/ 3 February 2017

Change sets Proteas on right path

Dismantling the cricket 'clique': Keshav Maharaj is one of the cricketers scouted by a committee of four that does not include the national captain
Dismantling the cricket 'clique': Keshav Maharaj is one of the cricketers scouted by a committee of four that does not include the national captain

The cliques running cricket have been dismissed, allowing the best players to shine. And this, incidentally, means an embarrassment of riches in the form of black players.

Before balking, consider the evidence. Results are on the up, Cricket South Africa (CSA) is well in the black and there has been a major mind-set shift, which has taken the national team from a unit that enjoyed success with a small core of senior players to an inclusive outfit.

The main difference lies in leadership, specifically when it comes to selection. Before June 2015, when Linda Zondi was appointed as the convener, the national captain and coach were on the five-man panel that would pick a match-day XI. Between them, they held two votes and only had to convince one other person to agree with them to get their way. More often that not, that is what happened.

Since Zondi’s appointment, that has changed. Neither the coach nor the captain has any say in selection, although their opinions are sought and debated. A four-man committee – Zondi, Hussein Manack, Errol Stewart and Lux Qoboshiyana – who each attend between 30 and 40 days of domestic cricket in a season, chooses the squad and every team that takes to the field.

Sometimes the coach and captain disagree with that choice – as was the case when Rilee Rossouw was picked ahead of Hashim Amla in the one-day international (ODI) series in Australia last October – and sometimes they are pleasantly surprised.

Faf du Plessis had never seen Knights’ pacemen Duanne Olivier bowl before he faced him in the nets before the Wanderers Test in January and was similarly unfamiliar with Dolphins’ off spinner Keshav Maharaj, who was picked ahead of Dane Piedt to tour Australia last year.

The selectors had watched Olivier rise to the top of the first-class wicket-takers’ list this season and Maharaj claim 72 scalps over the past two summers and cost his team only three runs an over. They knew what Olivier and Maharaj were capable of and picked them on that basis – Du Plessis and Russell Domingo trusted their judgment and the benefit is obvious.

That is essentially the difference between the South African team of the past and the one of the present: it has neither complete control nor does it consider itself all-knowing.

“There used to be an obvious clique and now it is difficult to see any of that. Personalities have changed. There is a much greater respect for the system, perhaps because the system works a lot better,” said an insider who did not want to be named.

In 2014, CSA undertook an overhaul of their corporate governance to include independent members on their board and have since filtered that model down to franchises and provinces. The result is a more transparent operation, which has resulted in South Africa outgrowing the old boys’ club approach and moving towards a healthier culture.

Crucially, they have accepted the necessity of transformation, and the advantages it creates by opening up a much larger talent pool, which they have done throughout their structures. CSA’s 12-member board is made up of 11 members of colour, an indication that change starts at the top.

But “transformation is not the goal. Normalisation is the goal,” the insider said. “You want to get to a point where you are not thinking about whether the organisation or the team reflects the nation. It just does. We are getting there.”

Given how well things are going, the news that Domingo, who has seen South Africa through one of their most turbulent periods since readmission and emerged with his reputation enhanced, will have to reapply for his job was met with outrage. On closer reflection, it should not cause such angst.

His contract has already been extended three times so opening an application process may be nothing more than a formality. Domingo is likely to reapply and, depending on the results over the next months, has a reasonable chance of being reappointed.

“Russell seems to be at his best at the moment. He has come into his own as a coach and you can see some real confidence and courage coming through. He is not afraid to say when he is unhappy with things,” the
insder said.

Domingo publicly voiced his displeasure with Rossouw’s decision to abandon his international career, despite receiving support from CSA, because of serious injuries and several false starts in ODIs – four ducks in his first six innings – at a fiery press conference in early January.

Then it seemed South Africa’s structures would be destabilised by a recent spate of high-profile departures to the United Kingdom. Three more players – David Wiese, Hardus Viljoen and Dane Vilas – have since joined the exodus but South Africa remains on stable ground.

There are so many players coming through and, offered the right opportunites, South Africa will stay strong.