S Africans struggle in real world: Glenn Moore reports from Durban on the sporting problems faced by the Republic at international level

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The Independent Online
THE return from sporting isolation has been a bittersweet experience for South Africans.

Off the pitch, rugby has been shamed by racism and football exposed as a shambles. On it, the former Springboks have lost from Twickenham to Buenos Aires and the football team to the likes of Swaziland.

Though delighted to be able to take part again South Africans have never seriously believed it is more important than winning and the discovery that they have slipped behind the outside world has been an unpleasant one.

Cricket, with its progressive administration and competitive team, has appeared the exception. But now it, too, is faltering. While England A, with their eight successive wins, have raised doubts about the strength in depth of domestic cricket, the reaction to the concurrent international tour of Australia, with every limited- overs match being greeted with either hysterical joy or mourning, has brought its strategy into question.

England have won their first-class matches - all against traditionally strong teams - by enormous margins: nine wickets and a day in hand, an innings and 70 runs, and 10 wickets, again with a day to spare.

The results have led both Ali Bacher, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, and Peter Pollock, the chairman of selectors, to express concern over the depth of talent. Of special worry is the shortage of good players in their twenties. The dominant performers are veterans like Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook and imports such as Malcolm Marshall, Franklyn Stephenson, Eldine Baptiste and Phillip DeFreitas.

A crucial factor in England's games has been the inability of the local players to match the tourists' patience. England's batsmen have been prepared to graft their way through difficult periods - such as John Crawley taking more than an hour to go from 150 to 160 at Port Elizabeth - the South Africans have been unable, or unwilling, to follow suit.

While England's players appear to be absorbing the lessons of several seasons of four- day cricket (introduced here this year) their opponents look to be victims of South Africa's obsession with the one-day version.

In England there is an acceptance that one-day cricket exists to provide entertainment and money and that there are too many variables for one side to win all the time. Not so in South Africa where, as the national captain, Kepler Wessels, recently pointed out, national honour seems at stake every time they play a one-day match.

The obsession is a legacy of isolation. The former Test player Barry Richards, now involved in marketing cricket for Queensland, reckoned 'no other country could have kept cricket alive for so long without Test cricket'. But it was kept alive by 'rebel' tours and giving one-day cricket the hard sell.

Isolation allowed South Africa to innovate: they were first to use the television umpire for run-outs, first with revolving sightscreens and eagerly adopted floodlight cricket and painting logos on pitches. Rock jingles, as England found earlier in the tour, are used to celebrate boundaries and wickets in day/night games and they even experimented with 14-man teams - an idea of Mike Proctor's based on baseball's use of specialist pitchers and batters.

The consequence is that cricket, once largely restricted to Anglo-South Africans, now matches rugby for media attention and Jonty Rhodes and Allan Donald are as popular as any rugby player. Cricket has been on television almost every night since England arrived, whether it be from Australia (even the Australia/ New Zealand game was shown live) or one of the domestic day/night matches.

These games have become social evenings with a high percentage of women attending and many families bringing portable barbecues and cooking on the grass banks that feature at many grounds.

The problem is most South Africans believe this is the real thing, a belief confirmed when their return coincided with the World Cup. When the first home Test series, against India last year, was met with apathy the cricket board realised it had gone too far.

'The balance is not quite right,' Bacher said before heading for Australia. 'We have to educate people to watch Test cricket, to make them aware of its qualities and beauty.' This week's wash-out at Melbourne was a bad start. The home-and-away series with Australia is seen as a major opportunity for Test matches to recapture the lustre of 1970 when the Australians played to packed houses. 'We need a scintillating series,' Bacher said.