A different decision, but the right one

S. DINAKAR

A FAMOUS gladiator lay wounded in the arena and a thousand memories came flooding back. Memories of stirring duels and triumphs.

N. SRIDHARAN

And along with those recollections were images of hostility. Of a fearsome fast bowler and his conquests on the cricket field.

Yet, here was Allan Anthony Donald clutching his right hamstring at the Wanderers, his visage mirroring pain and anguish, during the fag end of the first day's play in the opening Test against Steve Waugh's men. A sad sight.

Soon, the supremely athletic South African, whose run-up and action were fluid, and deliveries dangerously quick, was carried off the field. The White Lightning's Test career had reached its last stop.

He was 36 and the scars were beginning to show. For most part he was a rare bird of prey, swooping down on his victims, both swiftly and ruthlessly. Now he was ageing.

Donald knew it, and took the sensible way out. "I have reached a stage where I am tired of letting myself, my team and my country down with injuries," he said announcing his retirement from Test cricket; a difficult decision, but the right one.

Indeed, injuries had played havoc with his career over the last few months, forcing him to miss matches, snatching the sting off his otherwise incisive bowling.

Three recent efforts against the Aussies reflected Donald's dwindling strike-rate. Three for 103 in the Melbourne Test, one-119, Sydney and one-72, Johannesburg (all first innings) might have not even done a support seamer proud.

In these Tests, he appeared a shadow of the awesome pace predator he was till not so long ago. Batsmen who were previously rattled by Donald's scorching pace and telling movement, were now getting on to the front foot and thumping him.

And when Donald, giving Test cricket one final fling, was rendered hors de combat at the Wanderers, it was time for the final Test goodbye.

This game is often a great leveller and moments of heady victories are often followed with occasions laced with disappointment, yet Donald has seen infinitely more good days than bad.

Donald will still be available for the ODIs, where he certainly backs himself to send down ten testing if not hostile overs. And he might receive a chance to exorcise the ghosts of the '99 World Cup in the 2003 event at home.

The South African now joins Jonty Rhodes as a senior cricketer available only for the one-dayers; Darryl Cullinan returned to Tests, only to get snubbed by the selectors.

And let's hope Donald doesn't succumb to the temptations to make a Test comeback. He's already done enough - 330 wickets in 72 Tests.

His strike-rate of 47 is astonishing too, next only to Waqar Younis' 42.4 (352 wickets in 78 Tests) among the contemporary pacemen. Mean Aussie paceman Glenn McGrath (385 in 82 Tests) at 51, and versatile Pakistani Wasim Akram (414 in 104 Tests), follow the duo.

Donald does occupy a special place in the pantheon of great fast bowlers. However, he might have been at the top of the list, had he not lost valuable years due to South Africa's isolation during the dark days of apartheid in that country.

He was 25 when he made his Test debut - against the West Indies at Bridgetown in '92 - and that moment arrived seven years after his first class debut.

Considering that he was exceptionally good by 21, Donald lost at least four years of Test cricket that could have now taken him beyond Courtney Walsh's world record tally of 519.

Donald's scalp hunting skills are evident from his 'jumps' to major career milestones; 100 wickets in 22 Tests, 200 in 42, and 300 in 63. Indeed, consistency runs through Donald's career - hundred-marks in 22, 20 and 21 Tests.

And Donald's ability to hound and remove batsmen is not surprising either. A rhythmic, flowing run-up, where he gains momentum as he approaches the stumps, is followed by a lovely side-on action and a smooth release, strong shoulders and wrist being his great allies.

The South African can take the ball away from the right hander at will, possesses a wicked short ball, and sends down vicious yorkers, often achieving reverse swing and speeds close to 150kmph. And he can rattle the timber with well-directed off-cutters as well.

It was unrelenting pressure on the batsmen, who had to watch their off-stump closely, duck, weave and sway away from the 'perfume balls' and dig out the toe crushers.

Donald had another key requisite. He could sustain his intensity right through the innings. In other words, he would come steaming in at the end of a hot, tiring day. He has worked extremely hard on his fitness, long hours at the gym, followed by the drills on the field.

He was also realistic. During the latter half of his career, Donald cut down his run-up. However, the maturity gained over the years meant he would still allow the batsmen little respite, bringing his variations into play.

