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Dream deferred, spectacle born

Unperturbed by the rain, frolicking young children run tirelessly up and down the grass embankment. The increasingly greasy surface hosts some spectacular slides as they dive to catch balls hit from plastic bats. Less-enthused parents huddle in the corridors and stadium entrances, trying in vain to keep dry.

Indoor bar stands play host to chatting groups of young men, many trading the usual beer for a Klippies and Coke. Food vendors appear to be the real winners of the night as steaming prego rolls become irresistible in the miserable weather.

The ominous dark clouds show no signs of clearing up, yet at least a few thousand fans remain scattered around the stadium for a good two-odd hours after the planned start, content to revel in the atmosphere.

By no means packed to the brim, the generous crowd is still a rare sight for a group stage game between local franchises.

An unseen DJ presides over proceedings, offering lively mixes that provide a welcome alternative to the cheesy Eighties singalongs and dire Pitbull hits that regular Wanderers patrons have become accustomed to.

The rain failed to cease and the “Jukskei derby” between the Highveld Lions and the Titans was declared a washout.

The latter team would hardly have minded as the shared two points brings them one step closer to a home semifinal and final. Key to their domination in the Ram Slam T20 series is the same commodity responsible for the bustling and enjoyable atmosphere — Proteas players.

This year we have been treated to a rare spell of domestic cricket that has seen franchises bolstered by internationally capped superstars. It’s quite simple: people like big names.

Those big names drive up audience ratings and bring fans to the stadium. Although it didn’t come to fruition, it was the idea of Quinton de Kock facing Kagiso Rabada that brought families out on a rainy weekday evening, and the allure of AB de Villiers possibly breaking another Wanderers record.

Of course, amid the excitement it’s easy to forget we were promised something entirely different.

The local series cannot escape the fact that it is the materialisation of a dream deferred. The Global T20 League (GT20) was to be the crown jewel in the beleaguered cap of Cricket South Africa. It was to be a competition that could challenge the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash, both in terms of popularity and allure for international players.

On top of that, everyone was going to get a nice payday out of it too. The draft that saw players assigned to their new franchises made headlines for its creation of “overnight millionaires”. Players such as Andile Phehlukwayo and Lungi Ngidi would run into money they likely hadn’t seen before in their young careers. At least, that was the plan.

What we got instead was a melee of confusion and finger-pointing that threw egg on to the faces of everybody involved. Just a few days after CSA acting chief executive Thabang Moroe insisted that the tournament would go ahead — despite a projected $25‑million loss — it was plucked from the schedule and postponed.

The announcement left a gaping, cricketless hole in the November-December period. At the time, Moroe laid the blame firmly at the feet of untransparent board members — a strong hint that the parting of ways between the organisation and his predecessor, Haroon Lorgat, may not have been as “amicable” as advertised.

“The board takes full responsibility in terms of what’s happened because the board took its trust and placed it in the hands of a few individuals‚ and not all the information the board needed in order for it to be comfortable enough to continue with the league at this stage was forthcoming‚” he lamented.

Ultimately, the lack of a broadcaster and headline sponsor meant the GT20 could never have gone ahead without CSA incurring serious losses.

The extent to which Lorgat was responsible for those deficiencies will likely never be public knowledge.

Moroe acknowledged that the GT20 would not go ahead without adequate finances in place. He told the Mail & Guardian the postponement was merely a bump in the road. “We ask the public to be patient with us,” he said.

“We will provide an update as soon as we are comfortable that we have learned what we did right or wrong and have made the necessary changes. It has always been the policy of CSA to be as transparent as possible. We remain confident that we will be able to proceed next season. The board decision on the GT20 was a postponement, not a cancellation, and that remains the position.”

Many of the players booked to take part in the league were quick to voice their disappointment when the tournament was halted. And understandably so. Contracts had been signed and commitments made.

The South African Cricketers’ Association has therefore sought compensation for the coaches and players affected by the last-minute scrapping.

Its chief executive, Tony Irish, revealed to the M&G that the association may be close to agreeing to a compensation amount with CSA — potentially “within the next couple of days”.

Given that the amount spent on players in the GT20 draft topped R92‑million, it will be interesting to see what deal both organisations view as fair.

The successful scramble to push the domestic league forward from March has, at the very least, saved a bit of face for CSA and offered players important playing time ahead of India’s tour in January. So far it’s been a series that has drawn praise from different corners and Irish was quick to acknowledge the upsides of what is essentially a replacement competition.

“There are a lot of positives [that can be taken from the Ram Slam replacing the GT20],” he said. “This is the first time that the international players have all played in domestic competition for a number of years, so any competition that has all the national players playing is going to be high calibre.

“I think you will see that the attendances at the grounds are vastly improved and we hope that the television viewing numbers will be as well.”

Moroe echoed this sentiment and believes there may be additional upsides in the greater scheme of things: “The standard of play has been high and it has certainly helped the national selection panel in their bid to broaden the talent pool for the Proteas as we move forward to the next World Cup.”

As the domestic series rumbles on to much fanfare, it’s unclear exactly what we will be witnessing this time next year. What lessons will be learned from the GT20 debacle? What inspiration, if any, will this star-studded Ram Slam give organisers?

Although fans certainly won’t complain about Proteas plying their trade on the local scene, some pundits have been quick to point out that their presence potentially hinders the development of those who haven’t yet cracked it on the international stage. Indeed, the figures bear this out: three of the top four Ram Slam run-scorers are household names — Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and David Miller — and Rabada has taken the most wickets.

Former South African cricketer and current CSA general manager Corrie van Zyl believes the injection of quality can only be a good thing.

“One of the big criticisms in the past has been of the gap in playing standards between franchise and international cricket,” he told the M&G. “The presence of international players will not only close the gap significantly but will also test the franchise players significantly and show whether they are ready to take the next step up.

“The only way for players to develop is to get game time against or with players of superior quality. It is obvious that Aviwe Mgijima, for example, will learn a huge amount batting alongside Amla, [Temba] Bavuma or Duminy.”

For Irish, it is more a case of striking the right balance — with perhaps a few tweaks needed to whatever form of T20 cricket we will see next season.

“The one difference is the [G20] League had eight teams and we only have six teams playing Ram, so there’s obviously going to be less opportunity for players and that’s something that we need to look at next year: What’s the optimum number of teams that should be playing in this, in order to give opportunities but also to have a high quality of play?”

The vision of a grand, world-renowned IPL challenger is certainly something all involved in South African cricket would like to see become reality. Irish is one such enthusiast: “We hope there will be a league. The model might not be exactly the same, but we’re hopeful.”

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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