• Time to be brutally honest

    Let’s talk about South Africa, South Africa. Let’s talk about what has gone wrong in 2015.

    Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

    Because something has gone terribly amiss since the World Cup, where there were allegations of political interference in the team selection. No one has ever clarified the situation, even if only to allay all the gossip-mongering. The problem now is that with the Proteas Test team in freefall, all those claiming ongoing selection interference are being given a pulpit from which to preach.

    The Proteas end 2015 as the No1 Test side in the world, but in 2015 they haven’t been in the top three or even four on form. All of Australia, India and England look better allround sides. Maybe even New Zealand too.

    The reality is that in the shorter forms of the game there is less examination of skills and gaps between teams are less exposed. In the searching five-day format, weaknesses are ruthlessly highlighted. South Africa will remain a limited-overs force but the Test future now looks less comforting.

    The away series in India was always going to be Hashim Amla’s biggest examination as a Test captain up to that stage of his career. After replacing Graeme Smith in mid-2014 he oversaw a 1-0 series win in Sri Lanka and subsequently the Proteas beat Zimbabwe 1-0, West Indies 2-0 and drew two rain-marred Tests against Bangladesh.

    India away, and England at home in would be a truer reflection of his captaincy ability. History now shows that Amla’s Test Proteas failed spectacularly in India and they were ordinary in defeat to England in Durban.

    There has to be a qualifier though: the Test pitches in India weren’t fit for five-day Test cricket. What they benefited was the team with the better spinners, and India’s were superior as a unit to Simon Harmer, Dean Elgar, Imran Tahir and JP Duminy. The die was cast early: the bowlers, not the batsmen, would win matches.

    However, Amla’s decision-making was weak and confusing, especially when it came to the bowling of Imran Tahir, who was consistently thrown the ball after part-timer Elgar, Harmer and even Duminy. It’s as if Amla was too conservative, or didn’t trust Tahir, because of his reputation of being expensive, despite taking wickets.

    Or, Amla himself was concerned that his batsmen were – and still seem to be – mentally shot. If he’s to win Tests it’s with his bowlers, not a batting line-up that has been ruthlessly exposed in 2015.

    In India the Proteas picked Tahir as their frontline strike spinner. But in the first Test, only with India in 124 for 5 after 43 overs, did Amla throw Tahir the ball. He was the fifth-choice bowler. Tahir ended with 2-23 off 10 overs as India were bowled out for 201. South Africa capitulated to 184 in reply, India then made 200. Here Amla bowled Elgar (0-34 off 7 overs) again ahead of Tahir (4-48 off 16.3).

    In the third Test in Nagpur, India batted first and reached 215. Harmer (4-78 off 27.2) and Elgar (1-7 off 4) were given spinning duties ahead of fifth bowler Tahir (1-41 off 12.5). The Proteas again were all at sea against intelligent spin on that poor pitch and skittled for 79 before India made 173 in their second innings. Again, Tahir was held back and used as the fifth bowler. Amla opened with Harmer (1-64 off 18) and Duminy was fourth choice (1-24 off two overs). Tahir came on belatedly and took 5-38 off 11.3. The horse had already bolted.

    On to Durban for an England side that had impressed in their two warm-up matches – a rarity on the international calendar and a Christmas gift from South Africa saying, ‘get used to our conditions first’.

    Amla won the toss under pregnant skies on Boxing Day and decided to bowl first. But England survived the storm and by the end of a truncated first day they were already in the box seat. They’d set the tone for the series. Should Amla have observed the Test maxim that says, ‘win the toss, think about batting first, think again, and bat first’? Perhaps, but he didn’t have faith in his top-order, or himself, perhaps?

    While bowling, Steyn pulled up with a shoulder injury, left the field ostensibly for a scan but bizarrely returned, shortly afterwards bowling a couple more balls before leaving the field again to sit out the rest of the Test.

    Why did Amla not insist his mainstay stay off the field at the first sight of injury? Why did Russell Domingo not do something other than sit in the Proteas seats with a phlegmatic expression?

    During the match, reports surfaced that AB de Villiers was contemplating retiring. Captain, coach and selectors had given him the wicketkeeper gloves for Durban and Cape Town, after he insisted in 2014 that he no longer wanted to keep wicket in the Tests.

    Quinton de Kock meanwhile, had hit a rich vein of form with the bat, in fact ever since the World Cup earlier this year he has batted well, and his exclusion came with no rational reasoning. Until he was hastily included in the squad for the second Test. It’s an absolutely baffling decision and suggests the selectors are all at sea with what is unravelling in front of them. De Kock should have been included for the first Test, it’s now obvious to everyone barring the selectors.

    Tahir, the No1 spinner going into the series in India, had been banished to domestic cricket and starred for the Dolphins in the Sunfoil Series while the Proteas toiled.

    Amla has looked a shadow of himself with the bat in 2015. Can it be that Test captaincy is not quite what he was born to do? Or is he a yes-man for those in control of South African cricket? Are the coach and convener of selectors yes-men too? It looks that way and the rest of the world is noticing as well.

    South African cricket has gone into a nosedive since that World Cup semi-final, when there were allegations of political interference ahead of the game against New Zealand. Domingo denied he’d been sent an SMS telling him to select Vernon Philander ahead of Kyle Abbott. Haroon Lorgat expressed his anger at the thought of political interference and Fikile Mbalula ranted that no such thing had transpired.

    Aside from blanket denials – which is arguably a microcosm of the wider South African landscape – no one took responsibility for the change of a winning team  for cricketing reasons. Proteas mental coach Mike Horn told two reporters that there had been political interference in New Zealand ahead of the semi-final. Later he denied saying anything of the sort, that he’d been misquoted. The reporters had taped the conversation which showed they had not misquoted him.

    Since the World Cup, Amla’s Test scores have been: 13, 43, 0, 7, 1, 39, 3, 25, 7 and 12. He’s clearly feeling the effects of captaincy, with which come the off-field distractions.

    South Africa themselves have struggled to make 250 in an innings throughout 2015. The batsmen have looked like rabbits trapped in headlights against good opposition. Who is in charge of the ship?

    There are simply too many questions and too much left unsaid to convince South African fans that there’s not something wrong with the bigger picture.

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    Gary Lemke