Proteas may yet bloom in England

Merit man: Vernon Philander ripped through the England top order on the first day of the first Test at Lord’s this week, as part of the backbone of a Proteas squad capable of winning the series. (Ian Kington/AFP)

Merit man: Vernon Philander ripped through the England top order on the first day of the first Test at Lord’s this week, as part of the backbone of a Proteas squad capable of winning the series. (Ian Kington/AFP)

Arcane as it may seem, especially in this age of Asian dominance, England is still the yardstick by which cricketers measure themselves. It’s a country of prestige, where the purists place as much value on the small things — a dive to save a single, for example — as the big ones. And, this winter, South Africa will have plenty of both.

Over three months, the men’s, women’s and A sides all play in the United Kingdom.
Their results will provide insight into the depth of the local game against the backdrop of a player drain that has seen several recently capped internationals sign Kolpak deals to play in England.

If the early indications are anything to go by, South Africa’s A side have been the hardest hit by the losses. They were defeated in both the limited-overs and four-day series by huge margins, which suggests there are concerns about the quality of cricketers being produced on the domestic scene.

It’s an issue worth addressing because it speaks to the future health of the game, which is ultimately the most important thing.

One of the “defectors”, Simon Harmer, says that has been a long-standing concern.

“The national coach had said that domestic cricket is not good enough to select from,” Harmer told Paul Edwards in an interview with ESPN Cricinfo. He went on to explain that the chances of a longer career and a more sustainable income are greater in England, which also motivated the likes of Kyle Abbott to leave South Africa.

But we cannot talk about Kolpak without addressing the other elephant in the room: transformation.

All eight of the players who left South Africa at the end of last summer were white. While all of them said they felt their opportunities at home were not as plentiful as those they could get in England, none expressly said targets were responsible. But it stands to reason that they are.

There are only 11 places on a cricket team and Cricket South Africa requires franchises to field at least six players of colour, of which three must be black African. That means there is space for only five white players in a team, a situation that created tougher competition for places than ever before.

Harmer struggled to get a place in the South Africa A side and he took it as an indication that he would not earn an international call-up, so sought a career elsewhere. Although no one can begrudge him his decision, the perceived unfairness that Harmer alludes to is disingenuous.

There’s little to choose from between Harmer, who has taken 366 first-class wickets at 31.52, and Dane Piedt, the man who initially replaced him in the Test squad. Piedt has taken 292 wickets at 30.59. Neither of them has a record as impressive as Keshav Maharaj’s — 309 wickets at 26.54 — which explains why Maharaj is in the Test squad, Piedt is next in line and Harmer has fallen out of the picture.

This is the reality South African cricket needs to start speaking about. Yes, we have lost players and yes, some of those players such as Abbott are missed on the international stage and the likes of Harmer — who currently leads the county wicket-takers’ list — would add to the strength of the domestic scene, but no, there is no crisis. Not yet. Instead, the challenges facing the national team have little if anything to do with transformation.

The Test squad is evidence of that. In them, South Africa have a strong enough side to be confident that their unbeaten record in England since 1998 has a chance of holding.

South Africa have an in-form opening pair after Dean Elgar enjoyed a productive stint at Somerset and Heino Kuhn topped up on 1 000-plus runs in the last first-class season, with a double-hundred and another century for the A side.

They have a solid middle order if Hashim Amla and JP Duminy produce and the capacity to add late runs through Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock. Their varied attack is as good as it has ever been. In Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morné Morkel, they have bowlers who move the ball off the seam, swing it and bowl at pace. Maharaj completes the attack.

In reserve there’s Duanne Olivier, a fast bowler with a good bouncer, and two all-rounders in Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo.

The batting backup consists of two youngsters — Theunis de Bruyn, who had to play in Faf du Plessis’s absence because the latter is on paternity leave, and Aiden Markram, who was the U-19 World Cup-winning captain.

Looking at those names and their achievements, South African cricket appears healthy. Add context to their circumstances and perhaps it is not always so.

Pre-series, months of uncertainty surrounded the future of the coach, Russell Domingo, who found out in January that his job would be advertised after the England series. He was welcome to reapply but it took him to within five days of the deadline before he decided he was interested in continuing.

Domingo has since confirmed he is among the candidates interviewed, although it seems an open secret that his successor has already been sought and approached. Lions coach Geoffrey Toyana is being touted as the favourite to take over.

If we know that, the team must know it and it can’t be easy to play in a series knowing the man who you are playing for is a sitting duck, especially as several players, including Du Plessis, have publicly said they want Domingo to continue.

AB de Villiers’s future may depend on it. Though De Villiers is not playing in the Tests and is expected to retire from the format in a bid to make it to the 2019 World Cup, he has now indicated that he will confirm his availability only after the new coach is announced. De Villiers has previously said he “definitely” wants Domingo to stay on.

The De Villiers drama came during the Champions Trophy and it seemed to affect the one-day side. The Test side say they have moved on from that but the proof will be in their performances.

At the same time, South Africa’s chances of winning a major trophy are not lost for this year. The women’s team are competing in their World Cup and have the best chance in their history of claiming the cup. Since turning professional in 2013, the South African team have achieved many firsts, such as winning a series on the subcontinent and beating both England and the West Indies for the first time in a one-day international.

They have two victories under their belt at this World Cup, which bookended a washout against New Zealand and a decent fight in their defeat to England earlier this week.

Saturday will be telling for them. They face India and a win would all but confirm their spot in the semifinals. Getting to the final four was their goal and anything more would be considered a bonus.

In an age where a little extra is always welcomed, the South African women could provide the most compelling evidence that cricket in the country is more than up to standard.

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