Only up from here?

CityPress - - Sport - Stu­art Longbottom @Long­bot­tom_69 is an arm­chair cricket critic. Un­like Wil­liams, he’s sa­ti­ated fairly eas­ily

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.

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