Monday, November 14, 2011

The South African conspiracy

by Ben Roberts

I may have been reading too many Tom Clancy military/espionage thrillers but it struck me as I was walking Zoe the dog on an overcast yet humid Melbourne Sunday morning. I was grappling with an over active mind desperately trying to come to terms with the collapse of the Australian team in Cape Town. My focus has been limited in its direction of anger. Tired of simply shaking my head at the immature Phillip Hughes' selection, my anger more justifiably has been directed at the elder Brad Haddin, who is having more and more 'seniors moments', breaking only momentarily to lament the 'man crush' Australian cricket seems to have with the hopelessly inconsistent Mitchell Johnson.

But then as I waited patiently for Zoe to investigate for the 75th time in five minutes that potentially another dog exists in this universe I realised how hopelessly misdirected the Australian cricket team has been in its focus for too long. Sun Tzu in 'The Art of War' teaches that as part of a successful campaign you must 'know your enemy', I submit that for at least 40 years (maybe more) Australian cricket has not, and thus stands little chance of ever winning its war with the cricketing world.

Two fallacies seem to intertwine here. Firstly we continue to focus our attention on the cyclical Ashes campaigns that pit our warriors against the 'Old Enemy' in England. Nothing is more important we tell ourselves than beating our old colonial masters at their own game. Secondly we live in the 'knowledge' that South Africans are 'chokers' and will never land the final punch. But in reality I believe England are not the enemy, and more often than not a nation labelled as 'chokers' has landed the punches that have weakened Australian cricket most, albeit surreptitiously.

Australia exited Sri Lanka in hope. A new captain, a new support regime coming, and a number of players with smiles on their faces just happy to be playing cricket. This continued at least for a day into the test at Cape Town, but as we know came crashing down in even more embarrassing fashion.

Of course the rubber finally hit the road for Australian cricket when they lost in such embarrassing circumstances to the English at home last summer. This was it, the lowest we could fall, but in reality was it the English or South Africans in disguise? It was no secret that Messrs Strauss, Trott, Prior, and Pieterson with a host of non-first team selections were born (and in some instances reach adulthood) in the nation of the rainbow flag. Australia's media tried in vain to create a flap about it, but in these days of the dollar being mightier than loyalty, and that it has been going on for years, there was little justification. But regardless of the legitimacy of playing rights, these men all emanated from South Africa, and drank the water over there.

Take yourself back then to early 1994 when the Australian team visited the post-apartheid nation for the first time in 35 years. We knew that our latest superstar was a bit of a lout and taken to streaks of arrogance, but we only for the first time realised that he was capable of such abuse towards a harmless opponent. Daryll Cullinan had (and still has) a mouth on him, but Andrew Hudson was as quiet as a church mouse as a player, yet somehow Warne decided that both players needed the rough side of his tongue. Our lionhearted gentle giant in Mervyn Hughes was taken to acts of abuse on the field toward opponents, yet at the Wanderers ground his anger spilled over into the player's race. A visit to South Africa brought out the worst of these two cricketers.

Only a few months previously at the Sydney Cricket Ground had South Africa so easily taken the career of Damien Martyn away. Despite the failings of the entire batting lineup it was he who took the blame and had his career stamped with being impetuous, almost leading to its death.

In 1992 Australia hosted the World Cup as incumbent champions. In 1987 they had been the upstarts who had toppled the best in the world and created momentum that saw them rise to competitiveness again in world cricket. This World Cup would be where Australia continued that progression, in front of its own adoring fans, but it was not to be. South Africa was one of the obstacles that Australia failed to clear in its demise, losing by nine wickets and having their own former import in Kepler Wessels take man of the match over the nation for which began his international career.

The last time Australian cricket was close to being as bad as it is now was of course the mid 1980s. Allan Border was grumpy, Dean Jones and Steve Waugh inconsistent, and Kim Hughes was bawling his eyes out. While not laden with anywhere near the talent to defeat the mighty West Indian teams they should not have been that bad. Why were they? Well Dr Ali Bachar and his open cheque book for rebellious play in the sporting pariah state probably has more than its fair share of blame. Heart and spine ripped out of the nations playing stocks the Australians lost in a test series to New Zealand; need description go further?

Prior to the period of outcasting from all international sport that South Africa went through they were able to take the bragging rights from Australia with one of the most dominant performances in test cricket history. Completely exhausted from proceedings in India the Australians flew into South Africa to receive one hell of a battering at the hands of Graeme Pollock, Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, and Michael Proctor, all cricketers whom, in one of the games greatest tragedies, had only limited international exposure. To lose all four tests comprehensively pushed Australia to the brink of sacking its captain Bill Lawry; the next series against Illingworth's England only needed to nudge for them to be over.

