Winning the Rugby World Cup had an odd side-effect: it got us talking about cricket again. In hushed whispers perhaps, but talking nonetheless.
We avoided the difficult conversations as long as we could but the celebratory Springbok bus left behind a bothersome question after it passed through our cities: Why not the Proteas? After all, South African rugby was coming off a couple of appalling years when Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi moved into their respective leadership positions. A betting man might even have wagered that the bat and ball would bring more cause for celebration come the 2019 holiday season.
But now that the time has arrived, there is nothing at all to celebrate. A worthless World Cup and Test tonking in India have left no doubt as to just how dire the situation is on the field. What’s even more troubling is that there isn’t anybody or anything appearing on the horizon to save us.
So, how exactly do we fix our game? It’s a question that is not easily answered — especially when the root cause is not obviously apparent.
“I think the rot is deep. For those of us who love the game, it’s a real worry,” says Ashwin Desai, author of Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid and the first stop on the search for answers. “If you look beyond the Proteas’ performances — just look at South Africa A or our Under 19 teams — it’s been horrendous. And I think that, ironically, cricket was always seen as ahead of rugby. But I think the new leadership of CSA [Cricket South Africa] has really been bean counting when it comes to transformation in the most insidious ways that will hurt the game.”
The bean counting Desai is referring to is an inquiry CSA launched after the Cape Cobras seemingly violated the transformation policy for domestic cricket. For a match in October, the franchise fielded seven black players — one more than the required number — but selected only two black Africans, one less than stipulated.
In the broader picture, it’s just one of many incidents that have accumulated, resulting in a great deal of scrutiny of CSA. The organisation has undergone much change in recent years and the constant flux shows in every inconsistent action and perpetual dilly-dallying.
“I think that [the issue is] the uncertainty that it brings to the player at the moment,” Proteas legend Allan Donald says of the sport’s struggles. “What is in store for us? Where are we heading? What plans has CSA got for us to move forward as a cricketing nation?”
“This is an extremely proud cricket nation … For me right now, I’ve really got that feeling of uncertainty — that players are uncertain. They don’t know what’s going on. Whether they’re going to be around next year … are we going to have provinces? Are we going to have franchises? We don’t know.”
Undoubtedly, the disarray in domestic cricket requires immediate redress. Confusion and mismanagement has long reigned over attempts to establish a global T20 event to rival the Indian Premier League or Australia’s Big Bash.
The disorientation has also incited a fully fledged civil war between CSA and the South African Cricketers’ Association — which represents professional cricketers — over what it claims are unfulfilled agreements relating to Mzansi Super League commercial deals. CSA has again called for a “road map”, promised in August, to be released to clarify the body’s stance on a number of issues.
At present, that seems about the best idea anybody can come up with. It’s clear that certainty and direction are rare resources — a scarcity that endangers our aspirations. One might understand why CSA would want its own T20 cash cow but this edition has also sapped rest and preparation time from the players who will be expected to perform against England in December. Be sure to spare a thought for the fast bowlers, who have hammered on continuously and failed to bowl out India even once in three Tests.
“We can’t just put our heads in the sand and say things will come right after some natural process,” Desai says. “Are CSA sensitive to managing a very different cricketing environment to even 15 years ago? Have they really had those kinds of think-tanks to say that the terrain is changing?
“And then are we taking cognisance of this changing scenario globally in cricket? It doesn’t seem to be like that,” Desai adds.