It never fails to amaze one what a few wins can do for the collective confidence of a team and, indeed, the belief of a nation. Confidence and belief are more fragile and fickle in professional sport than anywhere else and there are three imminent matches against Australia that will provide plenty of time for both to be eroded or snatched away.
As important as it is for coaches and leaders to look beyond results at underlying trends and where performance can be improved, it is equally important to celebrate the good moments, otherwise what is the point of it all?
Three successive one-day international (ODI) victories to overturn a 2-0 deficit was a remarkable and rare achievement and something to feel genuinely proud about. The first T20 victory at Newlands may have owed more than usual to luck but, if it is true that top sportsmen and teams make their own, then it was created with hundreds of hours spent improving match-winner Chris Morris’s batting.
Having already played an innings of outrageous power and calm to win the fourth ODI at the Wanderers, the second dose of Morris was seen as proof that it was no fluke and also vindication of all the hard work invested in him by the Proteas coaching staff and his provincial coach, Rob Walter, also a former member of the national backroom squad.
Some intriguing selection questions lie ahead of the Australian T20 matches to be played at Kingsmead, the Wanderers and Newlands on March 4, 6 and 9, but they are delightful questions to have, representing, as they do, increasing strength and depth within the squad.
If Quinton de Kock is considered a definite starter after his rest against England, where will he bat given the resounding statement made by AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla at the top of the order? Rilee Rossouw is the batsman most likely to make way.
Where will Dale Steyn fit in again after two months without a competitive day’s cricket aside from the league outing he has planned for his club side, Western Province Cricket Club, this Saturday? Proteas supporters will be anxious to see him pass the fitness test, but probably not as anxious as the opening batsmen of St Augustine’s Cricket Club.
T20 captain Faf du Plessis has often said that he favours a batting line-up that stretches at least to number eight, which suggests neither of the all-rounders – Morris and David Wiese – will be dropped, leaving opening bowlers Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada as the options to step aside for Steyn. Neither deserves to miss out. Look out for the word “rotation” rather than “dropped”.
Away from the pinnacle of the game, however, the hand-wringing and brow-scratching continues about the future health of the game in both a financial and a playing sense. Sri Lanka’s scheduled tour of South Africa at the end of the year was delayed by 10 days this week in order to leave December free for the domestic Ram Slam T20 tournament as Cricket South Africa’s plans to make it the focal point of the summer continue to take shape.
Just as the Indian Premier League, the Caribbean Premier League and the Big Bash League in Australia have rapidly become the financial and spectating hubs in their regions, a CSA research and marketing team has grand plans to attract more international stars, offer greater prize money and, ambitiously, fill stadiums by packing the tournament into the December school holidays.
There is a limit to how much good intention can fight natural market forces and the rand’s exchange rate against hard currencies. CSA’s recent attempts to prevent seven provincial cricketers from playing in the Masters Cricket League in the United Arab Emirates in order to protect the integrity of the Momentum One Day Cup was naive.
Not only were the players being offered somewhere between two and five South African seasons’ worth in dollars for two weeks work, they had agreed to pay their franchises 10% in order to “buy” their release. Players and employers were happy. CSA was not and refused, in some cases, to issue a no objection certificate allowing the players to compete.
Losing players at the end of their careers is one thing, losing them at the beginning is quite another. Even closer to home, quietly and without a bad word being uttered, promising 18-year-old fast bowler Conor McKerr signed a three-year contract with English county Surrey, which in effect sees him commit his career to that country.
McKerr matriculated from St John’s last year and was part of the South African under-19 team that competed at the World Cup in Bangladesh earlier this year until injury forced him to return home early. Former England captain Alec Stewart is the director of cricket at Surrey and had no hesitation in making a long-term commitment to the youngster after a brief sighting and trial.
McKerr will take up residence in London where he will be provided with accommodation, medical aid, pension, life assurance and a salary far greater than that paid to the most senior provincial players in South Africa. There have been many like him before and there will be many more ahead. Surrey’s offer was, simply, “unrefusable”, according to a family friend.
Still, there are reasons to be cheerful and, as always, we will be filled with excitement and anticipation by the time the T20 World Cup begins in mid-March.