Sibling rivalry exists between Australia and South Africa. Both former colonial conquest trying to shake off the stamp of their former masters with one officially having shaken it with much bloodshed, the other remaining loyal and protected. Both nations with a history darker than one would desire but only one having felt the collective and polarised wrath of the wider world. South Africa as a proud nation has much to gain through success over Australia on the sporting field. While we fiddle with our clashes with England, the true 'Rome' will continue to burn.


  1. Matt, good article. What Australian's often forget, or not notice, is the intensity with which South Africans view their rivalry with Australia. Twenty years of isolation left Australia looking for different partners, while the South Africans waited. They come harder at Australia than other sides, and fight for longer (both their wins in Australia in 08/09 came from nearly impossible positions).

    You repeated the Martyn myth though, which bears correcting. Martyn wasn't a regular in 93/94, he came into the side in 92/93, had limited success against the Windies and NZ, toured, but didn't play during the '93 Ashes (actually, so Boon could move to 3), and was filling (next cab off the rank) for a ham-strung Steve Waugh in Sydney '94. His '93/94 Shield season was disappointing, and he missed the South African leg of the tour (for Hayden), then lost out to Bevan for the Pakistan tour after Border retired. He wasn't dropped, as such, nor did the shot have much to do with him missing his chance. By analogy, if Ponting retired at the end of this summer, and Lynn scored 1000+ runs while Khawaja faltered, we wouldn't say Khawaja was dropped; just beaten to the open batting slot.

  2. Thanks for that Russ. While I agree with you on the Martyn thing, I think Ben was trying to get the point across that in similar (ish) circumstances, one young promising player took the heat, not stolid guys like Mark Waugh (why he wasn't dropped more often amazes me) and Golden Boy of the time Michael Slater.

    Martyn's Sydney brain fart cost him the best part of half a decade in the international wilderness; and despite not playing regularly at Test level or even scoring regularly in the Shield, he was still viewed as the Next Big Talent in Australian batting circles alongside Slater and Bevan.

    Looking back on the match (, that Martyn stuck around for nearly two hours for only 6 makes his efforts seem almost Herculean compared to Waugh, Slater & Healy...

    In short: Brad Haddin's game has most of the bad facets of Ian Healy.

  3. Ben apologies, I read the byline at the bottom and thought it was Matt.

    Matt, the point is, Martyn wasn't dropped; as is traditional in Australian cricket none of the batsmen took the heat for losing. Martyn was playing because S.Waugh had done his hamstring two weeks previously, and once fit for the Adelaide test (where he scored a big ton) Martyn made way. Australia played the same lineup consistently from Ashes '93 until Border retired, then cycled through the youth in the '6 spot until Boon retired and Slater was dropped for the world's worst shot (well, prior to Haddin's last week) in India '96.

    John Benaud's book on selecting basically states that neither Martyn nor Langer were considered viable after the WI/NZ series of '92/93. It is a myth that "that shot" caused Martyn to be dropped, he was already dropped and struggling to stave off the challengers. Obviously, in retrospect, those judgements on Martyn and Langer, and the one on Hayden were wrong. But even more oddly they got S.Waugh right by ignoring the evidence.

    One of the weirdest passages in that book while discussing Slater was the on the certainties for the '93 Ashes "Border, Tayler, Boon and Steve Waugh". But S.Waugh had 1) had played 52 tests for a low-30s average with only one decent series Ashes '89. (His record to that point is almost identical to Mark Ramprakash's) and 2) barring '89 and an even 100 on a Sydney pitch so flat only 19 wickets fell in 5 days. It is hard to think of a player in test history given more chances before coming good. For whatever reason, both Waughs had a very easy ride, especially compared to the short runs given to the younger generation that followed them.

    (Somewhere there is an alternate world where Darren Lehmann is Australia's greatest ever captain and run-scorer).

  4. Fair points all.

    I thought however you might be underestimating the long term effects of Martyn's ill-discipline, but having checked his stats over the next four years they were hardly exemplary:

    94-95: First Class batting average 29.15
    95-96: 36.04
    96-97: 36.89
    97-98: 42.78

    Hard to argue with these numbers. And when he captained Australia A, he kept bringing himself on to bowl bloody awful medium pace. It was Mike Hussey-esque, but worse.

  5. This is quite funny for me the original author of the piece to have you both discussing backwards and forwards the history of D Martyn beneath!

    I agree, Martyn's sins were far beyond this incident. His preceding poor form for the test team and proceeding unspectacular form at state level no doubt were more to blame than the shot against South Africa.

    That all being said, when one is trying to drum up a conspiracy theory, (even with a great dollop of truth in it), one should take as much poetic licence with history as one can!