It was hard not to feel a little envious during the opening game of the Ashes last weekend. Steve Smith’s ingenious pair of centuries was the mark of a player reaching his crescendo, not that of a fallen leader.
We watched Australia fall apart in front of our eyes a little more than 15 months ago — yet, here they are.
In contrast, South Africa’s own fortunes have only soured since that Newlands farce. Gradually, the issues have piled on top of each other and dragged progress to the floor. The Proteas could barely stand up to compete by the time the World Cup rolled around.
Ottis Gibson and his entire management team subsequently got the sack at the weekend. It’s a decision that comes as a shock to no one and brings to an end a coaching tenure that once promised so much but leaves behind a miserable legacy.
Also predictable was Dale Steyn’s decision to step away from Test cricket. South Africa’s most prolific bowler has largely been marginalised with injury in recent years but his confirmed exit still stings to the bone. Imran Tahir was also lost to the shorter formats after retiring at the end of the World Cup.
Now that the heads have rolled and our legends have said goodbye, we have no choice but to ask: what now for South African cricket?
The immediate answer from Cricket South Africa (CSA) is reform.
In the aftermath of Gibson’s sacking, this week the body announced plans for implementing a new top-down structure. The design is intended to increase accountability and the efficiency of day-to-day decision-making.
Gone is the coach as we know it, replaced by a “football-style” team manager. It will be that person’s responsibility to pick the coaches and the captain and all the team staff will report to them. The manager will then be answerable to the director of cricket (a position filled temporarily by Corrie van Zyl).
“This change will herald an exciting new era for SA cricket and will bring us into line with best practice in professional sport,” CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe boldly claimed.
This is all well and good but, of course, the new position is vacant. With a tour of India starting in mid-September, one would think that should ideally change soon. Former England coach Peter Moores and Mark Boucher are two of the names that have been bandied about.
Whoever is appointed will immediately get stuck into answering the numerous questions which hang over the squad.
It’s likely Faf du Plessis has survived the cull and will remain on as Test captain, but for how much longer? At 35, he’s in the twilight of his career and he’s openly said that he might be tempted into walking away from the national team to get a few more lucrative years out of his body. Van Zyl delivered a few murmurings on a new white-ball strategy going forward and implied that Du Plessis would not be leading it.
Hashim Amla could likely also give up international ODIs as he diverts his last energies to the longer game. JP Duminy, meanwhile, is now unavailable in all formats.
All signs point to Aiden Markram stepping into a leadership position sooner rather than later. The 24-year-old has undoubtedly been primed to one day take over as captain but some sketchy form has left his would-be authority in doubt. He had himself expressed surprise over his selection for the World Cup and will be under pressure to prove his worth over the next year.
The Proteas’ failed excursion in England painfully highlighted the dearth of batting options. Du Plessis aside, Rassie van der Dussen, with an average of 60 was arguably the only player who put up respectable figures. At 30, however, he’s hardly a fresh, new find and he doesn’t fill any gaps in the Test squad anyway.
At the other end, the bowlers are in better nick but are far from carefree. What seemed like a formidable unit less than a year ago has now been brought down a notch by the retirement of Steyn, the defection of Duanne Olivier and the injury woes of Lungi Ngidi. Consider that Vernon Philander is also now 33 and the options that the team had at the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan seem a distant memory.
All this means that “what next” questions are becoming increasingly difficult to answer and all of us outside CSA should be grateful it’s not our responsibility to do so. But what should be apparent to everyone is drawing from the same old pool of experience is simply untenable. The Proteas kick off the start of a new era on September 15 in India. Who has a seat on that plane will set the tone for how it plays out.