Proteas’ death by a thousand cuts

Cape Town | ByNeil Manthorp
Oct 25, 2019 11:11 AM IST

High-profile retirements. Players in exile. An age-old quota policy. A domestic system bereft of sponsors... Where does the real reason lie for the downfall of South African cricket?

South African cricket is at its lowest ebb since the return to international cricket in 1991, which is all the years I have been involved and covering it. The Test series humiliation in India is not the cause for this assertion, it is merely the latest, and greatest symptom of the demise and decline.

Faf du Plessis’s South Africa went down 3-0 to Virat Kohli’s India, in a three-match Test series where they followed on twice(AFP)
Faf du Plessis’s South Africa went down 3-0 to Virat Kohli’s India, in a three-match Test series where they followed on twice(AFP)

It is true that the retirements of AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel cost the team over 450 caps, almost 800 wickets and 16,000 runs – and it is true that there are no like-for-like replacements and that it will take a long time to fill in the holes they left behind.

It is also true that four players made their Test debuts during the course of the series in India and debutants rarely do well in the rarefied atmosphere of the Test arena. Some struggle to breathe, never mind take wickets or score runs. But it is also true that the team wasn’t quite as “exceptionally young” as captain Faf du Plessis said it was. Six of his players owned more than 30 Test caps.

Du Plessis was right to point towards the problem created by senior players leaving the country to play the game as ‘locals’ in England, under the Kolpak loophole. Some have argued that only fast bowler Kyle Abbott and off spinner Simon Harmer would have been in contention for a place in the starting XI in India but that’s patently an absurd contention. Who knows what position the careers of other players would be in if they had stayed in South Africa?

Since Claude Henderson became the very first South African to be employed on a Kolpak contract in 2000, over 60 of the country’s best cricketers have followed. There are at least 15 of them currently playing in England, although it’s difficult to keep count. They are: Kyle Abbott, Dane Vilas, Cameron Delport, Wayne Parnell, David Wiese, Colin Ingram, Simon Harmer, Rilee Rossouw, Hardus Viljoen, Duanne Olivier, Staan van Zyl, Hein Kuhn, Richard Levi, Leeus du Plooy and Marchant de Lange.

The real problem with their exile is the negativity they experience from Cricket South Africa (CSA) when they return home. Restraint of Trade laws mean they can’t actually be stopped from playing domestic professional cricket but it is abundantly clear that they are not welcome. If a Franchise team does select one of them, they have to pay his salary from their own account rather than CSA’s official salary cap for each team, virtually impossible for the cash-strapped local teams.

The result is a dearth of senior players in squads around the country from whom young players can learn, either by playing with or against them.

The good news is that there is no shortage of young players being produced. The standard of domestic competitions has dropped but not because there are less cricketers entering the system. South Africa’s climate and the number of cricket-playing schools means it comfortably turns out more potential first-class cricketers than any other country apart from India, but what happens when they start their careers?

Now for some important background. From the age of about 12 or 13, the best cricketers become aware of selection criteria over and above how well you can bat or bowl. While the majority of boys and girls at that age are still happily being given a bowl or moved up the batting order because they “didn’t get a chance last week”, school festivals and inter-provincial teams are being chosen with strict racial criteria.

Rarely are problems and solutions simple in sport but they are especially difficult in South Africa given its socio-economic history. Let’s be honest, issues of race (or class) exist in every country but they are prevalent here at every level of competitive sport and affect everyone, even if only subliminally. Before you read on, if you care to, please may I urge you to do so with great care. This is not a straightforward issue and does not deserve a simplistic ‘cover all.’ Nobody with a reasoned mind is laying the blame for the national team’s current plight at the door of ‘quotas’. It’s simply not true.

Cricket’s collective desire to right the wrongs of the past is both laudable and shared by the very vast majority of those involved in the game. Changing the game’s demographics to reflect the country’s is also an economic necessity. It’s what sponsors and advertisers want. That part is simple. It’s the rest that isn’t. Unlike in the business world, where individual skills can be uplifted as part of a collective, professional sport is primarily about the pursuit of individual excellence.

