When Tom Cruise was shouting ‘show me the money’ over the phone to Cuba Gooding Jr’s character in the movie Jerry Maguire, they could really have been yelling about runs and wickets, writes SIMON LEWIS.
Whether you bat with the beauty of David Gower or the brutality of Graeme Hick, approach the wicket svelte-like in Michael Holding fashion or turn yourself inside out like Paul Adams, what it all boils down to on the cricket field is making runs and taking wickets.
Earlier this week I made the case for Ed Moore of the Warriors and Eastern Province to be selected in a rejigged Proteas batting lineup for the second Test. The suggestion was, to a large extent, statistically motivated (For the record, I have no connection to Moore). Moore was the top-scoring opening batsman in the recent 4-Day Franchise Series (and just two runs shy of the overall leading run-scorer) and my suggestion was that Aiden Markram should move into the middle order and an opening batsman (such as Moore) be brought in to partner Dean Elgar as a replacement for the injured Vernon Philander.
The Proteas lost the first Test against Sri Lanka with a 5-1-5 formation: five batsmen, a batsman-wicketkeeper, and five bowlers (Philander is not statistically a Test all-rounder in my opinion, as his batting average is under 30). Five specialist bowlers is an extremely rare selection decision, so with the injury to Philander, my hope was that the selectors would bring in a specialist batsman.
They did not. They brought in batting all-rounder Wiaan Mulder.
I rate Mulder. He looks good on the field, he has exceptional ability and he is going to be a star.
However. However. Although Mulder scored 146 for the Lions against the Knights recently, he was not in the Top 50 run-scorers in the 2018-19 4-Day Franchise Series. Yes, that was because he was injured for almost the entire season, so he missed out on most of the games, and if he had been available he would probably have packed in a pile of runs. But, as Cuba Gooding Jnr would have said (if he was talking about cricket)… ‘show me the runs’.
Mulder’s 146 was made in a fairly high-scoring match, so although it was a very impressive innings to have under his belt, it didn’t rubber stamp his ability as a Test quality batsman. Not in my opinion. Yes, runs on the board in any match is an indication of batting ability and application, and I am all for blooding talented youngsters. Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut aged 16. If a player is good enough, they are old enough (the same applies at both ends of the age spectrum).
Mulder’s 146 was notable for another reason, however, as it took him past 1,000 first-class runs. In his career. That’s an early call for a player to step up into a must-win Test match… after your team failed with the bat in the first Test match of a two-Test series. I think the selectors took a massive risk in the first Test by fielding five specialist bowlers, and I believe it backfired horribly. It would be very wrong to say selecting Mulder has been a risk, as he is clearly a player of Test quality, and he has that something (the X-Factor) that suggests he could score a match-winning century in the second innings – but the selection of the side for the second Test, as a whole, is a risk.
Mulder’s first-class batting average at the time of his call-up was an impressive 43.08… however, that average was boosted substantially by his innings of 146, which came in the previous first-class match he played prior to his Test debut. His average before he scored that 146 had been 36.66. While that is a decent average for a young batsman, selecting him as a Test batsman when his average is 36.66 is hard to justify – but an average of 43.08 is an easier call to make.
However, a jump in average like that after one innings indicates that he is still young in his career, and hence his average really shouldn’t be factored into the equation (the selectors obviously would have judged him on his exceptional ability, not just his stats).
One can argue, however, that there is a risk to his selection for the second Test… and a sense of gamble. While it is fine and dandy to play positive cricket and to take some risks on the field, when you are selecting a side to represent South Africa against an opposition who are poised to become the first Asian side to EVER win a cricket Test series in YOUR COUNTRY, then perhaps this is the time to step away from high-risk selections or from blooding new players.
The selectors’ role is to choose players they believe will do the duty on the field under pressure when it matters. Who do you want alongside you in the trenches? They know Mulder at first hand, they obviously believe in him, and they are certainly best placed to make that call. They are, however, putting him under immense pressure by blooding him in a failing batting line-up and a must-win match.
