Bulls now South Africa’s best hope?

Pierre Spies’ men are now South Africa’s leading side on the Super 15 log. Do they have the ability to go further?

We are 11 weeks into the Super rugby season and it seems the Australian sides, with the motivation of the British & Irish Lions series to come, have lifted themselves to the point where the Reds and Brumbies both have more log points than South Africa’s top side, the Bulls.

With the Sharks’ endless injury list and the Stormers’ inconsistency ruining their chances of play-off progression from the republic, it is now down to the two sides from the Highveld: the Bulls and Cheetahs.

The Cheetahs have had a magnificent season thus far, especially considering their poor log placing in previous seasons.

They are the best attacking side in South Africa and have added some steel to their previously leaky defence (one wonders how John McFarland and the other Springbok coaches wondering around the country to the different Super Rugby franchises has had an affect on that). 

Their Highveld brethren the Bulls top the South African log on 37 points, two ahead of the Cheetahs. Thought to have mid-log potential at the beginning of the season given their lack of squad-wide experience, the men from Pretoria have shown an ability to scores tries beyond their traditional set-piece and kicking strength.

The return to form of Morne Steyn has proven an important part of their season, while discovering new stars such as Jan Serfontein has helped the re-freshening process. The question now is whether they have the depth and ability to go beyond the play-offs into the business end of the competition.

With the Brumbies (41), Chiefs (40), and Reds (39) all above them in the standings, the Bulls will need to string several victories together to ensure they don’t have to step on a plane for their play-off match. The Cheetahs would be aiming to do the same and have continued to progress even without star flyhalf Johan Goosen.

Their bye, same as the Bulls, has come at the right time. With mostly local derbies to come till the end of the competition, it will be interesting how the South African conference shapes up.

Australia should see both the Brumbies and Reds, who are playing fine rugby, into the play-offs, while New Zealand is a clutter with the Crusaders, who appeared to be losing their way, back into contention (how good is Dan Carter?). The Blues play champagne counter attacking rugby, while the Chiefs keep winning even though they let in too many points for a defending champion. 

The picture after June will be clearer.

The Kallis conundrum

Jacques Kallis turning his arm over at ODI level is an increasingly rare, if not extinct, sight.

The ICC Champions Trophy (and thankfully the last ever) will be held in England in June this year.

While it is a tournament that the world cricket calender never needed, it still has enough credibility for the big cricketing nations to take it seriously. 

South Africa would be hoping to win their first piece of ICC silverware since the 90s (after triumphing at the 1998 edition). While the South African squad we saw in action against Pakistan over the summer looked to be the line-up that would do battle in England, two names were missing that will probably be in the team sheet. 

The first is JP Duminy, who really started to look like he had cemented his place in both the Test and ODI sides. Following his injury in Australia last year that has ruled him out for quite some time, his return to fitness is important for the balance of the team, given his off spin bowling is of a very useful standard.

The major question mark remaining is that of Jacques Kallis. No longer available for bilateral one day series, Proteas coach Gary Kirsten is reportedly doing his best to convince Kallis to return for the tournament.

There is a notion doing the rounds in the republic that Kallis should not be drafted straight into the starting XI given his relative lack of action at ODI level. While it certainly would have implications on his form, it is a no-brainer to bring Kallis in given the outstanding balance he brings to any side he plays for, plus his experience.

He bats at three, is a reliable close in fielder and can carry 10 over if need be with the ball. As his career winds down, the Proteas have rightfully prioritised Tests as the arena where Kallis’ efforts will be focused. However, if they can bring him in for the Champions Trophy, South Africa will be the better for it.

It will likely serve as King Kallis’ last ODI appearance given that the next World Cup is two years away and by then he would be verging on the same age as Sachin Tendulkar, who it should be said, should have retired after India won the 2011 World Cup. The Little Master has decided to carry on, to the detriment of his reputation and his legacy.

Kallis on the other hand has appeared to get better with age, and with the generation of South African batsmen that followed him, in the form of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith and Duminy, having taken up the scoring reigns and removed the burden of carrying the team as he did in the last 90s and early 2000s, Kallis has gone on to become a better batsman staggeringly as he has gotten older. He has triumphed in his career dual with peer Ricky Ponting, and along with Shiv Chanderpaul and Tendulkar, is the last player to have made his debut in the 1990s. The man represents an epoch in the sport.  