While professionals in other walks of South African life understand, accept and embrace that transformation is essential, sportsmen find it harder than most to compete in an environment where the core principal of their existence is not the primary concern. Sure, the money is better elsewhere but most of the cricketers who have left the country were simply craving ‘normality’.

Long gone are the days in which the Proteas selected players before they were ready for national honours, certainly at Test level. But the legacy of transformation in sport is that the majority of players simply crave ‘normality’. Cricketers ‘get it’, they know South African society needs to change and, on a day-to-day basis when they are in a contest between bat and ball, it’s the last thing on their mind. But it’s never far from the surface.

And if their teams are still subject to transformation criteria, what about their employers? After a dozen years of racial targets the eleven players on the field in the majority of domestic teams in the country are content in the knowledge that their team-mates are worthy of their place, but that that’s because they all do more or less the same job. But they know nothing, or very little, about what their employers do.

The administrators at CSA headquarters have a great deal to answer for but communication is not amongst their priorities. Having announced their intention to implement a fundamental change to the structure of the domestic game from next season, they refused to honour the terms of their MOU with the players (SA Cricketers Association, or SACA) by consulting with them or sharing details, financial or logistical.

SACA took CSA to the High Court in early June and the matter has still to be resolved. Millions of Rand has been wasted on legal fees and yet CSA, which is forecast to be over R650million (about USD 45 million) in arrears by the end of 2021, continues to give its players a giant middle finger.

Three weeks ago, CSA unilaterally placed the country’s second biggest Union – the Western Province Cricket Association – under administration and suspended its president and board whilst hinting at financial impropriety. The WPCA lauched High Court action of its own. So now CSA, fighting two fights on the go, has refused to reassure the country’s 311 professional players and has threatened to move the New Year Test away from Newlands, Cape Town.

None of this excuses the feeble batting and toothless, ill-disciplined bowling in India but former Proteas batsman Jacques Rudolph received significant exposure (and private support) when, last week, he said: “A fish rots from the head down…CSA need to take responsibility for the state of the game.”

Perhaps, with more trust between the players and their employers, they would have been less listless and shown more backbone across the three Tests in Visakhpatnam, Pune and Ranchi. Du Plessis’ side are simply not good enough to have changed the results against this outstanding Indian team, but at the moment there are too many simply happy to collect their monthly cheque. Or just happy that there is still a cheque.

The newly created position of Director of Cricket has yet to be filled and all eyes are now focussed on acquiring the services of a man with strong cricket and business experience, universal respect, a big picture vision and the ability to motivate people and implement it.

It’s a lot to ask but there are people who fulfil the criteria – two of them were in the commentary box in India but Graeme Smith and Shaun Pollock, like a host of other former players, would take a great deal of convincing that meaningful change would be possible.

There are fewer major sponsors now than at any other time since readmission. The domestic four-day and T20 tournaments are unsponsored and there is no Test match sponsor. The Mzansi Super League, which cost (lost) around R100million (USD 7 million0 last season, is about to start its second season. It also has no sponsor, yet it provides the best hope of financial salvation and independence from Indian tours. It’s just that nobody seems clear on how.

The Proteas are scheduled to play fewer international fixtures in the next FTP cycle than ever before and income from television rights is set to drop by as much as 30 per cent when the next deal is renegotiated. The shortfall must not just be replaced, but fresh income is imperative. Diversification will be critical in the years ahead.

Finally, let’s be clear about one thing. All of the above is merely explanatory background and none of it provides an excuse for South Africa’s embarrassing inability to compete with Virat Kohli’s team. The series really was all about bat and ball – and it provided a fair reflection of how much better Team India were at batting, bowling and fielding. For South Africa, it’s going to be a long road ahead.

(Manthorp is a South African cricket journalist, based in Cape Town)

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