According to skipper Faf du Plessis, the Proteas were 30-50 runs short in both innings in the first Test (that they lost!) against Sri Lanka. With the injury to Vernon Philander, it gave the selectors the perfect chance to step away from having five specialist bowlers for the deciding Test and to bolster the batting – without having to make the tough call of which bowler to drop.
The selectors chose to call up Mulder. Not any of the 50-plus batsmen who scored more runs than him during the recent 4-Day Franchise Series (where he missed most through injury!). Partly, I feel, they chose him so they have that fifth bowling option… not to mention having Elgar and Markram as part-time spinners, hence giving the Proteas SEVEN bowling options.
(I’m starting to wonder if Quinton de Kock is going to be working on his bowling soon just to give the Proteas an additional bowling option…)
Even though I really like Mulder as a Test and ODI cricketer, if you said to me, ‘choose one player who will give you the best chance of adding 30-50 runs in both innings of the (must-win) second Test’, then Wiaan Mulder’s name would not be in my top-10 list. That’s neither because he isn’t possibly one of the next 10 best batting options available, but for my money, when you need to select a player who HAS to score runs (do-or-die), it’s always better to look for the non-all-rounder.
Simple, really: if an all-rounder fails with the bat then he has a chance to make it up with the ball, so there is less pressure. A specialist batsman, however, has more at stake when he bats, and while that can become a negative, the positive side of the equation is that he has a better chance of being super focused to build an innings of substance.
Reminder: I really like Mulder, and I think he wears a Test cap well. He is part of the Proteas’ future (and present). I see him scoring many runs for the Proteas in the future and winning matches. But why, oh why, did they select him for a must-win Test match… when batting has been the Proteas’ Achilles Heel, Groin Strain and Pinched Nerve?
While the Proteas top order (No 1 to No 5) struggled so scrape 95 runs together in the first innings of the second Test against Sri Lanka, at the very same time a young(ish) man called Ed Moore was busy compiling an undefeated double century for Eastern Province against Gauteng in a CSA 3-Day Provincial Cup match in Johannesburg.
Moore scored three centuries in this season’s 4-Day Franchise Series (the same number as Mulder has scored in his entire first-class career) and four half-centuries (double Mulder’s career tally). Moore’s 921 4-Day runs in 2018-19 come close to matching Mulder’s pre-Test first-class runs tally (1,034), and with this double century his season’s first-class runs outweigh Mulder’s career runs (1,043 runs, including the first innings at St George’s Park).
Moore ended the day 208 not out (off 276 balls), the same day the Proteas were bowled out for a total of 222. I am aware that the one match is a five-day (aka four-day) Test match, and the standard of bowling (or match pressure) cannot be compared in any way to that faced by Moore in a three-day match. To be fair, Moore’s double century shouldn’t on its own register with the Proteas selectors. That innings is not a call to selection, although it certainly is another huge feather in his cap.
In terms of pure runs scored, right now there should be three or four Proteas batsmen at least back on the franchise circuit and three to four fresh faces in the Test team. Of course, a Test selection is a complicated thing, and it’s difficult to drop a batsman who has proven himself in past Tests. You can’t equate runs on the franchise circuit to ability on the international stage.
Or can you? The MSL showed how a great many ‘franchise’ players were able to step up and shine when given the chance to dance on a bigger stage… and this experience opened up a number of opportunities for international debuts in the past few months.
Why does the same thing not apply to Test matches? Why do the selectors keep so much faith in a steady band of players who are not – as a unit – firing to their potential? When that happens you need change – either in the batting order or by resting a player/s, changing the back-room staff… or changing the team’s mindset and approach.
Since Faf du Plessis scored 120 against a Sandpaper-gate weakened Australia at the Wanderers on 2 April 2018 (almost a year ago), in the following six-and-a-half Tests there have been only three Test centuries scored by Proteas batsmen – Faf’s 103 against Pakistan at Cape Town, Quinton de Kock’s 129 against Pakistan at the Wanderers and Theunis de Bruyn’s 101 against Sri Lanka at Colombo – I would rather bank on De Bruyn coming good in a must-win match than any debutant.
Only two of those 6.5 Tests have been played ‘away’… and none of the opponents have been in the top 5 ranked Test sides in world cricket. Is that an alarm bell I hear ringing?
