Proteas a shadow of former side

THE problem with being ranked the No 1 sports team in the world is that there is only one way to go - and that's down.

THE problem with being ranked the No 1 sports team in the world is that there is only one way to go - and that's down.

After creating history a year ago by becoming the first South African cricket side to beat Australia in their own back yard, the Proteas rightfully claimed the title of the best team in the world.

Whether the pressure and expectation of holding on to that title has become too much for the side is debatable, but there is no denying the fact that the Proteas of today are a shadow of the side they were 12 months ago.

The strange thing, though, is the team is basically unchanged.

Players who were being compared with the greats of the game are today scratching about for form that has sorely deserted them. Top of the list is one JP Duminy.

There was much speculation going in to the series Down Under whether the little left-handed batsman had what it takes to survive in the jungle of Australian cricket. He answered that speculation emphatically.

His score of 166 in the second Test in Melbourne had commentators grasping for superlatives.

The greatest praise came from former Australian captain and legendary commentator Richie Benaud: "The batting and style of Duminy reminded me of the great Don Bradman in his prime."

High praise indeed.

In the current Test series against England Duminy has notched up scores of 56, 11, 4, 0 and 0. Hardly the knocks to inspire confidence in a middle order that is already looking decidedly brittle.

So why the sudden lack of form? Is it just a bad spell he is going through? Have the opposition worked him out, or does it have something to do with the big-buck contract (in the region of R8 million) he has landed with the Indian Premier League?

It doesn't really matter what the sport, every athlete or player hits a low sometime in their career. It's how they handle that low and whether they come out on the other side a stronger person and competitor.

Duminy simply has too much talent to be regarded as a one-season wonder and hopefully returns to the free-playing individual he was a matter of months ago.

Another player battling with form in the national side is spin bowler Paul Harris. The last few months he has battled with his bowling action, wickets have dried up and his confidence has been hit for six.

How much longer the Proteas management continue to select a player who is clearly uncomfortable with his current role in the team remains to be seen, but perhaps it is time to invest in one of the promising youngsters on the domestic scene, such as Robin Peterson.

Ashwell Prince is another example of a senior player clearly unhappy with his role in the side.

A middle-order batsman his whole career, he has been thrust into the role of opening the batting for his country with skipper Graeme Smith.

Prince has made it obvious, and has said as much, that his game is not suited to the position he finds himself in and the quicker he moves back to his favourite position of number five the better.

Unfortunately the selectors have made it equally clear that it's either open the batting or nothing at all.

The recent dropping of 101-Test veteran Makhaya Ntini has created a gap that will be hard to fill. A regular in the side since making his debut against Sri Lanka in 1998, Ntini has always been one of the first names pencilled in when selecting the Test squad.

His replacement, Friedel de Wet, is a questionable choice. Making his debut at the ripe old age of 29, De Wet can best be described as a journeyman. His figures in the domestic league are average and the lack of variety in his deliveries is noticeable.

Surely again the selectors should have chanced their arm and opted for the likes of 20-year-old Eastern Cape lad Wayne Parnell, who has already proved himself on the international stage, or Monde Zondeki.

And what of the various cricket academies scattered around the country? Where are the graduates from these institutions?

Hopefully Cricket South Africa's decision to extend coach Mickey Arthur's contract until after the next World Cup in 2011 was a wise choice and not one that will lead to complacency not only in the staff he surrounds himself with but also in the players he religiously selects.

If South Africa slip up in this series against a pretty average English side, questions need to be raised about some of the selection policies. Hopefully the powers that be at Cricket SA will have the right answers.