South Africa's strange tactics

Published : Jan 14, 2006 00:00 IST

EVER since South Africa were reintroduced to the ICC after their dark apartheid days, I have been suggesting that they would have to change their style of cricket, if they hoped to beat the best in the world. My assessment was based on their negativity and the inability to alter their tactics based on the changing circumstances of a match.

Almost since day one, English coaches have played a major role in the style of cricket played in South Africa. This is understandable because the English play cricket at a different time of the year to South Africa and hundreds of English cricketers of varying quality flock to South Africa to supplement their earnings in the off season.

As a result the Proteas adopted a more English style of playing, which didn't suit the prevailing conditions or the temperament of the local cricketers. Geographically and perhaps also temperamentally South Africa and its players are more Australian than English. Those who seem to know tell me that Australia was once part of Africa, before millions of years ago it broke off and floated away. I can believe this for so much of the countryside reminds me of home.

Right now, South Africa are at another cross road in their cricketing history. Cricket was once a white English elitist sport with the Afrikaans not playing it and in most cases not allowing it to be played in Afrikaan schools.

The black population played little cricket and those who did were generally Indians or the mixed cape coloured of the Cape Town area. Basil D'Oliveira learnt his cricket in this area, before being enticed to England and eventually playing for his adopted country.

It is also good to see that the earlier decision to include a certain number of black cricketers in all South African teams has been revoked and the teams will now be selected on merit only. The more I see of Makhaya Ntini the more I am impressed, not only on the field, but also off it. His response to a question on the black players issue was very mature and responsible. He reasoned that it was demeaning for blacks to be guaranteed a certain number of spots in a team when they were not good enough and such a policy would in fact hinder the development of black cricketers and the quality of South African cricket.

At present there is a lot of natural skill in the South African team, but they seem to lack the know-how to score consistently and to take wickets. No one doubts their courage as they showed with a defiant draw in Perth.

Graeme Smith has shown he wants to be aggressive, but I would like this to be more with his bat and less with his mouth. His bid to boost the confidence of his team with ill-advised words is not working and will not work. All of his time should be spent getting the most out of his players and himself. At present his mind is wandering too much and this is shown by the fact that he has got good starts in most of his Test innings before getting out in the way the Australians had planned to dismiss him. To be out four times in a row to tactics devised to get him in such a manner is not acceptable and shows to me a mind that is not relaxed and concentrating on every ball. His captaincy also seems to be affected and often he reacts after an event rather than foreseeing it. This is particularly noticeable with his field placing when catches go abegging because gaps have been left open.

To me South African cricket seems to be badly affected by fashion, fads and theories. The spread slips position is very much a case in point. History, and I am sure the modern computer, would show that first slip takes the most catches followed by the second and the third slips. Yet, because other countries are using spread slips, though without much or perhaps any success, Smith is being heavily influenced by it without understanding the Law of Averages.

It is very difficult sometimes to work out just how the South African bowlers are trying to get wickets. While some of the Australian batsmen, particularly the left-handers, have common faults and the way to get them out is with persistent and patient bowling directed at these weaknesses, it appears that the South African bowlers are not good at the patience game in the manner of Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne.

Andre Nel has been South Africa's most successful bowler and it doesn't take a genius to work out that he is mixing up his deliveries well and achieving success by bowling tight, denying the batsmen freebies and frustrating them into error.

It is not easy playing against a better and more experienced team as Australia are. In this situation it is a must to have your bowlers keeping it tight, not giving anything away and backing your bowlers up with great fielding.

South Africa have been just terrible in the field and I am just not talking about the numerous dropped catches. Their ground fielding has lacked security and concentration and enthusiasm. This is a comparatively young team and I am amazed at the number of simple errors that are being made and the lack of pride being expressed. Perhaps the major worry about their fielding is the appalling techniques being used.

Fielding is the one area I believe in which you can make the quickest improvement provided you spend hours and practise developing the right techniques to catch and with ground fielding. It can also be the most enjoyable pursuit, for if done properly, the players will appreciate and enjoy the quick improvement that they notice.

I don't know who is helping the South Africans with their fielding, but whoever is doing so should examine why so many catches are being spilt. Poor techniques have been the cause in 90 per cent of the cases. Once again new fangled theories have been accepted as the way to go to the detriment of a nation, which once took pride in itself for being the best fielding team in the world. The South Africans are far from that now.

I have always claimed that there is only one hard part in batting and that is judging the length of the ball. If you get it right you play correctly forward when the ball is up and back when it is pitched short. In theory, a fairly simple thing to expect your batsmen to do. Unfortunately, in world cricket it is becoming an epidemic as batsmen are caught straddling the crease and are easy victims for the bowlers.

South Africa right now are probably heading the world in this department. In the second innings in Melbourne, by my calculation, at least six of the batsmen were out when they miscalculated the length of the ball and were left in a no man's land to counter the delivery that dismissed them. It is impossible to judge every delivery right, but it is vital to get as many correct as you possibly can.

I would like to wager a small amount on the fact that most of the South African batsmen don't watch the ball right out of the bowler's hand, but watch an area somewhere around the hand.

Tests have shown that batsmen who watch the ball right out of the fingers of the bowler, pick it up at least a metre sooner than those who don't. This is obviously a huge advantage as it allows batsmen the extra time to assess where the ball will pitch and thus get into the right position to play it.

Simple really, and it has been working as long as cricket has been played.

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