Sunday, April 21, 2024

Proteas have come full circle


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Amazingly, by beating England in the recent three-match Test cricket series, South Africa have completed the circle.
That ensured that the “Proteas”, as they are known, replacing the old “Springboks”, are rated No.1 in Test cricket. What a truly unbelievably, massive effort, given [the] limited time span.    
It was only 20 years ago (1991-92) that South Africa re-surfaced from isolation in world sports, restarting their emergence as a sporting entity. The patient was never dead, far from it, but now, it is so very alive.
Having played for [the] victorious West Indies, circa 1970s-1980s, at Queen’s Park Oval, with nearly 35 000 absolutely vociferous patrons, or Melbourne Cricket Ground, with 100 000 people shouting “kill” to Australian players, versus West Indies, I know how crowds can make sportsmen sweat really hard.  
Nothing can duplicate South Africa’s rugby euphoria, depicted in director Clint Eastwood’s epic Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as “Madiba” – Nelson Mandela, Matt Damon as South Africa’s captain, Francois Pienaar, and McNeil Hendriks, who gave a performance of a lifetime, as Chester Williams, the only black player on that South African “Springboks” rugby team, that, extremely unexpectedly, won 1995’s Rugby World Cup.
As Variety’s film critic Todd McCarthy wrote: “Inspirational on the face of it, Clint Eastwood’s film has a predictable trajectory, but every scene brims with surprising details that accumulate into a rich fabric of history, cultural impressions and emotion.”
Somehow, that also describes our own Fire In Babylon.
Most of us grew up hearing wonders about South Africa’s massive 1960s cricket team: Peter and Graeme Pollock, Ali Bacher, Trevor Goddard, Lee Irvine, Eddie Barlow, Mike Proctor, Barry Richards, all of whom I have met or played against. That team plowed the way for the new, successful, determined South Africa.
That country’s continuing cricket direction, on the field at least, comes from one man now; one man only: Graeme “Biff” Craig Smith.
Aged 31, he has shepherded his country’s players with a strength that probably comes from his own inspirations by “Madiba”.  “Biff” has fully been “The Colossus of Transvaal!”
Smith was just 11 when South Africa returned to real international cricketing involvement, so his memories would be very fresh and poignant.  
When Smith made his Test debut, at 21 against Australia in 2002, Cape Town, under the unfortunate Mark Boucher’s captaincy, everyone recognized that a born leader had arrived.
After that diabolically undermining Hanse Cronje case, with the incumbent captain being found guilty of match fixing, then with South Africa, led by Shaun Pollock, unable to make even the semi-finals while hosting ICC Word Cup 2003, the governing body Cricket South Africa decided that a pertinent change was very necessary.
That change was to give Smith overall team captaincy, aged only 22, by May 2003.
It showed that maturity which has emphasized South Africa’s approach to becoming No. 1 in the cricket world.
Gary Kirsten, who has taken his own circle to be the present victorious coach, having done the same for India; one of the best all-rounders who ever lived, Jacques Kallis; Mark Boucher, Sean Pollock and even Allan Donald, with their extensive experiences and age differential, could have pouted at the decision. They did not!
Instead, all, and those who came afterwards too, from Makhaya Ntini and Herschelle Gibbs, to the likes of J.P. Duminy, Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and A.B. deVilliers, have bought into the steadfastness and steel of Smith, the fully acknowledged leader of this pack.
That Smith has led from the front is an understatement. He gives no quarter and asks none. He is not political but so focused that it is very difficult to even try to undermine that visage of success and hope.
The opening batsman has a tremendous record – 102 Tests, 8 314 runs, average 49.78. He also has 182 One-Day Internationals, 6 598 runs, average 39.04; and 33 T20s, 982 runs, average 31.67.  
Those are tremendous statistics, especially for one who has to endure pitches first, everywhere worldwide.
Test’s No. 1 team must endeavour, immediately, to win the one accolade that has eluded them thus far: a major world championship trophy.
Now must be the time for Graeme Smith. Enjoy!
• Colin Croft is a former West Indies fast bowler who now writes and broadcasts on the game.

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