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Cricket news - Gazing at the Crisis Cup

Who's likely to have lesser things to worry about?

Who's likely to have lesser things to worry about?

Russell Domingo couldn't look sheepish if he tried. Not that he did try as he sat down behind the microphones at Sodden Park on March 29, 2017. Apologies: that should read Seddon Park. Perhaps not. All around, Hamilton was indeed sodden. Rain that had woken Kane Williamson at 4am had continued to fall for several more hours: "I was sort of hoping that it might stop or it might come a little early and fine up."

Domingo harboured no such hope. "Today the weather was great," South Africa's then men's team coach said through a wide grin, as well he might have. His team were to have resumed on the last day still 95 runs shy of making New Zealand bat again, and with Dean Elgar, Theunis de Bruyn, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Temba Bavuma already removed from the equation. Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock had made decent starts and were still around, but Matt Henry, Colin de Grandhomme or Neil Wagner, or indeed Jeetan Patel or Mitchell Santner, would surely have dismissed at least one of them and ripped through the rest: Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada. We will never know. At 1.20pm Bruce Oxenford and Rod Tucker pulled the plug and allowed all that water to drain away without further consequence for the cricket. Not only did the rain save South Africa from defeat, it also sealed a 1-0 series victory.

Two years on at sodden again Seddon Park it was Williamson's turn to look sheepish, which he does without trying at the best of times. "A lot of hard work had to go into saving the match when time didn't allow us an opportunity to win it," he said on Tuesday after rain limited the fifth day's play in the second Test against England to 41 overs. New Zealand had resumed their second innings five runs behind and with eight wickets standing, and thanks to centuries by Williamson and Ross Taylor they had a lead of 140 for no further loss when the weather decided the issue. Like Williamson said, the match wasn't there for the winning. But the draw meant the home side, who won the first Test in Mount Maunganui by an innings, claimed the series.

Cue English angst. Joe Root's team have won only two of their 11 Tests this year, and those successes were achieved against lightweights West Indies and Ireland. For the first time since 1999 they will finish a year without having won a rubber. Here in sunny South Africa, where England are to start a series at Centurion on December 26, we can hear their pasty, pallid stomachs churning. No team in cricket overthinks as chronically as England, a tendency evidenced not only by the fact that they have capped 695 players - Australia, the other original Test side, have handed out only 458 Baggy Greens - but also by the oddity that as many as 96 of them have had just one Test. England are not helped by a powerful press that is easily reduced to overweening nit-picking to stoke the rivalry between publications. Incidents like Joe Denly's dropped catch at Seddon Park this week take on a media life of their own that bears no relation to their actual importance. Conversely, relatively little light has been shed on the unarguable truth that no the match played at Lord's on July 14 was neither won nor lost. That would expose the flaws in the dominant narrative that England triumphed in the World Cup. More legitimately, fellow finalists New Zealand tripped on a technicality.

Cricket is not immune from society's wider issues, so the poisoned politics of the Brexit debate have been seen in, for instance, the opposition to Jofra Archer's first selection, which came even from his fellow players. You won't, of course, hear a peep of it now that he's a star. The other extreme is the disproportionate reaction to one spectator targetting Archer with racist verbal abuse during the first Test, which became a convenient shield against criticism for the thrashing England endured. It hasn't helped resolve the issue that the perpetrator has yet to be identified, even that in one of the most civilised countries on the planet. Human rights abuses are treated significantly more seriously in New Zealand than in England, where racism is a daily reality for millions. But, to read the ongoing coverage of the Archer issue in the aghast English press, you would think he lives in paradise - not a country built, still, on the proceeds of slavery and colonialism. And that despite most of those publications belonging to a right wing cabal that punches downward with impunity in its coverage of immigration and cultural differences.

The navel-gazers from the north will bring all that baggage with them to South Africa in the coming weeks. They will find a game in turmoil. Ructions at board level and an embattled operational arm are bad enough, but matters would get exponentially worse should the players follow through on the threat made in a release from the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA) on Wednesday, which said the organisation would meet on Friday. "This discussion is likely to include the possibility of the players taking some form of industrial, or protest, action," Tony Irish, SACA's chief executive, was quoted as saying. "SACA has always considered strike, and other similar forms of industrial action, to be a very last resort and in SACA's 17 years of dealing with CSA to date not one day of cricket has ever been lost to industrial action. However things have now reached a stage where we must ask what SACA, and the players, are expected to do when the leadership of CSA, both operationally and on its board, continues to ignore our legitimate concerns and refuses to acknowledge the players as key stakeholders in the game."

Key though they are, South Africa's players are under heightened pressure to perform. They followed a poor 2019 World Cup with an even more unconvincing Test series in India. Du Plessis went to the World Cup as, South Africans would argue, cricket's finest captain. A few months on, his beard visibly greyer, his eyes sunken with the special weariness of the worried, he looks like a husk of the man he was. Rabada has lost the spark he had when he was the adolescent prodigy of a South Africa attack that now looks to him for the solid, dull thud, day in and day out, of seniority. The leaden weight of that mantle can be measured by the giddy happiness that Dale Steyn, who has given it up, has found bowling in the backyard cricket that is the Mzansi Super League. With Amla and AB de Villiers gone, taking with them much of their team's originality at the crease, and Aiden Markram's poorly aimed punch at a wall in Pune in October likely to rule him out for at least part of the England series, South Africa's batting is at its lowest ebb. Du Plessis is a man for days like these, as are Elgar and Bavuma. But who will look up to see the sky if the pillars of the order keep their gaze fixed deep in the trenches?

South Africa and England play for the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy, but this time their prize should be called the Crisis Cup. The winners will be those who limp out of the series alive, who find a way to overcome the odds stacked against them. This will be a celebration not of talent and skill but of survival. Great cricket can be forged in these circumstances: struggles of the spirit are always stirring, even though they are not always pretty. Domingo fought that battle for his entire tenure, even when no-one was fighting back. As South Africa's first black coach and without the laurels of a playing career to rest on, he knew no other way. Maybe that's why he seemed at his happiest in the dreariness of a rainy day in Hamilton two years ago. He couldn't have known it then, but that marked the last time South Africa earned success in an away series. Since then they have won exactly half and lost the rest of the 24 Tests they have played. They have, then, been treading water. Now it's sink or swim.

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