How character shaped lessons in history (An African story)

By Trevor Chesterfield | April 02, 2009

Anyone living abroad, yet with a serious interest in South African domestic cricket, would have wondered if their national or local media are, as usual, sleeping on the job. Either that or history has escaped their tardy attention.

Centurion, home of the Titans franchise, its impressive venue settled as it is on the banks of the Hennops River and with a growing tradition that has launched Test and international careers of modern heroes, threw up two recent results at first-class level that would have brought a smile to the faces of those currently playing in a distant foreign field.

Sure, in years to come, the two last SuperSport games of the season the Titans played, the first at Willowmoore Park, Benoni and the second at home, as it were, could be classed as tricky sports trivial pursuit questions. But therein lurks the danger of getting the answers correct and knowing your history.

While the subject matter of this feature may not interest (even entertain) many regular readers of this column, it should be noted there is a bigger, more professional cricket world out there than Sri Lanka and as such the need to get used to having stories as this on these pages. It is after all a cricket column and my interest spreads from Titans in South Africa, to Central Districts in New Zealand and the proud broadacres of Yorkshire in England.

Over a matter of ten days in March 2010, the Titans franchise twice conceded first innings totals in excess of 500, yet with a bowling attack minus big names, but a lot of character and a will to deliver, came from behind to win both matches. Not only is it the first time it has happened in first-class cricket anywhere in the world, it has provided stirring entertainment as well for those who cared to watch and see history being created at the two venues.

Now such statistics are really interesting and the captains for the two games – Jacques Rudolph, filling in for flu-ridden Pierre Joubert in the first game in Benoni while Joubert had a hand in the other – may not have been aware of how they had a hand in playing such an important role that shaped two impressive victories. And as Andrew Samson, Cricket South Africa’s trusty statistician with such important details at his fingertips (overlooking on this occasion his dalliance involving such cheap American commercial thrills linked to non-intellectual pastimes as baseball), pointed out in detail, there are some impressive details involved, one being the Rilee Roussouw triple century, the first at the Centurion venue.

Willowmoore Park in Benoni is not a fancy venue, but it has been upgraded and also has a history as being the first in the world to stage day/night matches at a cricket venue in the early and mid-1960s; not as a gimmick but as fund-raising events for a worthy causes and in which some big names played in one. It is also the ground where Denis Compton scored the fastest triple century in the first-class game in 181 minutes against North-Eastern Transvaal, the forerunner of the Titans, in December 1948. A small venue, Compton was dropped before reaching double figures. Shades of the Brian Lara escape in his way to 500 in 1994.

Moving forward to March 18, 2010, Johannesburg-based Gauteng Lions with five Test players, including a current one in Alviro Petersen in his first as captain after scoring that century on debut against India at Eden Gardens, plundered a willing Titans bowling on an easy pitch, and Andre Nel. it is easy to imagine some of the mocking that went on in local media circles as well as other pavilions around the country and elsewhere as the scorecard was checked on the Internet and in the papers.

Why, there were more centuries recorded by the bowlers – three – than by the batsmen with only Neil McKenzie reaching triple figures scoring 103 while the rest of the scorecard is littered with eighties, seventies, sixties and fifties. Nel coming back from an injury lay-off, walloping a fast half-century just to rub it in against his old teammates.

Apart from Rudolph whose Kolpak deal with Yorkshire precludes him from national selection, Heino Khun a recent T20 international and Gulam Bodi, who played in two ODIs and a T20 international three years ago, the Titans side has a list of promising players with talent; one of them, Pieter Malan, and under19 ICC Youth Cup batsman with a burgeoning reputation and 1031 runs in the SuperSport and amateur first-class ranks this past season, and a solid career first-class average in the low 40s and a limited overs one in the 70s; and he’s only 20. There are bowlers as well of a similar breed and talent, not facsimiles, either and very much a part of the emerging scene. Not big names, not yet.

Players Titans could not call on though were not only those who were injured, incapacitated, or being rested at Cricket South Africa’s insistence, but employed elsewhere. If you care to look at the franchise list of names you see two world-class bowlers, one of them Dale Steyn ranked top of the ICC list, the other is Paul Harris; there are AB de Villiers, the Morkel brothers, Albie and Morné, along with Roelf van der Merwe; quite a nice handful and two extra to have available in your ranks.

Little wonder, Chris van Noordwyk, in his first season as Titans coach, wondered whether the jinx that had denied them in the two domestic slogs, would, deny the team the chance of finishing a good second at least after being holders in 2008/09. A former fast bowler whose promising career ended with a back threatening injury in the late 1990s, and taking over from Richard Pybus, was not going to be easy. But knowing the stable set up at Centurion with its world class facilities and international style administration, Van Noordwyk, aka Pinky, would have with Pierre Joubert and Rudolph, created a solid feeling of belonging as well as camaraderie within the squad.

