Only up from here?
Arguably the greatest female tennis player in history, Serena Williams, once said: “I’m a perfectionist, I’m pretty much insatiable. I feel there’s so many things I can improve on.”
With that kind of mind-set, it’s hardly surprising that the powerhouse athlete has, almost, won more grand slam tournaments than anybody else.
In the heyday of the recently bygone Protea glory days in the test arena, the players must have thought they were practically invincible, going an unprecedented nine years without tasting defeat. But last year, when South Africa managed a measly draw against Bangladesh in the first series of the test calendar, the writing seemed to be on the wall.
What followed – humiliating losses to India and then England, at home, nogal – provided the overdue dose of hubris that always ultimately catches up with shameless overachievers.
Last week, the International Cricket Council released its updated test rankings. South Africa are no longer third, trailing second-placed India by just a few points, but sixth – a mammoth 36 points behind first-placed Australia, and six points behind New Zealand.
The Proteas dropped 17 points because the new rankings no longer take the 2012/13 season into account, and results from 2014/15 have a weighting of 50%, leaving the most recent performances to justify the calculation. It’s no great surprise, sure, but it’s a reminder that superlatives about South African cricket are now only really appropriate in the past tense.
The rankings weren’t kind to Zimbabwe, our languishing cricketing neighbours, either, who fell off the chart completely for not playing the requisite number of games. The council insists Zimbabwe will be reinstated (at the bottom, no doubt) once they play two tests against New Zealand in July. But the real issue here is the survival of the long form of the game, the seven-course meal in an era of drive-thru McMeals.
With the “big three” – Australia, India and England – dominating the schedule and making sure they never want for fixtures, the rest of the test-playing nations are left fighting for the scraps.
Less cricket means less practice, fewer royalties and a lower chance of climbing the rankings. It’s a model derived from capital, of course; and, as we know down here in southern Africa, once you’re on the wrong side of the table, it becomes increasingly difficult to turn it.
But all’s not lost, at least not yet. The greatest stories sport has ever told are of success against impossible odds – just look at Leicester City’s 5 000/1 Barclays Premier League triumph with two games to spare. If Zimbabwe pulled a Leicester, they’d have a new legion of fans from Auckland to Antigua. The longer South Africa take to bounce back, the greater the fairy tale they’re crafting becomes. But let’s not forget that for every Leicester, there are countless Swindon Towns, Preston North Ends and Leeds Uniteds, for whom glory is ever elusive.
If the Proteas are serious about mounting a comeback this season, they’d do well to channel an analogy from tennis, not soccer, and take a page out of Williams’ book. There is, especially now, a great deal to improve on.