SOUTH African cricket squads have often been troubled by "divisions" in years gone by. Relationships have been strained, there has been a significant and sometimes debilitating lack of trust and, most damagingly, a culture of self-interest which left players performing for themselves rather than the team.
Gary Kirsten was often a member of those teams, and he saw firsthand the importance players attached to their averages and match figures — for the purposes of securing their place for the next match or tour. The current coach knows now, with the benefit of hindsight, that he could have done more to change that ethos. (But for much of that time he, too, was fighting for his place with conventional criteria — averages.)
But as Morne Morkel said on Monday of the no-balls that blighted his Test at the Gabba in Brisbane last week, there’s nothing you can do about history. All you can do is make sure it doesn’t repeat itself. So while Morkel decides whether it is his "long legs or big feet" which are the problem, Kirsten makes sure that all the players have enough confidence to play for the team in the knowledge they won’t be unfairly judged.
Jacques Rudolph, for example, lost his wicket cheaply in the first innings at the Gabba in pursuit of quick runs as the declaration loomed. Kirsten and his long-time opening partner, Andrew Hudson, will not allow acts of such selflessness to be forgotten when the shakedown of selection arrives. If and when places are questioned, the coach will stand up for his players, even if it means putting his own head on the block.
During the recent "holiday" enjoyed by the Proteas, much was made of the fishing and golfing expeditions undertaken by several members of the 25-man group. Actually, only four (including Rudolph) went north for the experience of a lifetime fishing off the Great Barrier Reef, and two four-balls (led, inevitably, by golfaholic Jacques Kallis) committed themselves to a trio of championship resort courses on the Gold Coast.
The rest, half the squad, preferred to stay in Brisbane and "just be". Not too long ago the chance to get away from each other would have been hard for the squad to resist, but these days they’d rather spend their down time in each other’s company. When you have to, you don’t want to. When you don’t have to, you prefer to.
Some didn’t actually want to do anything. They went to the zoo on one day. Want to know what Hashim Amla did that made him so happy? He had a tooth fixed — root canal treatment, no less. It’s been bothering him for months. (What "bothers" Amla is agony for the rest of us.) They relaxed and did things they don’t normally have the time to do on tour. Like write and respond to e-mails they should have done months ago. And you all know how good that can feel.
Contrast this with the Australian team, all of whom dispersed to presumably happy personal environments but reconvened to the same confusion and antagonism surrounding selection as existed before the first Test.
Shane Watson is the vice-captain, yet coach Mickey Arthur was guaranteeing him a place in the 11 while captain Michael Clarke was saying he would have to prove his fitness to be considered.
Clarke does not like Watson. At all. The captain is gatvol of his prized (read prima donna) all-rounder being constantly injured. Since Clarke took the captaincy, Watson has missed seven consecutive Tests on home soil. About to be eight. Australia beat India 4-0 without him, a fact Clarke has now mentioned six times publicly.
With so much discord and discontent in the Aussie camp, the temptation to prod a stick into their cage must be significant. Even just drop a feather into the huddle. Yet the Proteas have, thus far, resisted. Despite cheap shots from the challenged fast bowler Peter Siddle claiming that South Africa’s top order are vulnerable to, and distracted by, his sledging.
The contest between bat and ball which resumes on Thursday is enthralling enough. But my goodness, if we only knew a quarter of what is going on beneath the surface!