Newlands centurion Temba Bavuma and exciting young paceman Kagiso Rabada have done more than silence the “merit selection” mutterers through their performances in the current Test series against England. As the first fruit of Cricket SA’s new focus on the development of African cricketers, they are pointers to the future of the South African game.
Since readmission in 1990, the nagging problem for administrators has been the failure of school talent to kick on to the provincial and national sides. The Proteas’ melanin deficiency was a standing invitation to political interference. In some cases, it also led to the fast-tracking of players unable or not ready to cope with the brutally unforgiving world of international sport.
Economic pressures and the absence of strong support networks were identified as key reasons for the high drop-out rate of young black cricketers.
The remedy, introduced some three seasons back, was a “high-performance” development system aimed at promising provincial franchise players on a rung below those on central contracts. Those singled out at as having international potential are paid incentive bonuses by Cricket SA and targeted for coaching and career management.
Bavuma and Rabada are both beneficiaries of this system, as are Gauteng Lions spin bowlers Aaron Phangiso and Eddie Leie, who have also played for South Africa. Indeed, a significant settled component of the South African “A” team is now black. The fact is that in post-apartheid South Africa, major representative sports with a history of structural discrimination, such as cricket, will inevitably come under racial selection pressures.
But if the merit principle is to be compromised, the right place to do it is in the relative safety of the provincial arena – meaning that the new quota system, stipulating three African players per franchise, makes sense. Quotas and targeted development are mutually reinforcing.
The task for selectors and administrator must be to manage this emerging African talent. Among other things they must walk the difficult tightrope of under- and over-exposure. The biggest danger with a young fast bowler like Rabada is he will be overbowled and burn out. If the moneybags of the Indian Premier League gets their hooks into him, that risk will be greatly enhanced.
Bavuma came into the Test under pressure; he is bound to fail again in the current series and will inevitably suffer slumps of form. But he has proved himself a reliable run-getter for the Gauteng Lions. He must be kept in the national side for as long as inclusion is good for him and the good of South African cricket.
This editorial, originally published in the Mail & Guardian on January 8 2016, incorrectly stated that the new quota system stipulates two African players per provincial cricket franchise. It has since been corrected to reflect the accurate amount – three.