The past, the present and the future of South African cricket were all embodied in one man during the Newlands Test this week: Kyle Abbott.
Speaking after the Proteas’ victory in the second test at Newlands on Thursday, skipper Faf du Plessis confirmed that Kyle Abbott has played his last game for the national team.
In Abbott, South Africa have their best example of how the necessary act of transformation can be turned on its head if it is not explained and applied truthfully. It was Abbott who was left out of the 2015 World Cup semifinal on the instruction of administrators who wanted Vernon Philander to fulfil what were then publicly unknown targets. Since then, Cricket South Africa (CSA) have done the honourable thing and made known their requirements, even though it took a ministerial ban to force their hand.
In Abbott, South Africa can measure their improvement from that day. The aftermath of that World Cup lasted more than a year and resulted in South Africa tumbling from number one in the Test ranking to number seven as the talent pool ran dry. Abbott has been part of the resurgence that has seen them rise to number three and emerge as serious contenders for June’s Champions Trophy.
In Abbott also lies the greatest fear for South African cricket’s future. On Tuesday, a report first emerged claiming he would retire from international cricket to take up a Kolpak deal with English county Hampshire.
The first question many will ask is: why was he approached, and why would he even consider it? This is a player who has finally been given the chance to have a decent run in the Test team, almost four years after making his debut. Injuries to Dale Steyn, which will keep him out until at least June, and Morné Morkel, whose recovery period remains indefinite, meant that Abbott was a first pick.
His leaving will not be for lack of current opportunity but because of the time he has spent on the sidelines and the time he may have spent there in the future. Too often his place has been endangered by returnees or newbies. He has said he feels as though he continually needs to prove himself.
Even at his franchise, the Warriors, who are grappling with their own team balance, he was not guaranteed a spot.
In county cricket, that will not happen. There, Abbott is guaranteed to play more cricket than he ever has.
But he will have to work for his money. His deal is said to be in the region of £100 000 a year, which he will be able to supplement with stints in T20 leagues.
This should serve as a wake-up call to CSA that they need to do something dramatic to prepare for or prevent an impending exodus.
The rush to get into the English system has been accelerated because there is uncertainty about the effect Brexit (the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union) will have on Kolpak arrangements and South African cricketers are anxious to get in while the door remains open.
Conversely, CSA will be compelled to make sure they keep anyone who leaves out.
The South African domestic game cannot be flooded with players who are ineligible to represent the country because that goes against the specific aims it serves. With three recent Test caps — Stiaan van Zyl, Simon Harmer and Hardus Viljoen — all signing away their international futures and stating their intention to continue playing for their South African franchises, CSA may have to consider a cap on Kolpak players in the domestic game. The number being thrown around is two.
Franchises would then need to meet a transformation target of no less than six players of colour, of which at least three need to be black African, and a Kolpak target. They may wonder which other rule will govern how they pick the remaining three players in their starting teams.
The good news is that there are some sensible heads making those decisions. Former internationals are returning to the fold and getting their hands dirty.
Mark Boucher is the Titans’ coach, Ashwell Prince the Cobras’ interim coach and Jacques Kallis was at the national team’s training camp. That these players are willing to get involved bodes well for South Africa.
The structure is not perfect and it could do more to allow for player development.
South Africa’s schedule is packed, with a full tour to New Zealand to follow the current one against Sri Lanka, three months in the United Kingdom and a home summer that could consist of 10 Tests. Four of those will be against India but it has not been confirmed whether they have agreed to tour during the festive season.
India are thought to be pondering holiday fixtures of their own, which may leave South Africa stranded, but there is optimism the Indian board can be persuaded otherwise.
If they are, South African cricket’s past, present and future will shift from one man to one situation.
It was in 2013 that India cut short a tour that cost CSA millions of rands.
Should that relationship be restored, given the power the Indian board has, the future will be secure.