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.

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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. 

Sharks the SA team to beat in the early stages

John Plumtree arguably has the best squad in South Africa to pursue this year’s Super Rugby title

The Sharks have managed to get their Super Rugby season off to a good start with victories over the Cheetahs and Stormers respectively. Their 12-6 victory over last year’s South Africa conference winners was impressive given the intense collisions taking place around the rucks. It was not great rugby, but it was not poor either, and now the Durbanites have two from two, setting them up for the first half the season.

Their main opposition in the South Africa conference will come from the Stormers, and the Bulls. Morne Steyn, who will be heading to France after the Currie Cup, appears to be the form flyhalf in South Africa at the moment though his team did not cover themselves in glory after beating the Force at Loftus in a poor display 36-26. The scoreline flatters the hosts.

While upfront the Bulls are in fine shape, its their lack of creativity in midfield, typified by a shorn Wynand Olivier, that appears their biggest problem. While their intensity will noticeably improve this coming week against the Blues, Bjorn Basson’s injury is a hammer blow, as the man has the ability to score tries out of nothing.

The Stormers appear to be in better shape this year than last, with Lions players bolstering their ranks. Elton Jantjies, the mercurial flyhalf who when firing is arguably the best in the country, is still settling in in Cape Town with his preparations for the season dealt a large set-back following the sad passing of his father.

Jaco Taute, another Springbok recruit from Johannesburg, is still injured while in midfield Juan de Jongh has not been able to work his way back to full fitness yet. Damian de Allende is a talent, but what should concern coach Allister Coetzee is the effectiveness of his captain Jean de Villiers at 13. Having lost the pace to truly exploit a hole, his distribution is slightly nullified given the ball passes through three sets of hands before getting to him.

The Sharks have the best dept especially among the loose, and given how long the Super Rugby season is, depth is always an important factor for any team seriously planning an assault on the title. In JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo they have two of South Africa’s four best wings while the return of Frans Steyn, surprisingly captaining the side, from midfield rectifies one of their weaker positions last year.

It’s early days yet but the Sharks appear the best equipped side to mount a serious Super Rugby challenge to the likes of the Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Chiefs, Crusaders and already this year’s dark horses, the Blues.

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.

SABC boondoggle only benefits SuperSport

The Proteas are the world’s no.1 Test team. The SABC doesn’t seem to care

South Africa are the world’s no.1 Test cricket team, but its own national public broadcaster doesn’t seem to care.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has seen fit to not broadcast the two Tests against New Zealand at the start of 2013 in full, rather opting for two highlight packages of an hour each instead daily.

While the public broadcaster is the political lapdog of the ruling African National Congress in South Africa, as it was the then-ruling National Party’s during apartheid, their lack of foresight in rejecting Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) overtures will only benefit the monster that is pay channel SuperSport.

Media reports on the southern tip of Africa have indicated that while publicly CSA are not too unhappy with the deal, in reality they are livid with the SABC’s decision, since it impacts on CSA’s revenue and the body’s ability to reach a wider audience than SuperSport offers, as most people in South Africa cannot afford the DStv platform from which SuperSport operates.

The SABC has stated they will continue to serve the public, which is laughable, given how the organisation has been politically crippled due to oversight from the ruling party, and how they are rejecting broadcasting the world’s newly anointed Test kings as they play on home soil for the first time. They are also not fulfilling their mandate of meeting the public’s need for national sport. Given their sketchy record on soccer and non-existent one on rugby, this is not a surprise. Money is a factor, but surely there was more wiggle room?

New Zealand might not be the most glamorous of opposition, and even though the SABC said it would broadcast all three Pakistan Tests following the New Zealand series, all they are doing is pushing CSA more into the arms of SuperSport.

There was an outcry when the England Cricket Board (ECB) sold their TV rights to pay channel Sky Sports a few years back, having previously worked with the more accessible Channel 4. The ECB sighted at the time economics as the motivating factor, with Sky being able to offer more money than Channel 4. 

A similar scenario looks like it could happen in South Africa, with the SABC only having themselves to blame. And who loses the most? The viewers who love cricket, but can’t afford to watch it. That’s the real tragedy