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Kepler Wessels in contemplative mood

Every generation has its sporting idols. For mine, when it came to a batsman, David Gower was the one, however much some of our elders disapproved of some of his foibles. In my father’s time Denis Compton evoked the same degree of admiration and, like all small boys, paternal influences ran deep, so he was a hero for me too. By the time of my formative years Compton was a commentator, with his playing days a decade and more behind him. I assumed, unwisely but I now tell myself understandably, that he was always right. Compo was no racist, but life for him was simply a vehicle for pleasure, and he couldn’t accept that people who wanted to play and watch cricket should not be able to freely do so wherever and whenever they chose. For that reason alone he didn’t want to see South Africa shut out of International sporting competition.

In the late sixties I knew there was a fierce debate as to whether South Africa should continue to play Test cricket, although I was not old enough to understand that the issues extended beyond the game and into the very fabric of South African society. The trouble I had was that having only listened to Compton talking about the subject, I simply wasn’t able to work out what the problem was. As I got older I began to understand and, being a strong-willed teenager in the 1970s, I found apartheid wholly repugnant so had no difficulty with South Africa’s exile. For a few years I even changed my views about Compton, until I saw a documentary programme filmed around his 70th birthday celebrations in 1988. I am pleased to say all my faith in him was restored – it will not be lost again.

Despite the fact that, as most adolescents do, I thought I knew the answer to just about everything, I could not conceive of any possible solution to the “South African issue”, so eventually I stopped thinking about it. The country’s sporting isolation became the natural order of things, entirely justified and, as I and many others saw it, inevitably permanent. So while I heard what the new President, FW de Klerk, had to say in early 1990 about free elections and the dismantling of apartheid, I couldn’t see it happening even when, as good as their word, de Klerk’s government released Nelson Mandela from prison a few days later. That by July 1991, not even 18 months later, the ICC were readmitting South Africa to membership after 21 long years, was an astonishingly rapid turnaround and, happily, one which dear old Compo lived to see.

The readmission was the result of the efforts of many, but one man in particular, Dr Ali Bacher, had made by some distance the greatest single contribution. It was Bacher who had brought down the curtain on the history of the old Springboks. He had been captain of the 1969/70 side which beat Australia 4-0, and he had caught Alan Connolly off the bowling of Pat Trimborn from the final delivery of the series. From then on Bacher had worked tirelessly to bring normality to the game in South Africa, and not surprisingly in the immediate aftermath of the ICC’s decision he struggled to even speak at the ensuing press conference, such was the emotion generated by his succeeding in bringing his country back into the fold.

The vote to readmit South Africa was not quite unanimous, but it was proposed and seconded by two of the old regimes sternest critics, India and Australia. In the final vote only West Indies did not vote for readmission, but their’s was not a vote against, simply an abstention in view of the boards inability to get a clear mandate from the governments of the various countries that it represented. It was made clear at the historic meeting that the decision had been made too late to permit schedules to be changed to allow South Africa’s participation in the 1992 World Cup, but nothing different had been anticipated, so that failed to dampen the spirits of a delighted nation. In any event it was a decision that was reversed at a further meeting in October, once a separate gathering of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, and Nelson Mandela himself, had expressed support for South Africa to be invited.

If South Africa were to have a fair opportunity to compete at the World Cup they needed some international experience and the first matches were arranged, at very short notice, to take place in India. South Africa picked an experienced squad, led by 42 year old Clive Rice, for the three ODIs that November. The first two were won relatively comfortably by the Indians and, having scored 287 in the third it looked like a clean sweep would be easily achieved. In the event South Africa’s first ever victory in an ODI was achieved with something to spare as they reached their apparently stiff target with more than three overs remaining. The only concern would have been that the average age of the four men who batted was 35.

The South African squad that went to the World Cup in the following February was younger, and the watching world caught its first sight of the fielding of Jonty Rhodes, said to be the best since Colin Bland – never having seen Bland I cannot, sadly, make a comparison but if Bland was as good as Rhodes then, in days when fielding standards generally were rather lower than today, he must have been an awesome sight.

The South African campaign was full of highs and lows. The highs were wins over Australia and West Indies and the lows defeats by New Zealand and Sri Lanka and, worst of all, the manner of their leaving the competition. Having finished in the top four in the first stage the South Africans’ reward was a semi-final against England. When the players left the field because of a sudden shower the South Africans were chasing the game but, needing 22 to win from 13 deliveries, were by no means out of it. They still had four wickets to fall and had two batsmen at the crease, Dave Richardson and Brian McMillan, who had had time to play theselves in. The rule for this competition, which of course was never repeated, meant that the two overs lost to the shower led to the South African target being adjusted by subtracting from it the total runs scored by England in the two least productive overs of their innings. As Meyrick Pringle had bowled two maidens that meant that 22 from 13 suddenly became 22 from 1. If it were possible to make the situation more absurd the shower was of the briefest kind and, when that last delivery was bowled, playing conditions were just about perfect.

