Cape Town - A growing, multi-pronged sense of collective unease envelopes South African cricket.
The stumbling of the national Test team from its long-time perch atop the global standings probably set the ball rolling, unconvincing and notably poorly-attended domestic matches for much of the summer have thickened the cloud and then the Gulam Bodi match-fixing affair provided an untimely extra element of despondency more recently.
Disciplinary issues have bubbled, too ... we learnt rather belatedly of Proteas left-arm spinner Aaron Phangiso’s drunken indiscretions in international transit, and then a Sunday newspaper reported that the reason behind Dolphins stalwart Robbie Frylinck’s (initially mystery) suspension was his post-game punching of provincial team-mate Ayavuya Myoli.
Then two results over the past weekend, at venues thousands of kilometres apart, transmitted shockwaves strongly suggesting a deepening pattern of turmoil.
South Africa’s U19 side, the 2014 champions, were humiliated by rank minnows and desert neighbours Namibia – many “towns” in that sparsely-populated country won’t even have the luxury of a cricket pitch, never mind ground -- at the ICC World Cup in Bangladesh, coming hot on the heels of their opening-game loss to the host nation.
The junior Proteas will now be demoted to the indignity of the plate event, and know that the highest they can finish from here is ninth overall.
Their current suffering perhaps only bears out - like it or not - what at least one fairly heavyweight former international player, Dave Callaghan, has been lamenting since they were whipped 5-2 by the less-than-superpower Bangladeshis on SA soil in a youth ODI series a few months ago.
The 29-cap ODI player, famous for a lightning 169 not out against New Zealand in the Mandela Trophy at Centurion in 1994, wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday: “The warning signs and my concerns were voiced in September, but I was asked how I could judge SA cricket on one U19 series against Bangladesh in SA!
“Well, we have just been beaten by England in the Test series, (had) the match-fixing episode, a poor domestic series, and now the U19s could be on their (way) home early. Cricket is in a bad space at the moment ... get cricket people to run cricket.”
His inference, clearly, was that excellence is being sacrificed at the altar of political correctness or dubious politburo agendas.
Meanwhile back home on Saturday, in a baking Kimberley, the South Africa ‘A’ team experienced their second successive walloping of the season at the hands of the English tourists, this time in a 50-overs clash preceding the five-match ODI series between the countries starting on Wednesday.
Domestic enthusiasts might reasonably have expected our supposed “next best” to improve significantly on their earlier pasting at first-class level in December, just ahead of the Test series.
It is unusual for SA ‘A’ to fare so glaringly poorly against a visiting England side in both multi-day and one-day formats on a single tour – the three-dayer in Pietermaritzburg was surrendered by an innings and 91 runs, giving the opposition a tidy lift ahead of the Boxing Day Test in Durban, and now the English limited-overs personnel will be feeling pretty good about life as well.
Dean Elgar’s SA ‘A’ were swatted off by 163 runs at the De Beers Diamond Oval, again doing very little to suggest that South Africa’s immediate reserve/emerging cupboard is suitably well-stocked.
South African spectators with reasonably good memories will recall an altogether different post-isolation instance, in the 1995/96 season, when Mike Atherton’s England side of the time received no mercy from either the SA national side – who beat them in both the Test and ODI series – or even the SA ‘A’ combination of the time.
On that tour, South Africa’s effective second XI comprehensively beat England by six wickets in a first-class fixture coincidentally also staged at Kimberley, including a century by Adam Bacher and 4/65 and 5/116 from fresh-faced “frog in a blender” spin sensation Paul Adams.
It wasn’t the most representative side ever put out on our shores, featuring just two players of colour in Adams and Roger Telemachus, but did include several men who had already cut their teeth patiently and industriously in strong domestic cricket, like John Commins, Lance Klusener, Steven Jack, Nicky Boje and Steve Palframan.
What’s more, when England were thrashed in three days in the final Test match at Newlands over New Year that season, it was hastily agreed to stage a one-dayer between the tourists and host province WP on what would have been day five.
Anyone remember Faiek Davids (55 not out) and Paul Kirsten (32 not out) - neither player even guaranteed routine spots at then-Castle Cup level the time - partnering in a match-winning eighth-wicket alliance of 68 to ensure a cheeky three-wicket win by Province?
Considering how effortlessly the current England side have subdued SA ‘A’ on two occasions, you can only wince when you try to imagine certain of the South African franchises trying their luck against them; they’d probably be sliced and diced quite mercilessly.
I sense a palpable tension and some disillusionment within the broad South African cricketing landscape, much of it inevitably centred around the greatly cranked-up demands of transformation in 2015/16.
Franchise teams operate in an unnatural minefield, where a minimum of six players of colour have to be fielded in XIs and three of those have to be black African.
There must be some slightly traumatic, impromptu mathematics at times from coaches, especially on days when a particular player earmarked for a specialist role may go down injured or ill in the immediate lead-up and a desperate shuffle is required to get the demographic balance right – before they can even have the “luxury” of thinking about the pitch and overhead conditions and how to assemble the team suitably on that more orthodox basis.
At present too many players are indelicately lumped into teams primarily to meet targets, not yet up to required standards and thus not entrusted with proper responsibility by sometimes reluctant captains; it is tempting to cynically brand it the “specialist batsman at No 8” or “seventh bowling option” syndrome in terms of the undignified outfield idleness some players encounter.
It cannot be constructive for all parties, nor greater squad morale.
How many teams end up being the best possible regional units on paper, and the most suitable for the prevailing match-day conditions? I suspect the answer is “not many” ... and standards will be suffering quite markedly as a result.
Transformation is a must-do exercise; I unreservedly support it.
But methods and policies must be monitored and critiqued all the time, and I am far from convinced the present model is benefiting the greater cricketing cause in South Africa.
Right now I feel we are stunting our franchise players’ growth - regardless of their varying backgrounds - because of frailties in the superstructures of the teams they represent, and in some cases the impediment of inexperienced coaching and selection as well.
It creates a spiral dragging down the entire system.
And who really sees any value in that?
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