The question of what the future holds for South African cricket is as murky as it ever was. And we won’t get any answers next week or, indeed, the week after that.
Our destiny has largely become independent of what we will see on the pitch during that time — even if a display of guts has finally returned to the crease. For there appear to be a little more than a few stitches holding those guts in place.
Cricket SA (CSA) has adopted an unmistakably short-term approach. On one hand, it’s understandable. The sport ended 2019 in an utter mess, both on and off the field —the boardroom was under siege from the public, while the Proteas lost all illusions of competency by October. There would be no time for dreamy visions or drawn-out projects.
From a performance perspective, that entailed slotting former national team captain Graeme Smith into the newly created director of cricket position. It was an appointment that was largely hailed in the cricketing fraternity: the proven winner returning to steer us clear of a shipwreck.
In its infancy, this narrative is holding water. South Africa can once again be referred to as “gutsy”. The Centurion win against England was full value, and a draw could have easily have been the result on a different day at Newlands. What if captain Faf du Plessis had not given his wicket away so cheaply? Or if Ben Stokes were a shade less good and unable to break the stubbornness of Vernon Philander and Dwaine Pretorius in the Cape sun? Then things would be looking supremely rosy heading into the third Test in Port Elizabeth.
Yet the full story would remain untold. Some analysts and fans are still regarding Smith with scepticism, for the same reasons they did so ahead of his appointment.
In November, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian, sociology professor and cricket author Ashwin Desai, for example, had no interest in masking his disdain for what were at the time strong rumours about Smith’s impending appointment.
“It would be an absolute disaster,” Desai said. “I think it just reinforces the sort of old network that existed. Even he himself didn’t show the kind of leadership that was required when, you know, he was quite happy to saunter off to Dublin or Ireland after a series rather than coming home and facing the cameras. And I have no sense of what he’s going to bring to the party … what’s new? What adventure? What innovation?”
It’s hard to deny that Desai hasn’t already been proven right to a certain extent. Smith has unashamedly brought in old teammates that he knows and trusts. Mark Boucher, most significantly, stepped in as head coach, bringing an end to Enoch Nkwe’s extended stay in limbo (he was named as assistant). All-rounder legend Jacques Kallis, meanwhile, was named batting consultant for the rest of the summer. In short: the boys are back in town.
Your feelings about that reunion likely depend on your own disposition but objectively the trio’s opening month doesn’t reveal much about where we’ll end up down the line. Only Boucher’s contract is fulltime and the immediate goal is to stop the rot of 2019 infiltrating the new year.
This has been a good series for Test debutants Pretorius, Rassie van der Dussen and Pieter Malan. The catch is that each turned out for the first time at 30 years old. And as heartening as it is to see a player like Malan getting a go after playing 149 first-class games, by definition their long-term participation has its limits.
Even more concerning is where we sit on the progress of transformation. The last two line-ups have fallen short of CSA’s goal of fielding an average of six black players a game, with two of them being black African. Only four non-white players have been selected against England, with only Kagiso Rabada fulfilling the latter criterion.
Granted, Temba Bavuma —one of the obvious names in contention—and his batting average of 19 last year do not make him an easy inclusion. Still, a permanent change to the dynamics of the team appears to be an ideal lost in the horizon.
“We don’t see colour and I think it is important that people understand that opportunity is very important —opportunity for everyone,” Du Plessis said when asked about the topic. “Temba will be the first guy to acknowledge he got a very good opportunity. It’s important we keep producing very good cricketers. We need to win Test matches; we need to raise the level of performance for all of us.”
That performance may well turn out to be a good one as we head into the next two Tests.But this seems tobe not so much a corner turned as a return to the past— a past we’re not escaping anytime soon.