Jacques Kallis playing for South Africa in any format is a massive advantage the Proteas should take advantage of, before the great man leaves the field for good. If he is in the team, the Proteas should be seen as the favourites given how conditions in England will suit South Africa better than their Asian. Australasian and West Indian couter parts. England? They might be distracted by the upcoming Ashes battle. 

Axing of Australian players from over report seems a bit much

Shane Watson is on his way back to Australia after being disciplined for not handing in a report. Will this mark the beginning of the end for his Test career, or Mickey Arthur?

I wonder how many of Australia’s former cricketers are either rolling in their graves or shaking their heads in dismay at the news that vice-captain Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Johnson and James Pattinson have been axed from the Test side for their third encounter against India for supposedly not handing a report in on time.

This does not seem like the Australia we know. The Australia world cricket knows does not take such dramatic action then broadcast it to hammer home the point. While details of why the players have been axed probably would have leaked out anyway, it seems a bit harsh for a minor error. Cricket players are paid to play cricket, not write reports.

Look, there is probably a lot more to it than just not doing as asked, but Watson flying home is a bad look for Australia considering he is the vice-captain and one of Australia’s more experienced players. Considering how they have been outplayed on their Indian tour thus far, Australia need all the help they can get.

Watson is more motivated returning home since his wife is expecting, but his words to the Australian newspaper do not make great reading for cricket officials Down Under.

Watson: “Anytime you are suspended from a Test match, unless you have done something unbelievably wrong . . . I think it is very harsh,” he said. “In the end I have got to live with it . . . I am at a stage where I have to weigh up my future with what I want to do with my cricket in general, to be honest.”

One also wonders what sort of effect this might have on feelings about Mickey Arthur being the man at the top. Not a universal choice, and a South African to boot which the Australians deep down inside don’t like (or trust perhaps), he is struggling for credibility. However, this latest diktat will only boost the call for his head ever louder, regardless of whether his job is at stake at all.

 

The only ones mildly amused by this would be India, who now look ever better favourites to finish the series off with a match to play in Mohali, starting on Thursday. Michael Clarke’s involvement in all this will also fall under the microscope, but given he is the only man essentially keeping the Australian batting order together, he has other problems on his plate. 

South Africa show the beginnings of a long reign as No. 1

Kyle Abbott’s seven wickets on debut is the second best ever by a South African on debut.

South Africa just keep rolling on. Another three day demolition, this time Pakistan the victims, shows that the Proteas spell as number have the depth that is key to longevity at the top of the world’s Test pile.

Having lost both Morne Morkel, and crucially Jacques Kallis, the man who has given South Africa balance year after year after year, Rory Kleinveldt was drafted, as was Kyle Abbott for his Test debut.

Perhaps seen as more a steady performer than the sort of bowler to blow sides away, Abbott bowled and excellent line and length, akin to the sort of stuff Vernon Philander normally dishes out on a regular basis. This, aided with his above average bounce saw his pick up the best ever 1st innings debut figures for a South African bowler, and the second best of all time for the Proteas, behind Lance Klusener’s eight in India over 10 year ago.

After posting 400 plus, the Proteas bowling once again showed its class. It would be heartening since Kleinveldt seems to have the chops for Test cricket, while Abbott’s performance means there are now three high quality replacements when needed if the likes of Steyn, Morkel and Philander aren’t fit.

It also gave a glimpse into what the team’s future will be like when Kallis does eventually call it a day. Given the strength of the top six, South Africa at this stage can afford to pick five bowlers, with all of them able to hold a bat while Philander and Robin Peterson are more than capable of making regular contributions.

This focus will now shift to limited overs cricket as South Africa have some time before playing another Test. As things stand, this is the first time South Africa have swept three Test-plus series (ignoring Bangladesh, ZImbabawe and New Zealand) since the West Indies in 1998. 

The signs are good for a long reign at the top. 

Will Afcon 2013 be a damp squib?

Will South African fans embrace the coming African Cup of Nations?