It goes without saying that he has been a huge influence in South African cricket - its single biggest figure - ever since its return to international cricket.

Donald fired on all cylinders, when South Africa stunned Australia in the dramatic Sydney Test of '93, and that provided the needed thrust to the Rainbow nation's cricket.

It has to be acknowledged here that Donald has been nursed well by his captains. Kepler Wessels, a tough-as-nails cricketer and a no-nonsense captain, used Donald in short bursts, protecting him for the future duels.

And then Hansie Cronje, who later fell from grace so dramatically, was a caring captain for Donald, someone who understood the demands made on a fast bowler. After Cronje's departure under much disgrace, new skipper Shaun Pollock knew his senior pace partner's mind and needs only too well.

Not to forget former Warwickshire and South African coach Bob Woolmer, who was primarily instrumental in harnessing Donald's extraordinary ability. Donald turned out for Warwickshire in the English county much before he began his international quest, and Woolmer, a shrewd man with motivational skills, transformed Donald into a match-winning speedster. The bond between the two is a rather special one.

On his part, Donald seldom let them down. Along the demanding journey, he has teamed up with several bowlers. In the early and mid-90s, Fanie de Villiers, a paceman of nagging accuracy and great heart, provided Donald with wonderful support, keeping things tight at one end.

De Villiers gradually developed into a strike bowler himself, and with Donald formed a feared pair. With useful seamers like the big all-rounder Brian McMillan around as well, South Africa began to impose itself in the international arena.

And then, in '96, Donald found another partner, the red-haired Shaun Pollock and the two soon went about decimating line-ups; one of the most successful new ball pairs in Test history.

Pollock complemented Donald like a dream. If Donald was fire and brimstone at one end, Pollock snared them with exceptional seam movement and a persistent off-stump line. Opening the sluice gates and then making major inroads, Donald and Pollock dominated the pace scene, especially in '98, '99, and 2000, a period when South Africa made major gains, especially in the sub-continent.

Indeed, the two had the right attributes to succeed in any conditions. If we analyse Donald's performance in particular, we would find that he has claimed 36 wickets in nine Tests, four in India, two in Pakistan and three in Sri Lanka, a creditable display.

However, on the seaming pitches of South Africa, he was much more of a menace, running through line-ups. The Indians in particular faced problems countering the White Lightning's blistering pace, movement and bounce.

In India's '92 tour, he blew away Mohammed Azharuddin's men at Port Elizabeth finishing with 12 wickets in the Test and hounded the Indians in the '96-97 tour also, scalping 20 batsmen in the three-Test series. His overall figures against India - 57 wickets in 11 Tests - are indeed very impressive. Not far behind are his 53 in 14 Tests (Australia) and 86 in 17 (England).

The England tour of '98 witnessed Donald at the peak of his ability as a spellbinding speed merchant. He knocked down over 33 batsmen in the five-Test series, and his red-hot spell at Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge is considered among the most torrid bursts ever.

The contest was in the balance when umpire Steve Dunne turned down a vociferous caught-behind shout by Donald; the ball appeared to have brushed Atherton's gloves.

Angered by the verdict, Donald, charging in, let rip a barrage of short pitched deliveries, that was met with some equally brave batting by the solid, technically well equipped Atherton. It was Test match cricket at its very best.

Donald was in a mean mood at the Centurian Park too,'97, when he repeatedly hit Steve Waugh in the rib-cage and arms, during a fiery spell. Australia had won the first two Tests to take the series and Donald's pride had been dented. Through his explosive bowling, Donald was making a personal statement.

He does have a temper, as India's own Rahul Dravid discovered during an ODI in South Africa. Dravid struck Donald for a sweetly timed six, and that was followed by a torrent of angry words from Donald. The South African does wear his emotions on his sleeves on the field, but once off it, is among the first to share a drink with his opponents.

His vibrant personality shines through in his batting - he can laugh at his own mistakes - and his spirit and character gleam in his effort to improve as a tail-ender. In the latter half of his career, he was not the worst of No. 11's really!

Apart from him dream of figuring in a South African World Cup triumph next year, Donald, an inspirational cricketer, may have to work with young promising pacemen like Mfuneko Ngam, genuinely quick but injury prone, and the 'now brilliant, now ordinary' Mkhaya Ntini.

The man from Blomfontien has a lot more to offer beyond the boundaries. The gladiator lives on.