RAVI SHAS­TRI

Exclusive in­ter­view with In­dia's new head coach

The Cricket Paper - - FRONT PAGE - Neil Man­thorp looks back on a ‘for­get­table’ sum­mer for South Africa, but ar­gues brighter times may be on the hori­zon

The bleak­ness with which the re­sults from South Africa’s three-month long tour of Eng­land have been re­ceived is to be ex­pected. Some of it may have be­come a lit­tle too per­sonal, but that’s far bet­ter than be­ing ig­nored. Or should be. At least South Africans still care.

Ques­tions about the depth of the coun­try’s play­ing re­sources can also be a red-her­ring. The re­al­ity is that there are enough good play­ers at the top of the pyra­mid to form win­ning squads in Test and ODI cricket. No­body should be con­cerned too much about T20 In­ter­na­tion­als for the mo­ment. South Africa use the plat­form as a ‘be­gin­ners guide’ to in­ter­na­tional cricket and have never been very good at it any­way.

Eight of the first-choice Test XI are com­fort­ably the best in their class and will al­most cer­tainly play the ma­jor­ity of the ten Test matches com­ing up this sum­mer. Dean El­gar, Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Faf du Plessis, Quin­ton de Kock, Ke­shav Ma­haraj, Kag­iso Rabada and Morne Morkel have no pre­tenders to their po­si­tions.

Ver­non Phi­lan­der should be on that list, too, but pa­tience ran out with his mod­est fit­ness record in dra­matic fash­ion when he with­drew his avail­abil­ity on the morn­ing of the fourth Test with a stiff back. Du Plessis in­formed the leader of his at­tack that he was be­com­ing a ‘laugh­ing stock’ in world cricket and a li­a­bil­ity to the team. At his best, he is un­sur­passed.

“Vern is prob­a­bly the best in the world in seam­ing, swing­ing con­di­tions which we had in all four Test matches, so not hav­ing him here was very frus­trat­ing and dis­ap­point­ing,” du Plessis said.

“It is a chal­lenge for him be­cause it’s hap­pened too of­ten that he doesn’t play a full se­ries. I’ve spo­ken to him about that and he’s ac­cepted the chal­lenge. There have just been too many times when we as a team go (gulp), ‘Vern might be in­jured again’. So he’s taken it on board from a fit­ness point of view. We have im­por­tant se­ries com­ing up, In­dia and Aus­tralia at home, it’s eight Test matches and he needs to be fit to get through all of them.”

Phi­lan­der’s fit­ness aside, the most im­por­tant task fac­ing du Plessis, the new coach and any­body else with in­flu­ence over the coun­try’s great­est mod­ern-era bats­man, is per­suad­ing AB de Vil­liers to make him­self avail­able for those Test matches. ‘Per­sua­sion’ of the wrong sort, of course, would be counter-pro­duc­tive. A re­luc­tant de Vil­liers would be a shadow of his real self. Du Plessis knows him bet­ter than most and, sadly, he holds out lit­tle hope. His frus­tra­tion is ob­vi­ous, too.

“I would love AB to play – we all know how good he is and we’ve missed him, but we’ve spent too much time talk­ing about when he is go­ing to come back. The hope of him com­ing back is some­thing we need to move past, we need to find some­one else who can ful­fil that role. If AB comes back it’s a huge bonus, but I don’t ex­pect him to come back into the Test team.”

Ac­quir­ing the ser­vices of Ot­tis Gib­son as the new coach, al­though far from straight­for­ward, might be eas­ier. He re­mains con­tracted to the ECB as Eng­land’s bowl­ing coach and, if they do al­low him to move to a po­si­tion he clearly cov­ets, there may be com­pen­sa­tion to pay and CSA do not part with their cash eas­ily. Per­haps the mil­lions of dol­lars sup­pos­edly be­ing paid by the Global T20 Fran­chises will change that.

Bangladesh are the first sum­mer visi­tors and they will not be the pushovers they once were. The Proteas need to find an open­ing part­ner for El­gar and de­cide whether to pur­sue a four-man pace at­tack with the ex­cel­lent Ma­haraj pro­vid­ing the spin, or re­vert to the three-seamer pol­icy which served them so well while Dale Steyn was one of them. Steyn is 34 and will have been out of the game for 11 months once the first Test is played. He might have an­other year at the high­est level, or even two, but start­ing a Test match with both him and Phi­lan­der would seem an un­wise gam­ble.

If for­mer West In­dian all-rounder and coach, Gib­son, is con­firmed as the re­place­ment for Rus­sell Domingo, he will be­gin his ten­ure with some extremely good raw ma­te­rial. And some ex­cel­lent ma­tured ma­te­rial, for that mat­ter. He was a fine player in a ca­reer which in­cluded six sea­sons in South Africa in the 90s, dur­ing which time he de­vel­oped a strong af­fec­tion and affin­ity with the coun­try. He will not be caught un­awares by the unique de­mands of South African cricket. In fact, they are one of the rea­sons he was so keen to make him­self avail­able for the chal­lenge.

The ODI se­ries here in Eng­land was lost. The Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy ended in ig­nominy. The T20 se­ries was lost and Eng­land won three Tests in a se­ries against South Africa for the first time since 1960, and won a se­ries on home soil against them for the first since 1998. It all felt extremely gloomy. But there are rea­sons to be con­fi­dent that it might all brighten up again soon. At least short-term. ENG­LAND’S ob­ses­sion with the Ashes was, as al­ways, a fas­ci­na­tion for South Africans this sum­mer. We live and evolve in a four-year cy­cle around the World Cup. All our fo­cus is on ban­ish­ing the over­whelm­ing mem­o­ries of disaster which have built, with in­creas­ing mo­men­tum, since 1992. Per­fectly good, po­ten­tially ex­cel­lent play­ers are not given a chance be­cause they may be ‘too old’ by the time of the next one.

Eng­land and Aus­tralia work on a two-year cy­cle of such hype and suc­cess it makes them un­qual­i­fied to judge or com­ment on the fu­ture of the Test game. They bask in the glo­ri­ous suc­cess of one of sport’s great­est and most en­dur­ing con­tests. How can they pos­si­bly care, or even know of the strug­gles we have keep­ing Test cricket alive in the out­ly­ing re­gions? We are do­ing our best but maybe, one day, the ‘Ashes Car­tel’ will re­flect that it should have done more to keep the Test game alive. Un­less it re­ally can sur­vive in iso­la­tion?

“One thing of in­ter­est to me is how ob­sessed every­one is with hav­ing an­swers be­fore the se­ries be­gins,” said Graeme Smith shortly be­fore his com­men­tary com­mit­ments ended.

“Some an­swers take time. Will Keaton Jen­nings fail, is Tom West­ley the man, Dawid Malan… you can’t have all the an­swers be­fore you get there. Maybe Eng­land need to be more flex­i­ble in their de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Give guys a chance to suc­ceed and fail. If they were a lit­tle less up­tight I’d make them slight favourites to win.”

PIC­TURE: Getty Images

Up and down: Seamer Ver­non Phi­lan­der bowled su­perbly this sum­mer but there are on­go­ing ques­tions over his fit­ness

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