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November 16, 1998

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Paean to the Proteas

Harsha Bhogle

It is impossible not to admire this South African side.

They play cricket with such purpose and more than anything else, with such discipline. Some other teams, most notably India and Pakistan, might leave you breathless with the sheer individual skill they put on display, but a collection of talented (may one say temperamental in the same breath !) cricketers rarely triumphs over an aggressive unit fighting on all flanks.

Allied to this great discipline is the fact that they seem to be an unassuming people. Watching them on the field, you are struck by the bewildering, and total, absence of egos. It is almost as if one manís identity merges into that of another, and while that may not always keep spectators and viewers rivetted to their seats, it ensures that the opponents always see a collective mass ahead of them.

I am convinced as well that a team ethos that discourages the creation of individual stars is their greatest source of strength. Really, apart from Allan Donald in Test cricket and Jonty Rhodes in the field, there is no personality staring back at you. There is no individual match winner either, and the absence of one probably serves to drive the others into over-achieving.

Clearly South Africa would love to have a a Tendulkar, a Lara or an Anwar in their line-up, for these are batsmen who can make pre-match discussions look like idle chatter in a college canteen. Yet, India, the West Indies or Pakistan do not win anywhere near as often as South Africa do in one-day cricket, and maybe the time has come to study the effect of geniuses on the rest of the team. Does the presence of a Tendulkar or an Anwar inspire the rest to greater heights? Or does it numb them and leave them bereft of ideas when the stars donít win a match for them ?

I am increasingly convinced that the latter is true. And that the South African experience is proof of the fact that the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole. To me nobody symbolises this better than Jacques Kallis. Iíd be surprised if he made it to a world team, for such line-ups are often a collection of individual talents and he isnít, at least on the evidence so far, among the stars who light up our galaxy. But ask his captain (that is always the real test!) if he would trade him for anyone else ! He bowls the new ball when asked, is capable of taking five wickets and can score a hundred anywhere in the order. He can hang in there or he can belt the ball. He can follow the pinch hitter or he can precede him. He can stand at slip or be the sweeper at cover. And he can do this without exuding the aura of the star.

Cricketers like Kallis give their captain and coach the kind of options that are absolutely essential in the one-day game.That, more than anything else, is the key to South Africaís success, and that will make them top favourites for the 1999 World Cup.

Look at the options they had at Dhaka. Except for Rhodes and Boucher, everyone could bowl. If they needed five seamers, they had them. If they needed four spinners, they had them. If they wanted options for pinch hitting or for opening the batting, they had them. And they batted down to number eleven, which meant that anyone could come in and play a flier at any point in the game. And they could do it all without Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener and Gary Kirsten, all missing from their first eleven !

I think that is absolutely awesome, and the fact that they can call upon replacements and not seem to notice the difference is a tribute to their domestic cricket structure and their ability to plan ahead.

The breeding grounds of South Africa are probably the toughest in world cricket, and cricketers who emerge out of that system are therefore ready to take on the world. Unless you are brought up on cold blooded scraps and skirmishes, you are unlikely to be ready for battle -- and in South Africa, domestic cricket is both tough and high pressure. You get cooked there and you get fired, and it easy to see then that the very processes that make the brick strong also make a cricketer able-bodied and ready for battle.

By contrast to the furnace or the kiln, the Ranji Trophy is about as dangerous as a kitchen garden and so, for Indian players to be as tough as the South Africans, they must be fired-up within. They must make their own discipline and they must prepare themselves for warfare. Very few can do that consistently for unlike Schwarzennerger, they donít have a script writer. Real human beings invariably mirror the society they live in; they represent the culture that surrounds them and the culture in India, and in our domestic cricket, is one of individual achievement. That is why we tend to produce outstanding individuals who on their day can win matches singlehandedly, but we do not have the unity of purpose that creates the collective mass that can win matches consistently.

In South Africa the years of isolation took away international cricket but it created the most competitive domestic cricket structure. The love for cricket, indeed for all sport, is inherent in the South African and since he could not root for his country, he backed his province with the same commitment. And so Natal vs Transvaal and Free State vs Western Province acquired all the fever and passion of international cricket. It was beautifully packaged as well and television was always outstanding. (Apart from the best fielders, South Africa produces the best cameramen as well !). It was their way of telling the world `if you donít give us anything, weíll create it ourselvesí.

And once the bitterness of isolation had been swallowed, it gave rise to a scary spirit of defiance. I suspect the generation that had been denied instilled this into the next and, like survivors of the parched land, the new lot rose with a passion for survival and a desire to overcome that was probably unmatched. The current lot of South African cricketers are children of that reality, and a model to the rest of the world who got what they wanted and did not realise the value of what they had.

The desire that emerges out of denial is a very strong force. South African cricket has managed to channel that force into the finest cricket establishment in the world. The United Cricket Board of South Africa is the most forward looking organisation among those that constitute world cricket and again, I believe that strength has emerged out of isolation; from the need to have the right combination of innovative ideas and aggressive implementation.

They have looked at every aspect of their cricket. They have a feeder programme that seeks to tap the great natural athletic skills of young black boys. They have a training programme for coaches who will spread the gospel of the game. They have a domestic cricket structure that toughens the talent that is fed to it and from it, prepares a large pool for the next level. And they have a set of coaches to identify shortcomings in the national squad and periodically work on their cricketers to overcome them.

Not surprisingly then, a side that always struggled on slow tracks and did not have the cricketers who could play on them, has now won two tournaments on the baked pitches of Asia; the Commonwealth Games and more important, the Wills International Cup.

Look how closely it is structured to the manufacturing process. The raw material, the processing, the inventory, quality control, even backward integration. By contrast, we produce hand-crafted cricketers, but so much depends on the hand that crafts them. That is why we have such distinctive faces in our team. Some, like the handmade Rolls Royce, are unparalleled (and which factories could never make!), some others suffer from faulty workmanship.

They look different and they think differently and that is why bringing this hugely varied set of people together is such a massive job. That is why it can only work sometimes. That is why, in our system, incandescence and darkness will always be neighbours. That is why consistency will never be our strong point.

In international sport, consistency is the key. That is why South Africa are such a fantastic side.

Harsha Bhogle

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