Smith leads S Africa back from one-day depths

Published: Tuesday, November 8, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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Johannesburg:A year ago, South Africa couldn't beat a credible opponent in one-day cricket. Now they head to India for a five-match series as the world's second-ranked team.

It's a transformation achieved with essentially the same playing personnel, although there have been two changes of coach since South Africa crashed out of the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy when they lost against the West Indies in a group match.

That defeat sent South Africa tumbling to eighth place on the ICC rankings - ahead of only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh among Test nations.

Now they are at number two behind Australia after an unbeaten run of 19 matches, which includes 12 straight wins.

"We've moved forward. There's a lot more confidence," says captain Graeme Smith, comparing the current side with the one that lost 10 matches in a row in 2004 before the Champions Trophy, where they beat no-hopers Bangladesh before losing to the West Indies.

"We went for a lot of young guys and it was always going to take time for them to find their feet at international level and it's still going to take more time. The guys are starting to feel more comfortable in their own abilities. We've got some structures right and guys have really put their hands up, which is often the key thing in pressure situations."

Where in 2004 South Africa lost close games, more recently they have been winning them.

Coach Eric Simons was fired after the Champions Trophy and Ray Jennings brought in tougher discipline as a short-term appointee before incumbent Mickey Arthur was appointed through to the 2007 World Cup.

Although there haven't been wholesale changes in the team, the emergence of Justin Kemp as the big-hitting successor to 1999 World Cup hero Lance Klusener has been the most significant. Kemp was named man of the series Sunday after South Africa beat New Zealand 4-0 in a five-match series, with one match washed out.

The tall Kemp twice turned potential defeats into victories with his powerful strokeplay, striking 74 off 64 balls in the first match in Bloemfontein, then hitting fast bowler Shane Bond for a huge six followed by a four after South Africa started the last over of the third game in Port Elizabeth still needing nine to win.

Kemp, 28, is a useful medium-pacer and an outstanding catcher close to the wicket or in the deep. After going through a dip last year, South Africa's fielding is back to the high standards of a few years ago.

Another player who wasn't part of the Champions Trophy mix is fast bowler Andre Nel, who together with swing bowler Charl Langeveldt has taken over the 'death' bowling task at the end of an innings.

Veteran Shaun Pollock's loss of pace had become a liability in the closing overs, although he remains a key member of the side.

Langeveldt was responsible for the most dramatic of South Africa's victories when he took a hat-trick in the last over of a match against the West Indies in Barbados in May to give South Africa a one-run win.

Smith has been a key factor.

At 24 he is still one of the youngest captains in the world and his inexperience showed. But he has grown into the role and has shown the ability to make critical bowling and field-placing changes.

His batting has also improved. It took the left-handed opener 59 matches to score his first one-day international century but he then reeled off four in eight matches to provide the foundation for big totals.

A stint with English county Somerset this year helped Smith work on his one-day shot-making. Previously known mainly for his leg-side play, Smith has added some beefy off-side strokes to his repertoire.

"I'm feeling a lot more aggressive," he says. "My strike rate has gone up and I'm more confident all around the wicket."

South Africa's status will be challenged in India, however.

Herschelle Gibbs, who has averaged over 50 with the bat and been an inspirational fielder during South Africa's winning streak, and left-arm spinner Nicky Boje, the country's only tried and trusted slow bowler, will both be missing.

They were unavailable after Indian police refused to give any guarantees that they would not face arrest following their naming in the 2000 Hansie Cronje scandal.

Also absent is batsman Boeta Dippenaar, who had become a reliable opening partner of Smith. He had to pull out because of a wrist operation.

Talented AB de Villiers took over as an opener in the New Zealand series but hasn't yet been able to build a big one-day international innings.

South Africa have gambled by picking off-spinner Johan Botha, a former seamer who has bowled spin in only five first-class games, and they know the challenge in India will be huge.

"We just want to keep getting better," said Smith. "We face a new challenge in India and will have to look at new game plans for a completely new situation. South Africa have never won a series in India, but we're getting better all the time and our confidence is high."

Coach Arthur said the loss of Gibbs and Boje was a blow.

"But it gives other players a chance to stake a claim for a place in the team. We need to develop a strong pool for the World Cup in 2007."

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