Dark clouds of different shapes hover over Proteas and England

Levels of optimism about the current and future prospects of the Proteas are rising fast. Now, after an unexpected but remarkable home series victory over India, a creditable away draw to the Black Caps and a home demolition of Bangladesh, talk of reaching the next, and second, edition of the World Test Championship final is justified.  

At the half-way mark of the 2021-23 schedule of matches, South Africa is in second place behind a rampant Australia, who they will play in Australia at the end of this year. 

In the meantime, a tour of England beckons. Both England and South Africa have significant gaps in their top leadership. 

Now that Graeme Smith’s obscenely lucrative contract as South Africa’s director of cricket is over, there is an important gap to be filled and the process is underway. 

Meanwhile, a dark cloud sits over the head of Proteas’ coach Mark Boucher following allegations of racism from earlier in his playing career. Disciplinary proceedings are pending, with an uncertain outcome. 

But the ostensible similarity is superficial. South Africa’s situation is awkward and challenging, but a necessary part of the reform and rebuild programme that commenced last year with the appointment of a new board of directors under a new governance system. Last month Cricket South Africa (CSA) confirmed the appointment of a permanent chief executive, Pholetsi Moseki. 

The cavities in England’s leadership structure resemble a cheap supermarket Emmentaler cheese: more hole than cheese. 

For 48 hours after Joe Root’s Good Friday announcement that he had decided to step down as Test captain, there was no chairperson of the English Cricket Board, no director of cricket, no coach and, now, no captain — surely an unprecedented situation for any major Test-playing cricket nation. 

The timing of Root’s decision broke with established tradition. Usually, English cricket captains resign during or immediately after a home series against the Proteas — Nasser Hussain after the first test in the 2003 series; Andrew Strauss after the 2012 two-nil defeat at the hands of Graeme Smith’s side. 

But after a calamitous Ashes and an unconvincing start to the “red-ball reset” in the Caribbean that ended with a meek defeat in the series decider in Grenada, Root faced up to the inevitable. 

By the end of the Easter weekend, England had at least filled one of the four vacancies in its leadership ranks with the announcement that former England opening bat (15 Tests between 2002 and 2005 with 771 runs at an average of 31) Rob Key is to be the new director of cricket. 

The answer to the question of whether the appointment of the intelligent and affable Kentish-man on Easter Sunday will launch English cricket’s own resurrection will probably hinge on the big calls that Key will have to make almost immediately. 

Should caretaker coach Paul Collingwood be given the job on a permanent basis? Should there be two coaches — one for the red-ball team and one for white-ball cricket, which would seem to be the current trend? 

Should a caretaker be found for the captaincy position — Stuart Broad, perhaps — or would it be better to identify the right long-term candidate? Since there is only one other player besides Root that can be regarded as a certain pick in the current England Test side, Ben Stokes, will Key do the obvious thing and convince Stokes that he’s the man for the job. 

That in itself requires a delicate exercise of judgment. Stokes is a somewhat volatile character, and took himself off for several months last year to address some mental health issues. 

Being an England captain is not for the faint-hearted; the English media take no prisoners

In marked contrast to this sea of uncertainty, the Proteas suddenly appear like a composed and solid outfit, led by a composed and solid captain. 

Dean Elgar does not strike one as an especially charismatic or inspirational figure. But he leads by example as a courageous opening batter who makes the most of the dosage of talent that was dispensed to him, does not overcomplicate his tactical choices and, most importantly, appears to have united his team behind him (just as Temba Bavuma has done with the white-ball side). 

As in 2012, South Africa will be playing two of the three test series in late summer, when the wickets offer less of an advantage to traditional English seamers such as Chris Woakes or Ollie Robinson, who prefer the green mambas of spring and early summer. 

Unless England can get their two quickest bowlers — Mark Wood and Jofra Archer — fit and in form and in the team together, the Proteas still-brittle batting unit should make enough runs for Kesh Maharaj (rejuvenated by his 16 wickets at an average of 12 runs a piece in the recent Bangladesh series) and Simon Harmer (13 at 15), restored to the Proteas following a six-year stint as a Kolpack player with Essex, to make hay while the sun shines. 

The prospect of Maharaj and Harmer bowling in tandem as the shadows lengthen at the Oval in September for the third and final test of the series will excite Proteas’ fans as much as it will probably give Key even more pause for thought as he decides who will be the coach and the captain the home side.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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