Cape Town – South Africa’s latest match-fixing scandal, with former Proteas player Gulam Bodi allegedly a central figure, comes at an inopportune moment for embattled Cricket South Africa.
Even before the revelations of likely impropriety during the recent Ram Slam T20 Challenge, the most populist of the three major franchise competitions struggled quite lamentably at times to put bums on seats countrywide this season.
It clearly needs a major rethink for next summer, particularly given the painful way it has been eclipsed in both spectator interest and quality and intensity of play by the ongoing Australian equivalent, the Big Bash League.
The eight-team, city-branded Aussie competition continues to only swell from an attendance point of view, including an enviable record gate of 80,000-plus for a Melbourne derby between the Renegades and Stars at the MCG on January 2 (several SA franchise bosses and bean-counters would only have been able to dream of even the occasional, elusive 8,000 figure).
Admittedly the ailing fortunes of the rand do nothing to aid meaningful recruitment of top-notch names from around the globe -- in the manner the BBL is still well able to do -- to enhance the South African competition.
But now CSA franchise cricket has been dealt a serious additional blow to its credibility by Bodi-gate, if you like, and the suggestion that various other internationally-capped players and domestic staple faces will be drawn into anticipated exposure of tawdry practices.
There has been no suggestion in the present scandal – not yet, anyway – that alleged fixing activities have stretched to beyond the traditionally most-ripe-for-corruption T20 landscape. (Critically, the SA T20 competition is televised in India.)
But the damaging publicity surrounding the already-completed Ram Slam T20 Challenge will hardly benefit public interest in what is left in late January and February, for example, of the Momentum One Day Cup second limited-overs competition.
People are hard-pressed enough in the prevailing economic climate to spend their shrinking available cash on a family outing to cricket, for instance ... and any suggestion that the legitimacy of the contest they’ve chosen to attend is prone to doubt will only serve to sway them against going.
As with many previous instances of fixing, it is quite possible that irregularity may “only” be found to involve such activities as individual batsmen or bowlers performing or underperforming to order at specific junctures of a match, or doing unorthodox once-off things like send down a particularly eccentric wide. In other words, no widespread arrangement to actually “fiddle” the overall result.
But cricket-watchers also aren’t stupid, and increasingly likely to question the sense in taking the format seriously if twisted, complex sub-plots are taking place within the parameters of a supposed contest.
Who knows quite how packed a can of worms will be opened over the next few weeks and months in a country still weary and dispirited by the lingering residue of the tumultuous, globally-splashed Hansie Cronje affair?
Speaking of franchise cricket’s legitimacy, it is to your domestic fold that you inevitably wish to turn a hopeful eye for refreshment purposes when your country’s Test team is suddenly ailing after a protracted era of success, and new faces from one tier down become – or at least should become – attractive commodities.
I am always a little cautious in taking on board the sometimes over-emotional views of ex-players, but when one of the legendary stature of Barry Richards is quoted as bluntly describing the present franchise environment as “club cricket with another name”, it echoes the views of many knowledgeable, well-meaning observers.
If what Richards suggests is even partly true, then the Sunfoil Series is hardly on the verge of ensuring boom-time in the delivery of compelling Test candidates from the first-class scene, is it?
The competition is already hamstrung – as much as it pains me to say it, it seems it is that – by the complicated demands of a cranked-up transformation drive this season, however noble the long-term quest to make our game an entity properly appealing to all constituencies.
There are only six teams, which naturally narrows your first-class pool at the best of times, but the 2015/16 requirement that all sides feature six players of colour and that three of them must be black African only makes match-day selection a hazardous affair of previously unprecedented proportions.
It is difficult enough for coaches and captains the world over to finalise their XIs on the opening morning of a multi-day game, given thoughts of the pitch and atmospheric conditions; goodness knows how daunting it must be in the Sunfoil Series to have to get demographic ducks in a row at the same time and still somehow sport a suitably balanced combo for the task at hand.
What has been happening this season – of course you may hear some angry denials from the politically correct club -- is that even some proven, experienced players of colour are being sidelined because of the rigid team compositional needs.
The franchises simply cannot be described as being consistently at best possible strength, and ill-equipped “passengers” still abound.
Too many callow rookies are only strutting their stuff against other callow rookies, giving them a deceptive view, no doubt, of their suitability up the line to the merciless rigours of international cricket.
Meanwhile the pricelessly gnarly sort of players they should be rubbing shoulders or locking horns with, are instead left on the sidelines, unable to contribute activity and positively to their development -- a vicious circle is being created.
The Bodi business runs the risk of becoming the cherry on top of an already iffy confection.
It is almost impossible, too, not to suspect that weak competition breeds a greater likelihood of jiggery-pokery.
Whilst I fervently hope my bearish sentiment is proved wide of the mark, I sense a deepening decay in our game, and that’s no good for anyone.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing