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.

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. 

India need to take responsibility for their own failings

India’s series loss against England has raised questions about Dhoni’s future as India captain

England’s outstanding 2-1 series win over India in India, following a draw in the fourth and final Test in Nagpur, has raised the temerity of those who feel that now is the time for change within the Indian playing group.

With the benefit of hindsight (that old chestnut), England’s victory is not too surprising given how professional there set up is, and the way Alistair Cook has seamlessly taken over the captaincy following Andrew Strauss’ retirement.

For India, bar Cheteshwar Puruja and Virat Kohli who finally added aptitude in the fourth Test to talent following some brazen dismissals, they need to look inward and realise that all is not well. For Indian fans, it is disconcerting to see all the way from the southern tip of Africa that Mahendra Singh Dhoni and co have gotten into the nasty habit of believing their own hype, and excuses.

From blaming the ball, to the pitch to conditions, Dhoni and the likes of Virender Sehwag have refused to take the appropriate amount responsibility for a poor performance. Take no credit away from England, who deserved their first series win in India in 28 years, but India didn’t help themselves through the own performances on the field.

Sachin Tendulkar typifies this. Given that the last 18 months of Test cricket haven’t been the kindest to him, his continued presence within the Indian set-up seems to be reaching Ponting-esque proportions. No matter how much Michael Clarke tells us that Ponting’s presence in the team was beneficial, his presence at no.4 during their series loss against South Africa was a drag on the Baggy Greens, with normal Channel Nine flunkie Mark Nicholas requiring the freedom of a South African commentary booth to say as much during the recent series.

Perhaps even more frightening for Indian fans is the lack of a truly world class spinner. Harbhajan Singh’s ability to take wickets has been retarded by the constant grind of flat limited overs cricket, while Ravichandran Ashwin contributed more with the bat then he did with the ball during the series.

Pragyun Ohja had a fine series, being the leading Indian bowler with 20 wickets at just over 30. Given his accuracy and control, he looks India’s best spinner by some distance, even if he appears the type of bowler that won’t run through a Test batting line-up like the great Anil Kumble could on his best days.

Will Dhoni remain skipper? Probably. Will Tendulkar suddenly retire? Nope. Change is as good as a holiday goes the old English saying, but if India can’t see the need for change in the first place, they will continue to under perform at Test level.

Given India’s playing and financial resources, a higher standard should be demanded. While the monolithic BCCI continues to boss the world game in the boardroom it is on the field, their prioritisation of limited overs cricket is beginning to take its toll on cricket’s toughest format on the Indian sub-continent.

With a growing Australia set to travel to India early next year, now is a critical time for India to take stock otherwise they could be in for another nasty surprise.

Australia see sense with new Cooper deal

The retention of Cooper within Australian rugby is key for Australia to move forward on the rugby field

Like a marriage that went awry, then reconciled through counselling, Quade Cooper’s signature on a new AUD$800,000 deal to keep him in rugby union for the next two years proved that after some huffing, finger pointing, puffing, and anger-inspired, wiser heads prevailed.

With many, including myself, suggesting that Robbie Deans is an ailment that should be cast aside as soon as possible, Cooper’s signature will go some way to disproving the doubters that Deans still has the dressing room behind him in his quest to lead Australia to World Cup glory in 2015 following 2011’s failed attempt.

It’s also a boon for the Super 15. Cooper’s absence would have severely depleted the star power of the Queensland Reds, Australia’s best team, and the Australian conference as a whole, already believed in both South Africa and New Zealand to be the weakest of the three and given preferential treatment via the competition format (on both counts, Australia are guilty as charged. We just have to live with it until 2016).

Cooper, famously big chums with another budding boxer and world rugby superstar across two codes Sonny Bill-Williams (and they share the same agent in Khoder Nasser), also represents the type of exciting and skillful player Australian rugby needs to entice and keep youngsters in the game. He is a highly marketable asset, and the longer he stays in rugby union where he can display his outstanding ball skills (his tackling? Well, Fox Sports pundit Greg Martin says “tackling is all about heart”) the better it will be for the game in the southern hemisphere.

The ARU also had the carrot of a British Lions series to dangle in front of Copper, and buy keeping him in the code for two more years, its highly likely he will sign on again to compete in the 2015 World Cup when he will arguably be an even better player. He’s got the ability, and considering what Australia have in terms of playing personnel, should always start at 10 with his scrumhalf equal Will Genia at 9.

I’m looking forward to some more Quade Cooper antics next year, but hopefully on the field and not in the boardroom. Like the Kevin Pietersen-England cricket saga, it’s a very bad idea to isolate your best player when they are willing to come back to the pack.

Cape Town won’t see another All Blacks Test until WP realises it needs to walk away from history

Many said it would become a white elephant after the 2010 World Cup. They weren’t exactly wrong

The South African Rugby Union released the Springbok’s home fixtures up to 2015. While there is a new four-team tournament next year, with Nelspruit being anointed a Test venue, an interesting side note is that all the Test matches featuring New Zealand will be played in Johannesburg, at either FNB Stadium or Ellis Park.

I’m sure there are many in Cape Town who feel they are being cheated, even though they get Australia twice in the same period. The last time South Africa played New Zealand in Cape Town was 2008 when South Africa were embarrassingly beaten 19-0 by the All Blacks. Perhaps the fact that Cape Town’s climate is startlingly similar to New Zealand’s is another reason why another All Blacks Test hasn’t been played there?

Cape Town Stadium was built in Green Point, is modern, centrally located and easily accessible by road, and has 60,000 seats. Newlands was founded in 1888, and has gradually evolved with the times, now boasting around 50,000 capacity though some of that is standing. It is crammed into a suburb where road access is poor though rail access is near by (though not used enough by the Cape Town consumer, especially many white residents who barely know it exists). I kid you not. I lived in Cape Town for a year and a half, with many locals not knowing there was a train line there or had never even used it.

Newlands is owned by the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU), which in turn is controlled by the 70-plus clubs that constitute it. It is an amateur body compared to the unions business arm, WP Rugby. While the WPRFU has said time and again it is not moving from Newlands, with amateur attitudes ruling the way, surely it is time for the union to modernise and be willing to part with history for the sake of the future?

The land that Newlands is built on is worth millions. Selling it would arguably instantly make Western Province the richest rugby union in South Africa. Surely an agreement can be found, especially with Western Province and the Stormers the best supported franchise in Super rugby in South Africa, where WP buys into Cape Stadium. Provincial rugby bosses love money, and Cape Town Staium offers potential revenue that Newlands, though a fabled ground of history, can’t match.

A bit crammed isn’t it?

Until then, I guess Capetonians will have to make due with Australia and lesser lights. For those that live in Johannesburg, the All Blacks are coming every year till 2015.

South Africa look difficult to stop at no.1

South Africa legitimised their no.1 status in Perth

South Africa, in brutally crushing Australia in a fashion reminiscent of the way Australia dealt with the Shaun Pollock-led tour of 2001, have locked in their place as the world’s no.1 ranked Test side.

While they should count themselves lucky for Faf du Plessis’ unstoppable resilience in Adelaide (who know what might have happened at the Gabba if a day hadn’t been lost), their performance in Perth is one of the best by a South African side, if not the best, in the modern era.

Such was the efficiency and ruthlessness of Australia’s defeat, by over 300 runs, there has been barely a whisper from the Australian press, normally so strident when the Proteas visit their shores, contesting South Africa’s status as the best Test team in the world.

They came close twice, but in the end South Africa took their opportunity when it arose in Perth, where the bowling performance on the second day being the key one of the series. Australia, in bowling out South Africa for 225, could have perhaps done better conersidering it was South Africa’s lower order that bailed them out of trouble, with Du Plessis’ fine undefeated 78 supported by Robin Petersen’s 31 and Vernon Philander’s 30.

Then, Day 2 was where it all happened for Steyn, Philander and co, knocking over Australia for 163. Then by amassing 569, with Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers scoring big centuries, and assisted by captain Graeme Smith’s fifty, South Africa truly arrived, and subsequently bowled the hosts out 322 wining the game with a day to spare.

It seems Smith himself has grown more comfortable with the no.1 tag, and Gary Kirsten has re-energised him as a leader. South Africa’s leader now carries with him an aura of authority and achievement that South Africans have trouble seeing because he is their captain, but rest assured, the cricketing world sees Graeme Smith, and his team of cricket playing South Africans, as a looming juggernaut in the five-day game.

For Australia, Ricky Ponting’s retirement (and timed correctly), wasn’t enough to inspire them against their old foes. Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey aside, their is an element of inconsistency in their batting line-up, with it being not entirely settled, especially now that Ponting has gone.

Michael Clarke should really consider moving up to no.4 at least, if not no.3. Michael Hussey should stay at six with his experience vital to the lower and middle order. Ed Cowan looks to have the right stuff, scoring a century and 50 in the series against the Proteas. Dave Warner is explosive all right, but he doesn’t offer that consistency that a Justin Langer, Alistair Cook or Gautam Gambhir offer. Shane Watson personally should bat at five, if Australia want to be really serious about using him as an allrounder.

It would also suit Watson’s style of batsmanship, protecting him from the swinging ball early in the innings that often sees his front foot square in front of the stumps. Of the replacements, Usman Khawaja seems to have the best temperament, but whether he gets selected is another matter.

On the bowling front, Chris Pattinson and Peter Siddle look the right partnership, with Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson perhaps in the rear. Nathan Lyon has what it takes to continue as Australia’s best Test spinner, and will get better with experience.

South Africa next face New Zealand for two Tests and Pakistan for three over the African summer. South Africa will beat New Zealand, no doubt about that, regardless of Ross Taylor’s teams’ fine second Test performance in Sri Lanka. Many others have also dismissed Pakistan as a threat, which would be foolhardy as they have always proven tough opponents than South Africa give them credit for. South Africa should be able to beat Pakistan, but should not underestimate them one bit, considering that talent has never been a problem for the sub-continent nation, rather applying it.

The real South Africa stand up on Day 2

Hashim Amla should be doing this again on Day 3 against Australia

Now that is what you call a turn around. Following a mediocre Day 1, South Africa drove straight through the gate and into Australia’s proverbial house in Perth on Day 2 of the third and final Test.

With Faf du Plessis ensuring South Africa had something to defend on Day 1, it was left to Dale Steyn, at his rip-snorting best, and the rest of the South African attack to bring the Proteas back into the game, and they did that with gusto.

Steyn’s four wickets, combined with two from Philander, three from a highly improved Robin Peterson and one from Morne Morkel, saw Australia bowled out for 163. To follow that up, Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla punished the Australian bowling attack by hurtling along at more than seven runs an over to leave South Africa 230/2 at the end of the day, with a lead of 292 with three days to play.

Smith was out to a fantastic catch by Nathan Lyon for 84, while Amla finished the day unbeaten on 99. With so much time left in the game, South Africa can smell a series victory. The delivery to remove Michael Clarke was the best of the series, and perhaps this is the reason why Australia offered two rather lifeless pitches at the Gabba and Adelaide before finally producing a more reputable Test wicket. South Africa’s attack, highly talked about before the series and disappointing in it until today, showed how South Africa, in part, ascended to number 1.

It’s been a wonderful series thus far, and while Australia are extremely unlucky not to be 1-0 up, the way South Africa have scrapped to get this far shows the mental strength that used to elude the Proteas whenever they faced their fabled nemesis from Down Under.

Long live Test cricket. South Africa to push on and win the game.

On a side note, Ricky Ponting’s departure from the game is a sad note, leaving only Jacques Kallis, Mahela Jayawardene, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Sachin Tendulkar as the four remaining international players who made their debuts before 2000.

Like in the Lord of the Rings, where the destruction of the ring in Mount Doom saw the Third Age of Middle Earth come to an end, once these three titans of the game depart, cricket shall find itself in a very new era.