Shaky sides with performance issues

Why the forthcoming South Africa-Australia game on Friday is just another in the endless list of meaningless ODI series

Australia’s Steve Smith batting against England last year. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters
Australia’s Steve Smith batting against England last year. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters

Imagine a setting for world cricket with a two-tier formula. Test cricket would have proper context, with teams divided into two groups—the stronger teams in the top group, the weaker ones in the second—and two new entrants would join the lower group in the five-day format. Even the One Day International (ODI) set-up would be characterized by a league structure, with all teams playing each other for three years in the lead-up to the ODI World Cup.

This would give international cricket the structure it has been craving desperately. The reality, however, is quite different. The International Cricket Council failed to ratify this new direction for the game, and even as New Zealand play India in the ongoing three-Test series, the forthcoming South Africa-Australia game is just another in the endless list of meaningless ODI series. South Africa will host Australia for five ODIs, with the first match starting in Centurion on 30 September.

The South Africans have had some contentious issues to deal with before they could start worrying about on-field matters. The country has pushed for an aggressive transformation policy in cricket, with a minimum of six players of colour in the playing eleven, an issue that has been debated hotly.

“When you are picked for the national team, we believe that you are in the dressing room on account of your abilities. So within the squad, it shouldn’t be a problem, even if it poses some issues on the managerial front. But selection politics exists in every team and South Africa is no different,” South African cricketer J.P. Duminy said in a conversation during the 2016 Indian Premier League season.

South Africa need to regroup in light of their results over the past year or so. Since the 2015 ODI World Cup, they have been on a downward curve across every format.

They lost the ODI series to Bangladesh (away) in July 2015, and in the November-December tour of India, they lost the Test series 0-3, despite winning both the Twenty 20 (T20) International and ODI series.

South Africa lost a Test series to England 1-2 at home early this year. They then lost a T20 series 1-2 at home in March to Australia in the build-up to this year’s World T20, and then failed to get to the semi-finals of that tournament too. They didn’t make it to the final of the ODI Tri-Series in the West Indies, also featuring Australia, in June.

Perhaps this slide has it roots in last year’s World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand in Auckland.

In his recent autobiography, AB: The Autobiography, South Africa’s A.B. de Villiers talks about certain selection issues in the lead up to and in the aftermath of that last-ball loss. New Zealand won the semi-final by four wickets, with one ball remaining.

Then there is the injury-prone fast bowler Dale Steyn, who missed both the India and England series (2015-16). His return, with a match-winning, eight-wicket haul against New Zealand in Centurion last month, has set the tone for the new season.

“Our attack, we are more like wild dogs: We wear you down...but we are also capable of breaking your back and taking you down quickly....,” Steyn told the website Sport24 as he sent out a warning to Australia ahead of their impending clashes.

His statement shifts the focus from the ODI series to the three Test matches South Africa will play against Australia, starting 3 November. Australia will need to figure out where they stand in terms of their ambitions on the international scene. Their performance in Sri Lanka oscillated between extremes—they won the ODI and T20I series but were beaten emphatically in the Test series.

Australian captain Steven Smith ought to be worried about finding a balance between facing South Africa and Pakistan in their home summer, and then playing in India early next year.

While phrases such as “the worst Australian team to travel” have been used freely post the Sri Lanka series, it didn’t augur well when Smith left mid-tour to rest, even though his side held the upper hand in the ODI series. It was the best indicator of how much agony had been inflicted on the players that their captain needed time out to recharge and rethink the way ahead, including an overhaul of selection policy, as suggested by their coach Darren Lehmann.

But will Australia actually get down to it? Playing at home, this side is a different beast altogether, and any future planning will take a back seat when taking on South Africa, or indeed Pakistan, who have replaced Australia as the world No.1 Test side.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.

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