Northerns managed a first innings of 368 in reply to the Lions 562 for eight, declared, Malan (95) and Rudolph (99 – it would have been his 35th first-class century) before the turnaround came. Led by 21-year-old Hardus Viljoen, from the coalmining town of Witbank, with help from Basheeru Walters, they were quickly among the wickets – five for Viljoen and three for Walters – and help from Mandla Mashimbyi and Shaun von Burg and the Lions were wondering whether their over-confidence had proved counterproductive.

Dismissed in 26.5 overs foe 114, through tight bowling, disciplined fielding and catching as well as astute leadership and a self-belief that victory could be achieved, the Titans went about their job with methodical precision. It was a matter of chasing down the 311 needed with a run rate of five in what were eventually 62.1 overs with only two batsmen reaching half-centuries but the rest adding their meaningful contributions to the total.

The importance here is how Viljoen and Mashimbyi refused to capitulate: 70 in 11.5 overs at more than six an over set up what becoming an incredible victory and the smirking of the second day with the Lions declaring, was more a shame-faced admission of being outplayed over the next seven sessions.

When news emerged at tea on the first day of the game against Diamond Eagles at Centurion that young Rilee Rossouw, who made an impression at the IPL Champions League was on his way to an impressive triple century, it became one of interest.

The sheer weight of statistics are impressive. His scoring rate was an incredible 109.62 with the 319 off 291 balls and a partnership of 480 in 85.1 overs with Dean Elgar who scored 161; it set a record second wicket partnership in South Africa and became the third highest anywhere in the world.

When the innings was closed at 570 for nine, declared there was some hilarity again in the media. Jourbert had used nine bowlers, which led to a lot more smiles but at least it meant bowlers often changing the line and angle; also possibly some of the reason why the last eight wickets fell for 84 runs and considering what had gone before underlined the force of the Rossouw performance.

One significant point had been the wicketkeeping of 19-year-old Mangaliso Mosehle with five catches who had a hand in the dismissal of Rossouw, a big lad and a clean striker of the ball as well and if the national selectors were in any doubts about the new generation, they would have been taken by some surprise.

Bodi led the Titans fightback with 159 and when the time came the declaration at 546 for nine, with Farharn Behardien scoring 99 and some useful half centuries along the way as well there was the same spirited character as shown in Benoni. This was notable when a bowling attack that has since the start of the year been stitched together and not given much hope, achieved some remarkable success. Joubert’s forceful bowling earned four wickets and Mosehle earning another five catches to end the game with ten.

Dismissed for 164 it left the Titans 189 to win in about 55 overs, it was a challenge to get the target; a run rate needed to be maintained and despite the loss of wickets and some entertaining all-round cricket, Titans achieved their target. Naturally it was about ‘scraping through’ without thing of the effort needed to bring the team such success.

What is important here, is the advert these two games has delivered the franchise system in South Africa. It has been designed to create an identity as well as a pool of quality strength talent, designed for international success, yet has had its value questioned as a way forward. If Titans can pull of something that has not been achieved before, the doubts that it is not working have been given an elbow jolt and those at Cricket South Africa an interesting peek into the future they need to consider.

It is about how the players have told the doubting administrators to look beyond old provincial identities and think about regional growth, and with it how it is the new generation that is starting to place a certain pressures on old.

Michael Owen-Smith, the CSA media liaison officer, talks glowing of the young African talent that is emerging as the third decade and first generation of players starts emerging. This points a finger at the negative, ignorant and misplaced views of so many in the white community who know little to nothing of the domestic scene, how quality African youngsters such as Mosehle are coming through.

When Makhaya Ntini was dropped from the side for his failure to perform in his 100 and 101 Tests, comments in letter pagers and opinions on chat lines as well as posting sneering remarks were the general: “They are not interested, so how can you expect to find another” and “There is no young talent about, they are only interested in kicking a ball, it is all they understand”.

This past season, five of the leading bowlers were Africans who were adding quality to the system; Sammy Mofakeng, who had attended a one-time whites, only Afrikaans school, was an opening bowler for South Africa in the Youth World Cup in New Zealand and regarded not far behind Wayne Parnell; Ethy Mbhalati, who should have played for Titans in the two games referred to, is now in the South African A team selected for Bangladesh and had been part of the 30 squad for the ICC World T20 in the West Indies, but the knee injury is delaying his return.

(Next week – African cricket, the way forward)

©: Copyright – Trevor Chesterfield.
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