end there. Maharaj took 12 wickets in the second Test against Sri Lanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club in the winter of 2018, so he is capable of having very good days on the sub-continent.
You worry if the same applies to Vernon Philander. In two Tests on the sub-continent in the last 15 months (the first against St Lanka - he was dropped for the second - and the first against India in Vishakhapatnam) he has figures of three for 127.
Unless fields are more creatively set off his bowling (and Quinton de Kock possibly stands up) Philander is not a wicket-taker in such conditions. There might be an argument for Philander's inclusion if the greenhorn Anrich Nortje is in the side, but without Piedt, the balance still looks to be lacking. Twenty wickets are an eternity away.
And there's a broader issue lurking - the implicit racism that allows white cricketers to leave the system without encouraging them to stay. Sitting pretty on the list of top bowlers in the recently-completed English County Championship are none other than Kyle Abbott (71 wickets at an average of 15.73) and Simon Harmer (83 wickets at 18.29).
Harmer, like Piedt, played several of his handful of Tests when South Africa were last in India, but, unlike Piedt, he subsequently went on to become a Kolpak player. Yes, he bowled over 500 overs this English summer but he is the most successful spinner in England during the last three seasons by a country mile, helping Essex to two out of three Championships and getting better with each passing season. Never mind that he's about to qualify through residence for England, South Africa said "good riddance" and watched him go.
Imagine, rather than the current undercooked attack (Kagiso Rabada's first-day fire excepted) in Pune, the Proteas went into the Test with an attack of: Rabada, Abbott, Philander, Maharaj and Harmer instead?
Were new interim team director Enoch Nkwe more experienced and were the Proteas coaching and back-room staff more capable, instead of being the affirmative-action sojourners they currently are, a struggling attack could be helped to get better in India, but this won't happen.
It won't happen because the system has often - not always - continued to employ failed coaches and mediocrities rather than giving opportunities to any of the good, experienced coaches - Graham Ford (in line for the England job until Chris Silverwood got it), Richard Pybus, even Duncan Fletcher or Dave Nosworthy - who currently live in South Africa but are either under or unemployed.
The right-wing academic historian, RW Johnson, often writes about the current South African elite's love of exceptionalism - the need to be given special protection or dispensation because of the sins of apartheid, which officially ended 25 years ago this year.
Virat Kohli, who scored 254 not out against a South African attack that was inconsistent, naive, and poorly captained, isn't interested in the past, or even arguments from the CSA elite that they should be treated as a special case. He's interested in playing what's in front of him. And if they aren't the absolute best he's going to happily plunder runs against them anyway.
South African cricket is in a delicate phase because very special players like Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, and, slightly longer ago, Morne Morkel, have all retired. What's needed is some experience, some intellectual capital, and some coaching nous, none of which is much in evidence in Pune.
And so we take peashooters to gunfights, arguing that we're special and hoping for a miracle. As a plan it lacks depth, authority and thoughtfulness. It showed on the first two days in Pune and it will continue to show for the rest of the series, as the Proteas flirt dangerously with slipping out of the world's top eight.
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