Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

James Lawton: No room for sentiment at the top level of any game

South African great Makhaya Ntini was trusted with the final over by captain Graeme Smith to claim England’s last wicket and win the match but he failed to deliver

After five days of fierce sunshine and intriguing and ultimately compelling Test action the rain has come hard and unrelenting. The big sky over the veldt has turned into a grey blanket torn by flashes of lightning.

Yet if you love sport, and never tire of seeing the moments of drama and truth that constitute its greatest strength, the spirit is surely buoyed against the bleakest day.

This is true for many reasons and not least the latest example of the England cricket team's extraordinary ability to extricate itself from the most difficult of circumstances.

They have reminded us again that if they can bring calamity on their heads as quickly as it takes KP to conceive a brain storm, no one can say they do not have the nerve and sheer cussedness to repel the worst consequences.

Yet stretching beyond even the last-wicket heroics of the serially defiant Paul Collingwood and his heroic assistant Graham Onions is the widely interpreted meaning of a remarkable decision by South Africa's captain Graeme Smith, a veteran of one of sport's most demanding jobs at the age of 28.

Ostensibly, Smith's last throw in the final over of a match in which England had been pushed to the very limits of their resistance, failed.

The great Makhaya Ntini, surprisingly recalled to the centre of action in place of the unheralded new boy, Friedel De Wet, who had carried his team to the point of victory, could not deliver the final strike.

However, the rising suspicion here is that Smith's move was concerned with rather more than the outcome of a single Test match. Of course he was hoping for some brilliant evocation of the best of a long and emotion-filled career yet it appears the captain may also have been reaching out for something else.

Some believe he was also seeking to define how even the most illustrious of sports stories should be either prolonged or brought to a close and that if it is to be the latter case the prevailing evidence has to be supplied not by lingering nostalgia for great days and respect for wonderful deeds, but an acid examination of current ability.

We will know more about this when South Africa select their team for the second Test in Durban at the weekend. With their most formidable strike bowler, Dale Steyn, apparently certain to be fit after the hamstring tweak that kept him out of the action at Centurion, logically it comes down to a straight choice between the legend Ntini and the extremely impressive late arrival, 29-year-old De Wet.

But then logic in South African sport, as elsewhere, is not always the ruling factor. If Smith has his ideas about the Ntini-De Wet issue, the selectors may be rather more mindful of political pressures that may build quickly around the fact that Ntini is the only black African currently operating in the South African team.

For different reasons, including intense popularity among English football fans and perhaps commercial considerations, it is a dilemma familiar to observers of England's football team, in which David Beckham, who will be 35 when the World Cup finals start here next June, hangs on to his place with the adhesion of a limpet.

The difference is that Beckham for quite some time has been shielded from the kind of brutal examination that faced Ntini, two years his junior, on Sunday night.

This could change of course if the star of LA Galaxy re-appears effectively in the colours of Milan in truly vital circumstances over the next few months.

Then, Fabio Capello, like Smith and the South African selectors, will be armed with rather more than an awareness that he is dealing not only with a cherished national folk hero, but someone who might justify his place around the most pivotal of the action.

So far under Capello, Beckham (left) has been asked to perform only cameo parts. By comparison, in his 100th Test Ntini was required to prove that he could still deliver the force of a genuine match-winner. When it mattered most, he couldn't and this may provide South African cricket with the opportunity to say: “Thank you Makhaya for everything you have done, but it is over.”

Ntini will know his fate soon enough. Beckham's no doubt will only unravel after vast and hugely sentimental national debate.

On balance the feeling here is that the South African approach, if indeed the deeper reading of what Smith did turns out to be true and he is allowed to act on the results, is the superior one. You may say the comparison is being stretched somewhat but at least in one strict sense it is surely valid.

If Beckham returns to South Africa, where he made such an impact on the media at the recent World Cup draw he is now being seen, rather absurdly, as the all-important factor in England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup, it will be to the cost of a younger candidate. He will get one of the places that under a man like Capello you would normally assume could never be won other than for reasons of professionalism stripped bare of even a hint of sentimental favour.

No doubt Beckham's supporters will say that he has qualities, apart from a still enviable ability to kick a football with great skill, especially when afforded a little time and space, that stretch far beyond the borders of age and residual strength.

However, it is still true that since the appointment of Capello Beckham has never been asked to produce what was required of Ntini when everything hung in the balance.

He has not been invited to operate at the very heart of his team's effort, a basic demand, you might have thought, for anyone involved in the highest form of competition that is represented supremely both by World Cup football and Test match cricket.

Meanwhile, we wait for South Africa's moment of decision with considerable fascination.

When Ntini took his first wicket in his 100th Test appearance everyone in the ground was offered a free drink, even though the sun had scarcely burned off the dew let alone risen above the yardarm.

The toast was to a great cricketer and no-one could have suspected at that moment that it might be the last opportunity while he still operated at the peak of his game. If it proves to be so, it will have been a poignant sip of cold beer.

Yet when you consider the oldest verity of sport, the demand that there will always be a time when the best you can do has to be consigned to the past, there is more than a hint South African sport may have properly acknowledged one of its greatest heroes — and got the timing almost perfectly right.