The fall and rise of South Africa

NANDITA SRIDHAR

WHAT do you do when the only time you won a limited-overs match, gave the lenses a generous dose of sparkling smiles and spoke second in post-match presentations in 13 matches, was against Bangladesh? Simple. Stop losing. The South African 11 (12 rather, in super-sub world), have managed to do exactly that, 19 times, and have even squeezed in a 12-match winning streak, besides sky-rocketing to second place from a lowly eighth in the ICC ODI-rankings. Second only to Australia, which stands atop with 21 consecutive ODI wins, the Proteas' sudden swing in fortunes seems almost akin to the masters of the maddeningly mercurial India and Pakistan.

But there is more to the South African resurgence than thermometer readings. A 1-5 loss to New Zealand 18 months ago was followed by a 0-5 loss to Sri Lanka, after which they put the non-conquering Bangladeshis in place in the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy, only to be given directions (not so polite) to the exit door by eventual champions West Indies.

The gaping holes could have accommodated an army. Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis took turns playing lone-ranger in the pace bowling department and Makhaya Ntini's inconsistency barely helped their cause. The batting order that saw the kind of shuffling which would be perfect for a round of blackjack and politics resulted in Thami Tsolekile being picked too soon as the wicket-keeper after the logic-defying exclusion of Mark Boucher.

After being repeatedly battered to pulp, any team would have been an ingredient for mince-meat, which is when Ray Jennings, South Africa's former coach, and captain Graeme Smith probably decided to end the madness.

Speaking of Jennings, the only thing he lacked was a military uniform and one could even imagine him handing over badges to his regiment (read players) for their achievements. He was antonymous with popularity but synonymous with discipline and toughness, being a demanding taskmaster. Along with Smith, he decided to give logic another chance and opened the curtains to unveil what A. B. de Villiers, Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt were capable of.

De Villiers, who figured that scoring runs is the only thing under his control after trips up and down the order, emerged as a classy opener. Nel and Langeveldt, bowling brilliantly, especially at the death, were their new hopes to succeed with the ball. A de Villiers, Smith, Gibbs and Kallis line-up was formidable enough for rival coaches to head towards their lap-tops, and Pollock, Kallis, Ntini (if consistent), Nel, Langeveldt and the quickie Dale Steyn gave their bowling a brand new spinal chord.

The Jennings-Smith Test record stood at five wins against three losses — two to England and one in India — and five draws, and they won 12 out of 14 one-dayers, against England, Zimbabwe and West Indies. "I'm not there to be loved," said Jennings. "I'm there to get results." But his methods, which helped his team win matches, couldn't help him win back his post, which he relinquished to Mickey Arthur after the 2005 Caribbean tour.

The mantle change didn't affect them too much as the Kiwis were completely clueless just 18 months after they left the Proteas breathless. After clinching the home series 4-0, South Africa suddenly found themselves looking up and noticing that not seven, but just the blokes in yellow on top. "We went for a lot of young guys and it was always going to take time for them to find their feet at the international level and it's still going to take more time. The guys are starting to feel more comfortable in their own abilities. We've got some structures right and the guys have really put their hands up, which is often the key thing in pressure situations," said Smith.

With India and South Africa jointly holding the chokers tag, winning under pressure should almost become an obsessive anthem for them to release the noose. The New Zealand series saw some close matches and `Man of the Series' Justin Kemp decided to play Zulu, and slam-banged South Africa to victory on more than one occasion — the 64-ball 73 in the first match being the main feature. The 28-year-old's military-medium pace makes him an ideal one-day player.

Back to their favourite task of clashing with the Aussies for the No.1 spot, South Africa would do better than start dreaming World Cup dreams. Though eight to two seems a giant leap, the resurgence has only just begun. A big thanks is due to a certain lady called luck, who was present during the scheduling. After a stupendous one-day series against England, a series against non-existent Zimbabwe and a barely-there West Indies was just perfect to keep up the momentum, try out youngsters and send averages on a mission to the moon. They did just that, and voila, a new found-confidence was injected into their veins. But the real litmus test of the blue coloured kind will be on the dusty, slow and turning Indian soil. With Nicky Boje out and Paul Adams nowhere in the scene, a lack of tweakers will be their biggest chink, which the Indians will be more than willing to exploit. And if that doesn't happen, they can always count on the men from Down Under to welcome them with open arms, come December.

Until then, the Proteas look relaxed and ready for the challenge. Mark Boucher, rightfully back in the team, is a relieved man. "We have changed a lot. We went through a terrible period back then; it was almost as though we were scared to win. People talk about a fear of failure but the opposite can be true — you can be scared to win. We were trying so hard, and the harder we tried the tenser we became. Every time we had a chance to win we seized up; it was a nightmare," he said.

The nightmare has now been replaced by a pleasant winning dream, and they are not ready to pinch themselves, at least till 2007.