Selection meddling galls players

CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat leaves an impression that selecting according to the sports ministry's transformation wishes tops the winning of matches. (Gallo)

CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat leaves an impression that selecting according to the sports ministry's transformation wishes tops the winning of matches. (Gallo)

South Africa’s senior cricketers have expressed extreme dissatisfaction with Cricket South Africa’s (CSA’s) meddling in selection as the effects of the World Cup semifinal debacle continue to be felt.

  The Mail?&?Guardian has learnt that AB de Villiers, South Africa’s one-day captain, sought assurances from CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat, during a meeting in India last month, that the governing body would stop interfering in selection.

CSA has come under scrutiny from the media and the public since it emerged that Lorgat intervened in selection for the semifinal against New Zealand, insisting that South Africa pick Vernon Philander ahead of Kyle Abbott to meet its transformation guideline of four players of colour, despite Abbott enjoying better form and fitness. Several sources, both within the cricket community and CSA’s inner sanctum, have confirmed that the decision was made against the wishes of De Villiers and coach Russell Domingo, who both pleaded for cricket matters to be put ahead of transformation issues. The Proteas went on to lose the game against New Zealand by four wickets.

Now the governing body is under pressure from some of its own players, who were emotionally affected by the decision – some of them profoundly.
As captain, De Villiers has been particularly distressed and therefore sought ways to make it clear to his employers that the matter could not simply be swept under the carpet. JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis are also known to have been deeply unhappy with how the matter was handled.

De Villiers’s feelings were made clear to Lorgat when the pair met in India during the Indian Premier League, where he was turning out for the Royal Challengers Bangalore.

Asked what assurances Lorgat had given De Villiers and the players about future interference in selection matters, a CSA spokesperson said: “The meeting with AB de Villiers was called by the CE [chief executive] as part of his meetings with all three captains in preparation for this week’s board meeting. One of the issues being considered by the CE and the board is the appointment of the management and coaching team. As always, team selection remains the prerogative of the selectors.”

CSA has continually denied that Lorgat played any part in selecting the team for the World Cup semifinal.

Flexible guidelines
Although South Africa has official quotas at domestic level – franchise teams will field at least six players of colour and at least three black Africans next season – at national level the guidelines are less clear. Selectors have a commitment to pick seven players of colour and one black African in a 15-man national squad and to put four players of colour, preferably with one black African, on to the field. But these are seen as guidelines that are flexible in the event of the loss of form or fitness.

Although South Africa fielded five players of colour in their first two World Cup matches, the poor form of Wayne Parnell and the shaky fitness of both Duminy and Philander meant they fielded just three players of colour in four of their next five games. As a result, it is understood that CSA came under increasing pressure from the South African sports ministry as the tournament wore on – pressure that could have been eased by picking left-arm spinner Aaron Phangiso against one of the lesser sides.

Instead, breaking point was reached ahead of the semifinal in Auckland, where Lorgat made it clear to the selection panel that Philander needed to be included so that the target of four players of colour was met. Although the fast bowler’s calibre has never been disputed, at that stage he had missed four of South Africa’s last five games because of a troublesome left hamstring. Abbott had excelled in his place, taking nine wickets at an average of 14.44 as he recorded an economy rate of just over four runs an over. In effect, he fulfilled three important roles: opening the bowling, bowling in the power play and at the death, something Philander is unable to do.

Summoned at midnight
Several sources have confirmed that the reasoning behind Philander’s selection went down poorly with South Africa’s senior players, but also with the man himself. Shortly before midnight on the eve of the match, Philander was called down to the lobby of the team hotel for an impromptu discussion with Lorgat and Hussein Manack, the travelling selector, where the pair sought reassurance that Philander was fit enough to play. Although he confirmed that he was, the experience unnerved him.

After returning to his room, Philander texted Domingo to ask whether he had been selected purely for cricketing reasons. The issue would surely have been on his mind during the game the next day. Although Philander was not specifically to blame for South Africa’s defeat, he went wicketless and his injury forced him to leave the field before he had completed his ration of overs. In his absence, New Zealand’s match-winner Grant Elliott was dropped when Philander’s substitute, Farhaan Behardien, collided with Duminy in the outfield.

The saga deepened the disappointment felt by the players in the aftermath, and has left several angry and questioning the future. Although there is no suggestion that any of the top players are on the verge of quitting – all of them have been named in squads to tour Bangladesh next month – there is concern that continued disillusionment with the selection process could lead to defections.

Twenty20 competitions around the world not only offer bigger paydays, but are also an attractive option when weighed against the grind of the international schedule.

For South Africa’s cricketers, it is now more important than ever that the selection process does not erode the joy and pride of playing for the nation, and so they will be taking a keen interest in how the new convener of selectors, Linda Zondi, goes about his business. Despite incidencents such as the one in Auckland, outgoing convener Andrew Hudson was generally seen as having navigated South Africa’s delicate selection process with aplomb.

His departure has coincided with CSA reaching something of a crossroads as it decides whether to retain the confidence of the players and make national selection an issue of merit, or accelerate the transformation agenda. Its presentation to the portfolio committee on sport and recreation in Parliament on May 19 suggested it errs towards the latter.

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