The South Africans arrived in the Caribbean just a few days after their disappointing exit from the World Cup. There was no change to the squad and, for a group of players wholly unused to the intensity a tournament such as the World Cup brought, no chance for any recuperation. It was perhaps therefore no surprise that, despite their superb victory over the West Indies in the World Cup, the South Africans were as uncompetitive as they were in the three ODI’s that preceded the post apartheid nation’s inaugural Test. All three resulted in heavy defeats and at no point were the home side tested. It was feared that the solitary five day match in Barbados might be similarly one-sided. West Indies had won ten successive Tests at Kensington Oval and it was necessary to go back as far as 1977/78, and the visit of Pakistan, to find the last visiting team to escape with a draw. To find the only tourists to win a Test there it was necessary to go right back to Bob Wyatt’s England in 1935.

The South African side as selected had Andrew Hudson and Mark Rushmere to open the batting. Hudson was to go on and play the innings of his life, but for Rushmere the match, his only Test, was to be a disappointment. Wessels, the 13th man to play Test cricket for two countries, was in at first drop and he was to be followed by veterans Peter Kirsten and Adrian Kuiper. Also in the middle order was a 22 year old Hansie Cronje, and behind the stumps was lawyer Richardson who was to serve his country there for the next seven years. The attack was to be, like the home side’s, one of unremitting pace. Alan Donald, then 25, needs no introduction. Richard Snell, Meyrick Pringle and the ill-starred Tertius Bosch, aged 23, 25 and 25 respectively, were Donald’s support. None of them fulfilled their early promise, although Snell was to take 8 West Indian wickets in this match. Pringle, who had ripped out the first four West Indians for just 8 runs to be Man of the Match in the World Cup game took only two wickets – Bosch took three wickets but never played another Test and was dead within 10 years, a victim of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder of the peripheral nervous system, although allegations that he was poisoned by his wife were investigated.

For the home side Desi Haynes opened the batting with Phil Simmons. Brian Lara, playing just his second Test, came in at three with Richie Richardson, Keith Arthurton and debutant Jimmy Adams making up the middle order. David Williams got his first Test cap behind the stumps and the pace quartet was made up of the two greats, Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose, backed up by the very rapid Patrick Patterson and another debutant, Kenneth Charlie Griffith Benjamin, who had bowled very well in the domestic season, although he was not of the same mould as the man from whom he took his latter two christian names.

All was not well in Barbados before the Test and there was much disquiet amongst the locals. The reasons were easy to see and, it should be stressed, were nothing to do with the tourists who were welcomed everywhere they went. The problems were the old inter island rivalries which Clive Lloyd’s reign had seen the end of although, now it seemed, only temporarily. The Bajan population had much to gripe about first and foremost being, for only the second time ever, the presence in the side of just one of their countrymen, Haynes. It helped not one iota that Haynes had been passed over for the captaincy in favour of the Antiguan Richardson.

There were other Bajans who it was thought should have been selected. Carlisle Best was a perennial source of complaint but a more notable omission was Malcolm Marshall. Maco had taken just two wickets in the World Cup (ironically both South African) but although he continued to bowl well for a few seasons more that tournament was his last outing for the West Indies. The Bajans might have accepted that at 33 Maco was coming to the end of his great career, and that forward planning was required, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the island’s own new kid on the block, Anderson Cummins, did not get the place and the Antiguan Benjamin was selected instead. Cummins had done well in the World Cup, and had matched Benjamin in the ODI’s against South Africa. The locals were furious and a boycott of the match was called for. “No Cummins No Goings” was the attitude and only 6,500 watching the entire match, the daily attendances being 3,000, 1,500, 1,000, 700 and, on that remarkable final day, just 300.

Wessels won the toss and invited the West Indians to make first use of the Kensington Oval pitch. It cannot have been an easy decision to take particularly as manager Mike Procter felt that his men should bat first if they had the opportunity. There were some who felt that after their mauling in the ODI’s the visitors were running scared and simply couldn’t face the prospect of batting first against the West Indian pace quartet. The truth was that Wessels knew that his own strength was his pace bowling, and the pitch had a distinctly greenish hue to it.

Although the bowlers did not give up the home side batted confidently and, shortly before tea, Wessels must have had cause to doubt his instincts as he looked up at a scoreboard that read 219-3, with skipper Richardson and Arthurton both well set. He must have rued his luck as well, Arthurton having twice been caught in the slips from no-balls. At that point however Richardson nicked one to the keeper, and although a watchful Adams and Arthurton took the score to 240 the last six wickets fell for just 22 to leave the home side 262 all out. “Test cricket is about applying pressure, and we had done that really well” was Wessels comment later.