The solution? The selectors need to go ‘Darwin’ on the players. Start resting, rotating, testing. The MSL showed us how players who had been consigned to the franchise 4-Day and 1-Day arena for years suddenly blossomed. Amazing! Perhaps it’s time for a red-ball version of the MSL? That won’t happen in this day and age, but perhaps just a willingness from the selectors to view 4-Day form as worthy of a chance to prove oneself at a higher level would be a good start.
Keegan Petersen? Ed Moore? Pieter Malan? Pite van Biljon? All scored heavily in the 4-Day Cup, but no call-up (Malan was drafted in as a possible replacement for the injured Aiden Markram).
Yes, the selectors see a long future with Mulder, which is why they picked him. He is also a very good selection at this stage of his career – he’s ready – but I would venture to say it was a mistake when there were already four specialist bowlers and only five specialist batsmen in the Proteas side (De Kock is of Test batting quality, but his workload and focus on keeping means he isn’t focused purely on his batting, which is what I believe the term ‘specialist’ implies).
The picture in my mind is of the selectors once again pointing a sawn-off shotgun at their feet. At the start of day four at Kingsmead I would have bet money on the Proteas wrapping Sri Lanka up for a 120-run win… but I also knew (and wrote) that the match was far from over (‘It will take only one good fourth or fifth wicket partnership to put Sri Lanka in sight of victory… and if the tail wags they could sneak the win.’).
Perera and De Silva added 96 for the sixth wicket and Perera and Fernando added an undefeated 78 for the 10th wicket as Sri Lanka sneaked home for a one-wicket win.
The same applies over the next two to three days at St George’s Park. Of course, we could be celebrating a brilliant Test win, a double century from any one of the batsmen, a six-for for KG, DS, KM, DO or WM. The match is far from done, and the result is held in the hands of all 21 players out there (Lasith Embuldeniya will potentially play no further part in the match).
All could still end well although, really, it won’t. A win would just paper over the cracks that are tearing the Proteas batting lineup apart. Major surgery is required before the Proteas hit the World Cup and Test series against top-5 opposition – that won’t necessarily require limb replacements or vital organ transplants, but a lot of nip and tuck is urgent. And I’m talking ‘triage’ urgent!
The ICC player rankings are somewhat legacy based, so one has to bear that in mind, but the fact is that the Proteas have FIVE batsmen in the top 15 ranked batsmen in the world. That’s astounding. De Kock and Markram (joint 8th), Faf (joint 10th), Amla (13th) and Elgar (16th)… while Bavuma is in 33rd spot (above Ben Stokes, above Jason Holder, and many others). Bearing this in mind, yes, it is hard to contemplate dropping any one of them – although, on the other hand, every one of them (with the exception of De Kock) has an arrow pointing downwards next to their name. Their rankings are dropping.
You don’t need the axe… but perhaps a couple of crackers would help.
Speaking of cracks, perhaps Ed Moore deserves a crack in the Proteas side… or perhaps not. He might fail if he gets a chance or he might succeed… or he might be just, hmm, ok-ish. He will probably never play a Test for South Africa, but due to the pressure he and other players are putting on the current Proteas batsmen, it could be the spark that gets the Proteas batting lineup back on track. Sadly for Moore, that might be the extent of his cricketing legacy.
I know two things for certain. Firstly, with the quality of batsmen in the Proteas side, Ed Moore and all other aspiring Proteas batsmen should NOT be getting a look in. It should be a closed shop. No places available – seek work elsewhere. The current players ARE good enough to dominate and lift the Proteas up into the No 1 spot on the Test rankings… but the problem is that they keep letting themselves (and the nation) down. The selectors, for their part, are letting everyone down by not raising the bar for the batsmen and demanding more.
The other thing I know is that Ed Moore would have slept very well last night. For a start, he would have been exhausted from batting all day, but he would also have been extremely satisfied. As a batsman he has done all he can: scored runs at the crease against whoever bowlers lined up against him. He has put himself in the shop window and done the best with his talent. And he has played good cricket. And he is fulfilling his talent.
Yes, he would have slept well last night. Somehow I doubt the same applies to most of the current Proteas batting line-up.
Photo: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images