Cape Town – Seemingly favouring the clandestine over the transparent, Cricket South Africa stands increasingly, publicly accused of tripping up its own pride and joy, the Proteas, on the eve of the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.
Several different media outlets, albeit quoting unnamed camp sources thus far, are painting an expanding canvas of damaging tumult in the national team environs in the hours preceding their red-letter challenge in Auckland last Tuesday – later surrendered by the tightest of margins after perhaps the match of the tournament.
That South Africa hung in for so long at Eden Park, under the circumstances, seems a swelling tribute to their pride and professionalism in the face of badly ill-timed adversity, with all of the captain, coach and several other squad personnel apparently at the epicentre of an unnerving political curveball in the immediate lead-up.
In an event that may be found to have contained close shades of the Justin Ontong/Jacques Rudolph selection flashpoint ahead of a Test match against Australia in Sydney in the 2001/02 season – sadly neither of these talented, likeable cricketers who were friends and room-mates went on to have a consistently fruitful SA career subsequently – it appears CSA intervention forced an eleventh-hour alteration to the intended shape of the XI as the Proteas sought to qualify for a World Cup final for the first time.
The reports charge that chief executive Haroon Lorgat sent coach Russell Domingo a late-night pre-game text message insisting that an extra (fourth) player of colour be included after the Proteas had logically been keen to field the same line-up that had annihilated Sri Lanka in a quarter-final days earlier.
Domingo was allegedly told to make a choice between Kyle Abbott and Vernon Philander or between Rilee Rossouw and Farhaan Behardien to re-balance the side ... something that would have caused an impromptu, far from unstressful strategic rethink for both Domingo and captain AB de Villiers as the sold-out showdown loomed large against one of the in-form, co-hosts of the tournament.
It is further alleged that both De Villiers, later to be aptly chosen for a team of the tournament, and Philander, the hasty replacement for Abbott who had grappled fitness issues tournament-long, initially refused to play – an event that would have had repercussions of unquantifiable magnitude.
Such, then, was the supposed backdrop to the semi-final from a Proteas point of view as their opponents no doubt slept with altogether less distraction and emotion in the night preceding it, all their thoughts attuned to an already cast-in-stone game plan.
Lorgat, at least at the time of writing, continues to spiritedly deny any intervention in SA selection for the semi-final from CSA or government.
On Monday evening, earnestly pursued by veteran Cape Talk radio presenter John Maytham for a “categorical answer” on whether there had been interference on the grounds of colour, I heard him dodge the words “yes” or “no” with all the necessary skill and stubbornness of a gritty batsman seeking to evade a throat ball from Mitchell Johnson or Morne Morkel.
At the same time, I found it desperately difficult not to suspect that the old “where there’s smoke there’s fire” saying isn’t applicable to any extent in this instance. Evidence, if it warrants being called that, appears to be mounting rather strongly to the contrary.
I have had plenty of dealings with Haroon Lorgat and admit to liking and respecting him in many ways; he is a tenacious, industrious administrator and decent pre-unity first-class player with the additional task in his portfolio of grappling with a uniquely delicate, often volatile political climate and background of inequality in this country.
The CEOs of cricket’s main umbrella body down the years in South Africa, whatever it has been named in their tenures, have seldom come out tops in popularity contests, and inevitably drawn arrow-fire from all sides of the spectrum.
Who is to say that for any SMS Lorgat may or may not have sent his national coach ahead of the New Zealand clash, there wasn’t a hardball preceding one to himself from high up the South African governance tree or his own Board insisting on a certain approach?
Is it perhaps instructive that even as the coals of the selection controversy itself glow with mounting brightness, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe on Monday issued a statement advising CSA to “urgently give attention to the requirement of transformation”?
Whatever the level of pressure on that score, significant sections of the cricket public would almost certainly welcome some good, old-fashioned honesty on events directly leading up to the semi-final.
They would similarly value some answers on why, as alleged, an interfering foot was slammed onto the selection process so indecently soon before the make-or-break fixture.
If three players of colour wasn’t going to be deemed enough for the most important match of the Proteas’ campaign, how come it was deemed acceptable - as Philander battled his unfortunate, recurring hamstring woes - for a few less critical pool contests and then the quarter-final immediately ahead of it?
And if there was known disharmony from within CSA’s own ranks over the racial make-up of the team, why wasn’t that dealt with well before the heat of a World Cup semi-final?
Would it not have been more beneficial, even in the face of inevitable resistance from some circles, for them to proclaim loudly and assertively some days or weeks before it: “The team is too white ... things must change immediately.”
Popular or not, I believe that is referred to as getting your ducks in a row. Many of us, after all, support the vigorousness and necessity of the transformation drive.
If CSA did, in fact, bowl its national side a confusion-sowing, pre-semi beamer, you might say we’re all waiting expectantly for the no-ball signal.
We’d like somebody to “fess up” to what really occurred behind the scenes and why, as the clock ticked down to one of the most important cricket matches in the country’s history.
Or will that just not come, slipping instead into deepening annals of intrigue and likely, associated mistrust?
If you can shoot yourselves so emphatically in the foot ahead of the semis anthems, perhaps it isn’t even worth thinking too deeply about the bullets of another kind to follow from the Black Caps’ left-arm assassin Trent Boult and company on the field of play ...
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