Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Proteas need new captain. Why not Ntini?

The South African cricket team – for cricket’s sake – needs a new captain. I suggest that it should be Makhaya Ntini.

Ntini has tons of experience, has scooped top cricketer awards locally and internationally, is level-headed, is a great motivator and has steadily honed his temperament to lead. Over the years, Ntini’s has been the goading voice, boosting flagging spirits in the toughest of games. He is the ideal player to guide and support the younger and newer players in the national side.

Our gum-chewing captain, Graham Smith, is a good opening batsman and will continue to be an asset to the Proteas; but he is not captain material. He appears to lack the qualities needed to lead the team, to get the players to focus and to draw out their greatness.

Under him, the Proteas are languishing. The South Africans are not short of talent; their problem revolves around mindset issues. The team struggles to retain its focus and its collective sense of self-belief during critical matches.

When the team is riding high and thrashing the other side, it's all hunky dory, team spirit is up and they play like world beaters; but when the chips are down, it's another story. In the face of setbacks and when the going gets difficult on the field, they are unable to stay focused, sustain team spirit and wear down the opposition through patience, excellent fielding and doggedly doing the basics right.

Some have referred to this as choking. I don’t like the term “choker”; such a put-down adds insult to injury, and has a fatalistic ring to it. But we must confront the team's recent propensity to lose heart when tension and pressure mounts. We have seen shoulders sagging, glum faces, a loss of fighting spirit and a slew of fielding errors when a different attitude could still have turned a particular game in their favour. At one stage in the last Twenty20 game against India, we needed 26 from 16 balls (not to win, but to progress to the semi-finals); with nothing left to lose, the batsmen at the crease couldn’t muster the boldness and drive required. They simply continued aiming for a run or two a ball – and thus we were bundled out of the competition.

At times such as these, it is clear, Smith’s captaincy is unable to bring out the best in the team. In addition, he has sometimes made patently wrong decisions (of whether to bat or bowl first) and – on occasion - seemed not to have been aware, or informed his teammates in time, that we needed a certain number of runs to win or stay in the contest. Under his watch, also, Herschelle Gibbs was moved around - with detrimental effects on the latter's game. Poor decisions were also taken in relation to AB de Villiers who replaced Gibbs as opener. De Villiers, who will one day have the mentality requred of an opening batsmen delivering consistently good performances, should have been positioned lower down the order, and perhaps given a season or two to play alongside a Pollock or Kallis.

At the start, Smith’s captaincy was complemented by Jacque Kallis and, to a lesser extent, Shaun Pollock. But Smith is overdependent on, for example, the experience and solidity of Kallis. Kallis and Pollock, brilliant as they are, will not be youthful or available forever. Smith needed to bring forth/mentor other talent that can steady the team when top order wickets have fallen and it is he, as captain, that ought to be effectively guiding and supporting younger players in the heat of a match.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni gave us a salient lesson in cricket captaincy. Leading the Indian team in the Twenty20, he demonstrated superbly the importance of captaincy and its tremendous value add: he showed, par excellence, how captaincy contributes to team character and grit, and how these factors win games.

In a life-and-death game and when the team is in a wobble, a good captain (regardless of whether he loses wicket or bowls a loose ball) is somehow apart from the wobble; his guidance, calmness and leadership is something that other players can hold on to. With a team of younger players and with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid left at home, Dhoni excelled as captain and was my man of the tournament. In the case of Smith, on the other hand, he seemed just a part of the wobbling and sense of panic in the game we lost.

I ask: how much longer must we endure the spectacle of the Proteas making a good start and then bombing out?

I think Ntini is the man for the hour. It would be a shame if only prejudice prevents us from properly considering this solid cricketer. Sure, Ntini is not at his peak at the moment. However, when Smith was made captain, he was completely off form and frequently went out for zero or single figures. If we made Ntini captain, I am convinced, he will rise to the leadership challenge and simultaneously raise his game.

Do you agree with my assessment? Share your views by submitting a comment.

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