As South Africa readies itself for the 2013 African Cup of Nations, a question doing the rounds within the circles of those that care is whether or not the Rainbow Nation will embrace the tournament as they did the 1996 edition and 2010 World Cup?

The simple answer is no.

The local organising committee (LOC) have targeted ticket sales of 500,000 before the tournament begins but at this moment they have sold less than 90,000 tickets to local fans, while approximately 220,000 tickets have been sold to other African countries. While the ticket-sales within Africa itself look rather good, without local support, this tournament is destined to be another Gabon-Equatorial Guinea effort, where turn out last year was abysmal.

From a publicity point of view, there hasn’t been much, if anything at all, within Johannesburg. While I can’t speak for the other host cities, it seems the only major marketing taking place is on SuperSport, the giant South African sports broadcaster, and the media wondering whether there has been any marketing.

However, that does nothing for the LOC, who want people in the stadiums and not on their couches at home. And amid all this, the South African Football Association are embroiled in a match fixing scandal regarding games played before the 2010 World Cup, with the officials reportedly involved (five in all) having now been reinstated after being placed on “special leave”.

SAFA have vowed to not sweep the matter  under the carpet. I wouldn’t hold your breadth.

However, from a facilities and infrastructure perspective, South African is by far the best equipped country in Africa to host a tournament like this. There will be small problems I imagine, from ticketing to parking to scams to traffic, but the major concern is how South African fans march with their feet.  

 

Selectors giving Tsolekile raw deal

Will Tsolekile be given a chance during South Africa’s home summer?

Race, 18 years after apartheid officially ended in South Africa, still holds an essential place within the discourse of this country. If you do not live in South Africa and suggest otherwise, you are being ignorant of where race is in the current South African story.

Hence why, whenever race, politics and sport are mixed, many sports lovers get rather prickly, saying politics (read race) and sport must not mix.

Being a former politics student myself, I am of the view that politics is inseparable from day-to-day life, and by extension, sport. In a world of interconnectedness, to suggest that politics and sport are separate entities that co-exist beyond each other is naive.

This perhaps helps put the current plight of Proteas “reserve” wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile in perspective. When Mark Boucher’s career was ended through a freak injury in his first tour match on the Proteas tour of England this year (2012), many names were thrown about as to who might replace Boucher in the Test line-up. 

Many media pundits thought Dane Vilas, from the Cape Cobras (formerly Western Province, based in Cape Town) would get the nod. However, it was Tsolekile who convenor of selectors Andrew Hudson appeared to anoint as the next man to wear the gloves for South Africa.

While Tsolekile has said since that he didn’t expect to play in England or Australia, he was told that he would likely wear the gloves against New Zealand. However, he was dropped all together from the Test squad, and told that his batting wasn’t good enough to strand up to the rigours of a modern Test no.7, which he didn’t agree with. Confusing isn’t it?

Tsolekile has complained that while Proteas head coach Gary Kirsten has been clear with him, the message that he has been receiving from the selectors has been mixed.

While South Africa’s batting line-up is probably in better shape fielding seven specialist batsman, the worst thing that could have happened for Tsolekile was AB de Villiers’ scoring 169 against Australia at Perth, expunging the argument that he couldn’t bat and hold the gloves at the same time.

I still believe De Villiers would be more valuable without the gloves, which brings me back to race. With Makhaya Ntini making comments recently that Tsolekile would’ve played for the Proteas if he was white, which Tsolekile admirable distanced himself from, perhaps Ntini is right. There is an onus on black sportsman, more of a unseen veneer than an obvious deduction, that they have to prove more to find themselves worthy in the still white-dominated sports of cricket and rugby in South Africa.

While I am not suggesting that Tsolekile was simply taken on tour to score political points, his poor treatment by the Proteas selectors begs the question Ntini asked: would he have played if he wasn’t black?

It’s unfair to tell Tsolekile that he wasn’t of Test standard after previously indicating that he was the next man in line. Why pick him then, if he won’t even be given a chance?

The selectors, it could be interpreted, have deceived Tsolekile to a certain degree, even going as far as giving him a national contract, while paradoxically not even letting his boots grace an international cricket field.

Thami Tsolekile has been given a raw deal.