Of the many bits and pieces of advice that have been passed on to me over the years about being a sports hack, the one that stuck is that nobody messes up on purpose.
It may seem a blindingly obvious observation, but the stream of invective that is often written after some poor sod has played an injudicious shot suggests it’s difficult for even supposedly even-handed reporters to hold back from putting the boot in.
The advent of social media – a space so toxic that there’s always someone at hand to tell you in exactly 280 characters how loving sunsets is probably a crime against humanity – has exacerbated the vilification of players when they do not play at their absolute best.
A great example of this reared its head during the Proteas’ defeat by England in the second test of their current four-test series.
Set an impossible target of 438 to win by the visitors, a fighting Proteas team took the game to 20 minutes before stumps on day five, when a knackered Ben Stokes – typically seduced by the chance to be a hero – put the casting vote in favour of England with that final bowling spell.
Instead of congratulating England for a contest well won, or South Africa for a fight well fought, the locals began carping about how their countrymen had thrown it away – the main line of attack focusing on the “loose shots” played by established batsmen such as captain Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock.
Some of the shots played by the Proteas were injudicious, but to question the day they were born and demand that Du Plessis be dropped is a bit over the top and lacking in context.
The Proteas couldn’t buy a win last year, so for them to be locked in a pitched battle with a team whose spine is made up of World Cup winners suggests that a positive change is taking place.
The other argument that lacks perspective is that Du Plessis must be dropped and a new captain found because the runs from his bat have dried up. The Proteas captain was the second-highest run-scorer for the team last year, meaning he is being judged mainly on these first two tests against England.
Knee-jerk reactions to players not playing well is not new, but there’s a hypercriticism that borders on the hypocritical that has crept into how a player’s body of work doesn’t count when he’s going through a rough patch.
Forget being only as good as their last shot played or ball bowled, one gets the sense that we can’t wait for the next bad ball or shot to prove us armchair experts right in saying that certain players don’t belong at that mythical test level.
With that kind of thinking, one wonders why we’re surprised when players play with too much caution or are prone to making mistakes. A big part of this unnecessary pressure we heap on players is the fact that our support of our teams tends to come from a racial perspective.
It’s embarrassing how many so-called Proteas supporters hoped Pieter Malan and Rassie van der Dussen would fail simply because they were seen to have unfairly taken Temba Bavuma’s spot in the team.
Equally stupid were the transformation-opposed idiots celebrating the luckless Bavuma being dropped from the team as some kind of victory for merit selection.
Forget that Malan and Van der Dussen earned their spots in the team by toiling in the backwaters of domestic cricket for a decade, or that Bavuma has proven he belongs at this level by helping the Proteas win a tough series in Australia with plenty of counter-attacking innings, people who wouldn’t know a reverse sweep from a switch hit are questioning their presence in the national team.
Quite how any of us can support our national teams on the basis of race alone is a disgrace. We need to stop visiting our hang-ups on our players.
- firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @simxabanisa