Cape Town – Off-season ... what off-season?
This should be turning into a “quiet” time for Cricket South Africa and the game generally in this country, but instead events of the past few days and weeks have changed all that, thrusting the umbrella body back into a late autumnal spotlight even as the leaves fall.
First hot potato was the hullabaloo around a last-ditch change to the Proteas line-up for their red-letter World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, with a questionably fit Vernon Philander being hastily re-installed at the expense of Kyle Abbott from the side which had thrashed Sri Lanka in the quarters.
Despite fierce denials from CSA of any “political” interference, the team’s occasional freelance motivational guru Mike Horn has now confirmed that a hasty switch was indeed made, forcing him into a fresh gee-up drive among some disgruntled troops irked by the distraction ahead of such a key fixture.
The incident came hot on the heels of new domestic transformation stipulations announced by CSA, requiring at least six players of colour – three of them black African -- to feature in teams across all major competitions from next season.
Other important developments surrounding the national side of late have included Allan Donald’s resignation as bowling coach and reports suggesting Andrew Hudson, long-time convenor of the national selectors, may be elbowed out soon as part of a more aggressive transformation drive.
Here’s my assessment of a few vexing matters ...
1 Restoration of credibility, harmony
Secrecy tends to do little good: it can poison the atmosphere. Who knows what sort of fallout exists, either in the corridors of power or within the senior personnel ranks of the national team, over the CWC semi-final selection furore and the attached, vigorous protests and denials?
It seems various figures who might have shed public light were determinedly muzzled ... but then came the revelations of Mike Horn. A man unburdened by full-time terms with CSA and with his own form of alternative legend well-established in the adventuring world, why, frankly, would he lie?
On that basis, we now know there was eleventh-hour tinkering to the settled mix ... and that it went down like a lead balloon in at least some very influential portions of the dressing room.
Damage has been done and lies, it strongly seems, spread.
Can’t CSA just come clean to cricket lovers over the debates that clearly raged at Board level? It would help clear the air, even it is simply a robust (and many would say virtuous and quite justified) defence of transformation and final confirmation that three players of colour in the national side is not deemed sufficient.
It is one of those worst-kept secrets that the “target” currently is four, even if there is occasional allowance for flexibility in the country’s showcase side.
Just make it official, for goodness’ sake, and let’s move on, free of the often crisis-causing fog ...
2 Domestic-level transformation
Personally, I always expected CSA to deepen its “normalisation” requirements for the franchises in 2015/16.
As much as anything else, an increasingly more challenging economic climate leaves it little choice but to more actively seduce constituencies – whether it be on the playing field or at the stadium gates -- where growth potential is highest in this country. (In other words, the black market, so much of it not nearly yet properly tapped into by cricket.)
Don’t under-estimate the pressure the organisation comes under from government, either -- regardless of the various views on “quotas” within CSA’s administrative brains trust itself.
But the complex process also needs to be handled with due delicacy, so that a shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot syndrome doesn’t take root.
Latest insistence that the franchise teams feature a new minimum of three black African players, for instance, appears to have caught certain extensions of CSA – like the SA Cricketers Association, central to the contracting process – a bit by surprise.
Will the teams really be able to confidently feature at this point this fast-expanded tally of black cricketers without compromising on the priceless area of tournament quality?
There will be just a suspicion that the retirements in quick succession of such steely, vastly experienced characters as Neil McKenzie and Jacques Rudolph (the latter presses on for Glamorgan), were partly influenced by changing times, and they rob many younger cricketers, regardless of background, of the chance to feed off their abundant wisdom in the field of combat.
It is hard enough determining a match-day team by inspecting the pitch and weather: in South Africa, our first-class teams must also ensure henceforth there are six players of colour, and three of them black, all vim and vigour beforehand – let’s hope nobody pulls hammies in warm-ups -- and then somehow “balance” the XI from there.
We live in a unique society with unique demands and objectives, though at the end of the day the universal ideal for cricket-watching devotees is always a team picked by orthodox selectors, more than one rubber-stamped by humourless commissars.
This issue is going to stay essentially fluid, and hopefully with the coolest and most sensible of heads to the fore: there are no immediate, hard and fast solutions in the South African landscape.
3 National selection convenor
If Hudson does, in fact, end up quitting or being sidelined shortly, it is a cold statistical fact that the four-strong panel will simultaneously be stripped of its one member with real international gravitas (35 Tests, 89 ODIs).
Of the remainder – Shafiek Abrahams, Hussein Manack and Linda Zondi – only Abrahams (lone ODI cap against New Zealand at Newlands in 2000) has played at the very highest level.
If Hudson disappears, I believe it essential that CSA recognise the need to compensate in the form of a similarly decorated player internationally ... whether it is actually as convenor or simply rank-and-filer.
It takes Test cricketers, surely, to best recognise aspirant ones?
England, for instance, have Angus Fraser (88 caps across the international formats) among their panel, whilst Australia have boasted an assortment of Baggy Greens heavyweights in the likes of Rod Marsh, Mark Waugh and Andy Bichel.
CSA mustn’t go too noticeably “green” in assembling its wise men for the task -- perhaps for the sake of ticking a further transformation box -- because the Proteas remain the key pride-and-joy driver for our cricket as a whole, and prudent selection needs to go parallel with that desire for consistent excellence.
It was heartening, on that theme, to learn that Ashwell Prince, that gnarly, strong-willed former Proteas batsman still plying his trade for Lancashire at age 37, is being sounded out as a possible recruit. (Recently, Prince has also blossomed into a straight-talking occasional TV critic for SuperSport.)
That would be important for ensuring ongoing public and media confidence in the panel, even if that is not to imply, as some jaundiced wags might, any of the incumbents are unworthy of their statuses.
You do not have to have played internationally to be an astute selector; it just helps a fair bit ...
4 National bowling coach
The trouble with a climate of relative mystery and intrigue, as arguably envelops CSA at present, is that cynics start suspecting conspiracy at every turn.
And so, with the resignation of Donald this week, has come the near-inevitable suggestion – expressed in this instance by the opinionated Fanie de Villiers, once his SA strike partner – that White Lightning may have been influenced in his decision by Abbott-gate.
I count myself among those, rightly or wrongly, believing more that Donald simply felt he’d had a good knock – er, for want of a better word -- for four years and felt it was right to move on after a major tournament and thus facilitate some fresh ideas.
It is common knowledge that for a long time Donald has wrestled vexing family-related issues not helped by the globe-trotting nature of the 48-year-old’s role.
If Charl Langeveldt, who provided extra input to the pace-bowling mentoring at the CWC, gets the job it may prove a decent choice.
He used to specialise in his marathon playing days, after all, in the critical department of death bowling – the area where the Proteas probably botched that semi, ultimately, after a determined claw-back – so perhaps he may even be more successful than “AD” at identifying and then aiding willing candidates for that task consistently.
The proof of the pudding would be in the eating, of course, but my message to conservatives here would be: don’t automatically assume that if they appoint Charl Kenneth Langeveldt it is due to his fulfilling any “quota” goals.
Sometimes we could cut good guys a bit of slack, recognising them simply for exactly that: good guys.
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