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A Tale of Two Captains

By Peter Roebuck
February 21, 2003 12:12 IST
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Africa has been having a hard time. Shaun Pollock's team is struggling to survive its section, and Heath Streak's men have been outclassed by India and now must face the might of Australia in the dry, sorrowful city of Bulawayo.

Both captains are carrying a burden that goes beyond cricket and reaches into the depths of their nations. They grew up batting and bowling and now must walk alongside politicians and philosophers. South Africa remembers its past and is struggling towards unity. Zimbabwe has become callous. Not long ago, the only white boy at an athletics meeting in Harare was booed by a crowd of 5,000 government supporters. He won his race and was lifted shoulder high by those same people. These are strange times, and men rise and fall further than reason can explain.

Pollock is in serious trouble. He is not as strong a leader as Hansie Cronje. Nor has he persuaded players to take money from nefarious gangsters for nefarious purposes. South Africa has been beaten by two exceptional innings and there is no disgrace in that. Nonetheless, the team has played without its usual energy.

Inevitably, the captain is blamed. Pollock has not imposed himself on players or officials and is responsible for the bewildering selections and basic mistakes that have crept into South Africa's cricket.  Rather than rising above his times, he has become a victim of them. It was not the defeat but its manner that provoked dismay. A properly-chosen and capably-led team might have lost to the Kiwis in Johannesburg where Stephen Fleming played the innings of his life. Of course, Jonty was missed but Graeme Smith is a worthy replacement and can score runs when they are needed, at the top of the order.

South Africa played lacklustre cricket and went down with a whimper. Apart from Makhaya Ntini, the bowling was poor, with respected men punished on both sides of the wicket. Clearly, the quota system cannot directly be blamed for the loss since Ntini bowled economically and Herschelle Gibbs was superb. Even amongst those with white skins, the selections have been hard to understand. Now that Smith is playing, it is obvious that Hall must replace Dippenaar. South Africa already has enough orthodox batsmen and needs the fillip that competitors like Hall can bring with bat and ball.

Character is required on the field, the sort of fellows handy in a maul or trench. Pollock's side lacks menace and cannot rely on Donald to bring a match to life. Instead, the team must find lots of leaders on the field, men with the force needed to change the course of a match. At present these men are hard to find, and it is getting late. It's not dark yet, as the songster put it, but it's getting there.

Pollock has not taken his team or this tournament by the scruff of its neck. Rather, he is part of the team and a leader by default. Unless his team improves sharply in the next fortnight, he will not survive. Changing captains will not be enough to revive South African cricket. Strength is required off the field, someone beyond the old guard and the new fellows with their agendas.

Amongst those running around, Gerald Majola and Vincent van der Bijl have most to offer. Sacking the selectors and asking Vincent to take over with some hand-picked men might help to restore morale. Eric Symonds deserves support as coach. All these quotas must be abolished but enlightened men are needed and there are not many around, especially amongst the pale skins. Few of us thought Ntini could make it.

Crime is falling, the rand is rising and the economy is run by a capable couple upon whose longevity much depends. So cricket need not flounder. Let the miseries depart and send the schemers with them, white and black, and let the rest get on with the game. South Africa needs extraordinary leaders. Pollock or his successor must start banging heads together. After his years with the scorpions, Percy Sonn has the experience needed to lend a hand. Those expecting others to improve must put their own houses in order.

Streak has been a fine captain of his country. Nothing is more infuriating than to hear him demonised by overrated windbags from England. Streak has taken countless risks as he tries to hold his country's cricket together. Doubtless he is not the most astute captain the game has known, but he is resolute and brave and Zimbabwean cricket depends upon him. His dad has been to prison, so he is hardly unaware of the perils of his position.

Despite everything, his side plays with spirit. Dion Ebrahim, representing Falcon College and the Asian community, fields brilliantly. Tatendra Taibu, lately a schoolboy at Churchill in Harare, is improving with every match and Andy Blignaut is an emerging all-rounder. Sean Ervine isn't bad either, and his dad proudly watched his son perform 12th man duties against India, though his farm has been seized.

Zimbabwe fought hard in Harare and the crowd sang, swayed and cheered. Politics was hardly mentioned. People needed a rest from all that. And it was safer than Heathrow airport or Durban, Georgetown or Trinidad. A festival atmosphere prevailed and afterwards, spectators went home to resume the bitter struggle that life has become.

Andy Flower intends to stay in Zimbabwe, for it is his country, too. After making his point in the opening match he wisely dropped the black armbands and wore sweatbands instead. As it happens, they were black. He is a courageous man and cares about his country, as does Streak and their colleagues of all colours.

An African World Cup was bound to be challenging, especially as the cricketing countries have changed so much in the last decade. As captains of these countries, Pollock and Streak must show qualities expected from no other cricketing leader. Streak has risen to the challenge, but the South African has fallen short.

Pollock must show that he is not merely a fine player but also a great African. Time is not on his side, but teams have been in worse predicaments and prevailed.

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Peter Roebuck