The South African summer of woe

Letter from Durban

Sports-mad South Africans are totally depressed. The country's national teams in its three favourite games -- rugby, cricket and soccer -- are being consistently thrashed and the signs are that their losing streaks will continue. People have to pluck up courage to turn on the television.

Sports-mad South Africans are totally depressed. The country's national teams in its three favourite games -- rugby, cricket and soccer -- are being consistently thrashed and the signs are that their losing streaks will continue. People have to pluck up courage to turn on the television.

On Saturday, the Springboks lost to the Australian Wallabies in their fourth consecutive drubbing, one of the worst runs in the team's history. The Proteas are not looking convincing in the second cricket Test in Sri Lanka, having being annihilated in the first. And the football side, Bafana Bafana, lost against Zimbabwe in a home game on Saturday, crashing out of the Cosafa Cup.

Lurking in the background of low performance, and surely related to it, are deep problems in the conduct and organisation of South African sport that are impacting on morale as well as selection and technical competence, the "Hansiegate" scandal, losing the 2006 World Cup bid and so on.

The Springbok loss in Sydney effectively ended the side's Tri-Nations campaign. After prior defeats by New Zealand, Australia and England, South Africa has not scored a try in three and a half hours of rugby.

The optimistic view is that this does not spell disaster, because three of the past four games have been against the world's two top teams. But South Africans like to think they are one of the top teams, and as a local commentator, Andy Colquhoun, put it in the Johannesburg Sunday Times: "With two games played in Tri-Nations 2000, the scoreboard reads: no wins, no points, no tries and, one gloomily felt in the emptying bowl of the Olympic stadium, not much light at the end of the tunnel either."

Last week, following defeat at the boots of New Zealand, the president of the South African Rugby Union indicated his displeasure. The coach, Nick Mallett, might go. However, his departure would not necessarily solve South Africa's rugby problem. There is scepticism about whether another coach could come up with a winning plan -- the only course may be to stick out the losing run.

The real problem could lie in the current quality of players. Rugby goes in cycles and South Africa is in a low trough, with too few aces in the pack. And the growing feeling is that most provincial rugby administrations have been tardy about developing rugby talent among black South Africans.

In cricket, Lance Klusener's unbeaten century yesterday helped the Proteas to recover somewhat in the second Test against Sri Lanka, though they had lost five wickets by lunchtime. The side was whitewashed in the first Test, and lost the one-day series before it.

The Proteas are battling to pick themselves up after the shocking match-fixing disclosures that saw South Africa's beloved captain, Hansie Cronje, exit in disgrace. The King Commission investigating corruption in cricket is raising all sorts of questions about the conduct of the sport.

"Hansiegate" has also robbed the Proteas of two key players -- Cronje and Herschelle Gibbs, who is at home under suspension.

Cronje's departure led to the side being captained by the very popular but inexperienced Sean Pollock, leading in a first-class Test for the first time, while the exit of Gibbs has forced selectors to scrabble around for more "players of colour", apolitical necessity.

Peter Robinson, editor of Cricinfo South Africa, points out: "Match-fixing, politics and injury make for a devilish brew, and Cronje's part in all this should not be underplayed."

South African football is a complete mess. Indeed, there were no guarantees that problems of poor organisation and alleged widespread corruption could have been sorted out before the 2006 World Cup, had the country won the bid.

The error-ridden defeat of the national football side, Bafana Bafana, (the boys, the boys) againstZimbabwe followed a series of bad losses. During the recent international tournament in the United States, South Africa did not manage to win a single game.

Football has not had the advantage of the structural development from a privileged white community that rugby and cricket has had in the country. A wealth of natural talent drawn from a large football-playing population is being squandered by poor organisation and coaching problems.

Top clubs and the national side are in need of technical improvement. And like most sub-Saharan teams, Nigeria excepted, talent will only be realised when players are taught to play cleverly. South Africa know this, but their efforts to bring in foreign coaches have been fraught with difficulties, mostly stemming from poor administration.

It is easy for a British audience, used to the trials and tribulations of its own national teams, to underestimate the importance of all this in a South Africa context.

Sport is simply far more important to South Africans, in terms of national and personal pride, than the fortunes of English teams are to the average Englishman.

Like many developing countries, the sporting arena is one place where South Africans meet the best of a seemingly arrogant developed world without one hand tied behind their back. A place where, though it may be only for a short while, they can avenge colonial grudges andforget their considerable problems.

South Africa is not a country that makes an indelible mark on the consciousness of the world through its scientists or musicians. But the Springboks and Proteas, at least, have always managed to elicit therespect of their opponents.

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