February 20, 9.55am. The toss on the first morning of the second Test between South Africa and Australia in Port Elizabeth. Michael Clarke skips down the steps that lead from the dressing room to the pitch. He looks minted in the deep green of the Australian blazer and the famed baggy-green cap. He is all smiles. Australia are one-up in the three-match series after crushing the favourites in Centurion four days previously. There is no sign of Graeme Smith behind him, at least not for a minute or two.
When Smith does appear – without cap, dark hair gelled tight and flat to a side parting, striped Protea blazer: all very Ivy League – he stops to talk to Shaun Pollock, who breaks the news that Vernon Philander is not fit. Shaken, Smith puts a line through Philander on the team sheet that he must immediately exchange with Clarke, and walks on, past the television pundits and the waiting Australian captain to Philander and one of the South African coaches, who are in earnest conversation. Clearly Philander has just tweaked something in his warm-up – hamstring or groin – and just as clearly, Smith is in the dark. Already he has lost Alviro Petersen to illness, Rory Kleinveldt to concussion, and dropped Robin Peterson.
Clarke cannot help but reflect with some amusement at the chaos. He was on the receiving end twice last year. Once in India, where Australia lost 4-0, and again in England, where his team lost 3-0. Almost always, selection is complicated by defeat. Certainties one week find themselves on a tightrope the next. Well-thought-through theories are exploded by inadequate performance and signs of mental strain. A single fast bowler can do this to a whole team, as Mitchell Johnson had done at Supersport Park. Spinners can do it too. Shane Warne often talks about the look of fear in an opponent’s eye.
Philander bowls another ball, turns to Smith, who urgently needs a steer, and then turns away. Smith calls after him. It is 10.05am. Their conversation is now animated. Smith hurries to the pitch where the television cameras wait for the money shot. They get it. Smith crosses out Kleinveldt and rewrites Philander’s name in his place. Clarke, tongue in cheek, asks Smith if he has a team. Smith finds the peace to laugh. An immense level of respect between the pair is obvious. Smith wins the toss and chooses to bat. That night, Smith’s 18-month-old daughter suffers a nasty domestic accident. The South African captain and his wife spend the night in hospital with her. With time, she will be just fine. South Africa win the match and level the series. Few captains could have pulled this off. The construction, or otherwise, of your team and the well-being of your family are painfully emotional distractions.
As a rule, the morning of a match is not the time to finalise a team. Not unless the decision is based entirely on conditions of weather and pitch. For one thing you sleep badly. For another your own preparation is disturbed. The team look over their shoulders. The player chosen, though thrilled, must remain coy. The player left out is livid. The atmosphere in the dressing room suffers. Better to tell everyone the night before and let the dust settle. Not that Smith could have done much in this freak situation.
Selection is compromised by the number of people involved. Usually you can bet on captain, vice-captain/senior player, coach, chairman of selectors and any other selector on site. Mostly the captain is encouraged to go with the team he wants, notwithstanding the provisos that come with the buck stopping at his door.
Remarkably, England picked Darren Pattinson, an Australian-born seamer who the captain, Michael Vaughan, had not seen before, to bowl against South Africa at Headingley in 2008. But Pattinson was in form for Nottinghamshire and England was the land of his birth. Panicked by injury to James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom and dubious about Matthew Hoggard’s impact, the selectors had a punt on Pattinson. Predictably, it didn’t pay much of a return and he never played again. Vaughan attempted to pass the buck back to the selectors, who had plucked the proverbial rabbit from a hat. Later Vaughan admitted that they had all got it wrong. It might be the most extraordinary selection of them all. There are many reasons for one-Test wonders but dodgy selection is the stand-out.
All of this occurred to me while watching Moeen Ali make a decent fist of batting for England in recent T20 matches. But who on the planet could think Ali a better batsman than Ian Bell? Certainly no one in the opposition! This is not to diminish Ali but rather to consider the confusion that runs through English cricket right now. Bell should be to England what Mahela Jayawardene is to Sri Lanka, a sliver of touch and class around which the bombasts can go about their business. Bell has every shot and then some. He has courage and an increasing sense of relevant application. He needs a run in the T20 side to confirm this to himself as much as to the selectors. They know his talent, surely they can see his worth.
The more I got to thinking about Bell, the more I thought about the last few months. Three tall fast bowlers were taken to Australia to exploit the hard pitches. Given Stuart Broad was England’s most successful bowler, and he is 6ft 6in, it is bizarre that the threesome of Chris Tremlett, Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin played just two Tests (the first and the last) between them. Tremlett had no oomph, apparently. Finn, they say, lost the plot. Looking in from nearby, Rankin appeared as a fish out of water. How come the selectors did not know any of this stuff before the tour party was chosen? How come these fellows usurped Graham Onions? A mystery indeed.
Now the selectors, or probably higher authorities even than them, have dismissed Kevin Pietersen. Although I maintain that Pietersen has brought much upon himself, the sheer extremity of the decision, the gall, defies belief. There simply is not enough talent around to treat that which we have with such heavy hands. Of course, he is exasperating and of course he has rubbed up everyone the wrong way. As this column has said previously, how much dissent can a leadership council take? For a time, Alastair Cook had him and then somewhere, either side of the Adelaide Test last winter at a guess, he let him off the hook. From there it became a mighty difficult issue, and yes, a reasonable argument says it was an achievement of sorts to have kept Pietersen resident in the team for the best part of nine years. A greater achievement would have been to fulfil his career in an England shirt rather than to cut off his head.
Without a shadow of doubt, he will come back to haunt those who called time on him. He is too brazen and too brilliant to be kept quiet. The quicker the new coach is named, the better. Let’s hope it is not a prerequisite of the job to agree to all that has gone before. Selectors, of which the coach should be one, must be open-minded and open-armed, and if the buck is still to stop with the captain so must he.
The Australians have reverted to type, which means that the captain is not an official selector. Clarke is presented with a group of players for a specific match and then he and the coach take over. The English view remains that it is the captain who takes the herd into the field and thus he should have the casting vote on the cattle to hand. Much is made of the two systems but they have not been so dissimilar during the game’s recent history. In the main, the captains of both countries end up with pretty much what they want.
That has not always been so with Smith, of course. But he understood the political demand of the moment and ran with it. It seems inconceivable that the Pietersen situation would have reached its point of no return had Smith been his captain. There may be little love lost between them but neither doubts the importance of the other. From such firm ground comes the foundation of a team that is unbreakable in moments of duress. And that is why South Africa won in Port Elizabeth.