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AFTER last season’s epic heights, Graeme Smith’s national cricket side will struggle to contain public expectation. So it is hardly surprising that they walk in as favourites for the Champions Trophy, despite being ring-rusty and having the choker-tag eagerly awaiting them should they stumble.
It is certainly befitting their status that they should be expected to do exceptionally well over the next fortnight, but cricket is a funny game. Let us not forget that almost all their major rivals have been involved in tough, pre-tournament matches while the Proteas have satisfied themselves with a pop into Potchefstroom.
The hope of hitting the ground running is exactly that, blind hope. Sri Lanka, India and Australia are all coming off carefully planned one-day clashes, designed to sharpen them up for a trophy that is fast becoming an unnecessary irritation on the ICC schedule.
But it provides South Africa with an opportunity to do what they haven’t done for 11 long years. And that is to win an official ICC event, and finally silence the ridiculous choker chants that emanate every time they unexpectedly tumble out of a big competition.
But let it be clear, it will not be very easy. Australia has been typically ruthless against a toothless English side, and will be very hard to beat come the latter stages. It seems that even an Australian team undergoing a major revamp will still put its hands up for higher honours. We only need to look at the return Test series against the Proteas to see how dangerous a wounded Aussie beast can be.
What may also be crucial to the outcome is the state of the pitches at this time of year. South Africa recently played warm-up matches in Potchefstroom, an absolute belter of a batting strip at the height of summer. In fact, Senwes Park is very similar to where South Africa should play most of their matches, Centurion.
The feedback from those warm-up clashes suggested a slow-ish track, and Mickey Arthur has already stated that they are preparing for very similar conditions in the tournament proper. Which plays right into the hands of spin-laden attacks such as India, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how Smith’s side is constructed, as Johan Botha and Roelof van der Merwe can play pivotal roles in favourable conditions.
The one thing that can be said for certain is that batting will not be as carefree as it was during the World Twenty20 in June. The 50-over game has become the obscure cousin in international cricket, partly because of its supposedly “soft centre”. The middle overs in one-day affairs can be rather tedious, and it is this lull in action which has seen its popularity fizzle so spectacularly.
The ICC is frenetically seeking alternative measures to keep this format alive, but it seems that the current formula has reached its sell-by date. There is little intrigue until the final few overs, when captains usually deploy their last batting power-play. Before then, it is a dreary twenty over period of mostly singles and the odd two, as spinners and cutters are bowled to well set fields.
There has been talk of restricting the number of fielders allowed out of the inner ring at this time, but it all becomes rather confusing. With several batting powerplays, change of balls during the innings and field restrictions, the regulations of 50 –over cricket will soon rival the MCC’s own handbook in terms of volume. The inconvenient truth is that this longer format of the shorter version of the game is hanging on for dear life, as spectators and sponsors cannot stretch themselves across three different platforms.
The next two weeks will be a major examination for the ICC. Just the other day, the Aussies were in these parts, enthralling us with some great Test performances. Shortly after, the IPL took over our lives for six weeks, complete with cheerleaders and fireworks on and off the field.
Quite how this tournament will be received by the Gauteng public will be interesting. The IPL was a few hours of viewing for those who had work to get to. The matches involving South Africa should be sell-outs, but Pakistan vs West Indies (for example) will be a hard sell to an audience that is bursting at the seams after a golden year of live sport.
The onus is on producing a spectacle, but the attention span of the modern fan dictates that anything lasting much longer than a few hours is time wasting. Well, anything but the true Test of time, that is. • Lungani Zama will be covering the ICC Champions Trophy for The Witness.