The South African openers survived the last few overs of the day but Rushmere was soon out next morning bringing Wessels to the crease. A defensive batsman by nature Wessels had been stressing to his team the importance of playing the then new Australian way of looking to pressurise the bowling. Having sensed his charges were less than convinced Wessels decided to abandon his usual style in order to demonstrate what he meant. Over the next 95 minutes he scored an aggressive 59 to change the shape of the match. South African commentator Andre Bruyns said “Kepler turned the whole psychological attitude of the team around”. Pace bowler Snell contented himself with the observation “It was a top, top, top innings”.

In fact history will always tend to indicate, and understandably so, that Andrew Hudson’s magnificent 163 was the main plank of the South African’s reply, but without his captain’s reassuring presence in the early part of his innings he surely would not have got there. As it was he batted into the third day, and with only Kuiper with 34 making any runs at the other end, South Africa would have been a little disappointed with a lead of just of 83, but even that was contrary to pre-match expectations.

The South Africans had their tails up as the West Indies started work on the deficit. It seems likely that their frustration at Donald hitting Haynes’ stumps without dislodging a bail, followed by anger at Lara’s refusal to walk after treading on his wicket, both umpires claiming to be unsighted, would have encouraged them to further effort, as by the close they had burst through again and the home side were teetering on 184-7, just 101 runs ahead.

It probably did not help the South Africans, more particularly their ten debutants, that they now had a rest day and an extra 24 hours in which to contemplate their powerful position. Donald trapped Benjamin leg before early on the fourth day but then in a crucial passage of play Adams was able to add 87 with numbers 10 and 11, Walsh and Patterson. The fact that Walsh was at ten says everything that needs to be said about Patterson’s ability with the bat. Was it Wessels’ captaincy that was at fault? Some said he played too defensively, but others said he was not setting his fields to stop runs being scored. Donald’s view, on reflection, was that he and his fellow pacemen bowled too straight, and on too full a length and that, Caribbean style, they should have ensured that Walsh and Patterson faced the sort of barrage that they themselves would in all probability have served up had roles been reversed.

Whatever or whoever was to blame for the wagging tail, and perhaps it was just Lady Luck, South Africa’s target was still eminently gettable – 201 with time not a factor was a stiff, but by no means impossible target. The wicket was however, as Kensington Oval wickets were wont to do on the last day, deteriorating and when Ambrose despatched Rushmere and Hudson for three and nought respectively the writing was on the wall. At this point however Wessels, inevitably, and the veteran Kirsten chose not to read the script. They didn’t retreat into their shells completely, never spurning the opportunities offered by a poor delivery, but watchful to begin with they slowly asserted themselves and by the close of the fourth day they had wrested back the initiative to stand at 122-2.

Did the South Africans become complacent? At a team meeting Wessels pleaded with them not to but it would be difficult for them not to have relaxed a little. That said no one was prepared for just how abjectly they capitulated next morning when, in only 90 minutes, Ambrose and Walsh, and let it not be forgotten that they were two great bowlers at the peak of their powers, cleaned up the remaining eight South African wickets for just 26 runs to leave the West Indies apparently comfortable winners by 52 runs. Wessels was out without adding to his overnight score and the last seven men in the order contributed just eight runs between them, four of them failing to trouble the scorers. Only Kirsten, who added 16 to his overnight score and passed fifty in doing so, showed any resistance and after he was sixth out the end was not long coming.

It was a huge disappointment for those South Africans who played and for Rushmere, Kuiper and Bosch the only Test they would ever play. The tourists could legitimately point to lack of experience, a hectic schedule, and the absence through injury of their talented and combative all-rounder McMillan. It didn’t occur to anyone back in 1992 that there was something in the psyche of the nation’s cricket that might make them prone to choking when the pressure was on, but while it was the first occasion on which they contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory it has by no means been the last.


Good read:)

Comment by archie mac | 12:00am BST 19 April 2011

I think South Africa at re-entry were in the unique position of being a good team with very little international experience. They were good enough to put themselves in a winning position but did not have the experience to close the game. Then perhaps the scars from this and other similar games grew on their minds and became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast earlier minnows had a long time to improve their cricket so that when they became good enough to compete they had experienced players who could close the game; a good example being Aravinda and Ranatunga in the 96 world cup final.

SA’s choking is exaggerated anyway. They are definitely chokers in global ICC events but in test matches they have a reasonable mix of good wins under pressure alongside the chokes, like most other teams.

Comment by Dissector | 12:00am BST 19 April 2011

Yeah, agree with that. Them beating Australia was a big monkey off their backs. Australia had the wood over them for a long time, while they should have been presenting much more of a challenge.

Comment by vcs | 12:00am BST 19 April 2011

Yes, I remember that series very well.. and it was one step forward, one step back for them (not taking anything away from Australia of course). I was speaking more about their series against Australia in their dominant years.. they’d talk themselves before every series and then proceed to fold.

Comment by vcs | 12:00am BST 19 April 2011

Kewl you should come up with that. Execllnet!

Comment by Lorrie | 12:00am BST 8 May 2011

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