Cape Town – I spent the Easter long weekend agreeably and unusually wifi-less on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River in the Southern Cape, not quite even in Vermaaklikheid.
I say “not even in Vermaaklikheid” because there will be those entitled to ask: “Where the blazes is Vermaaklikheid anyway?”
But it is a tranquil, beautiful part of the world, and I emerged into a morsel of civilisation just once to raise my smartphone skyward atop a hill and peruse a newsy tweet saying something like: “Sri Lanka loss to England dumps SA out of ICC World Twenty20.”
It wasn’t hard to swiftly put two and two together: clearly West Indies had beaten the Proteas, leaving them only a remaining dead-rubber obligation against the ‘Lankans.
I stuffed the phone in my pocket and duly nosed the bakkie back down the hill into the panel-scratching fynbos, disappointed if only because I had believed – and written as much -- with some conviction ahead of the WT20 that South Africa’s squad in that format of the game was the one with best potential for current major glory of the three.
But I bumped down the steep slope far more enveloped with a strange, been-there-done-that sense of emotionless resignation in my mind … “ah well, out of our inevitable misery at a global tournament again”.
Let’s face it, it represented the 18th occasion in succession since triumph in the inaugural Champions Trophy back in Dhaka ’98 that the country has fallen short of trophy success in world limited-overs events (now six WT20s, five World Cups, seven Champions Trophies).
Against that backdrop I find myself, albeit rather reluctantly, concurring with Cricket South Africa CEO Haroon Lorgat that swift, kneejerk change in either management or personnel doesn’t necessarily represent the correct course of action.
Stop and think about it: South African teams with better players, and more experienced and proven coaching groups, have fallen no less painfully – and occasionally harder -- at jamborees like this one over very nearly two decades.
That said, Lorgat has promised an extensive early-winter review of the WT20 under-performance and deflating season as a whole, which included consecutive Test series defeats against India (away) and England (home): you have to imagine that this year’s CSA Awards, an increasingly high-budget and celebrity razzmatazz affair, may be a conspicuously more sombre, less tub-thumping occasion than usual.
There was no surprise in his public pronouncement and yes, some coaches and players in the national set-up are indeed under deepening, perfectly rightful scrutiny.
Still, let’s not fall into the trap of getting too obsessed with judging everything in the context of the obviously sub-standard WT20 effort by the Proteas.
It stays a slightly pot-luck tournament of less gravitas than some realise – it is not a “World Cup” of any proper stature, by my book – and has come around too often since its inauguration (every two years, and sometimes not even quite that) to be anything other than an opportunistic cash cow.
Thank goodness the next one will only take place in Australia in 2020, representing a more orthodox four-year cycle for a team sporting event featuring all major powers.
Am I the only one to harbour unavoidably deep-rooted fears, too, about levels of morality in the broad and bloated T20 landscape, given how often reports or rumours of match-fixing emerge planet-wide surrounding it?
Let’s just say, for example, that when Afghanistan, er, upset already semis-assured West Indies at the tail-end of WT20 group play, I simply couldn’t help my first reaction quite decidedly NOT being “wow … wasn’t that phenomenal?”
In that context, it is fairly heartening that the next 12 months or so will see the Proteas generally feature in well less T20 activity than the other two arenas.
Looming is a healthy enough dose of home and away Test combat to give South Africa a stab at recapture of the No 1 mantle, whilst the men in green will also play sufficient strength-versus-strength ODI fare to help them build toward the 2017 Champions Trophy in England.
Although I will feel more profoundly at ease when I see confirmation of the supposedly four-Test trip to Australia early next summer – the lack of itinerary yet seems strange, or is that just me? – CSA have done reasonably well, it seems, to avoid being too marginalised in quality fixture terms by the commercial-clout “big three” of India, England and Australia.
Nevertheless, I predict a significantly more problematic high summer for the CSA coffers in 2016/17 than last, when England and their big, cash-flush Barmy Army of supporters contributed in no small measure to timely, swollen gate receipts.
Next season, if you take away the not ideal two-Test visit by New Zealand in August (when they may have to paint some dry, straw-like upcountry outfields again to give them an acceptably green appearance), the so-so Sri Lankans, now minus batting legends Messrs Sangakkara and Jayawardene and feeling it, are the primetime guests and “full house” signs countrywide may only gather cobwebs the great majority of the time.
That fear comes atop the unmistakable fact that, in the present season, attendances in all three forms of top-tier franchise cricket in South Africa have seldom been short of abject.
That hallmark even applied to the supposedly populist Ram Slam T20 Challenge, which has clearly fallen dangerously far behind the corresponding tournaments in India, Australia and the Caribbean, at least, for a key international-type flavour and entertainment appeal.
Maybe we should take some comfort from the fact that next summer the competition will be wisely slotted into a period when leading Proteas will – or at least may? – be available to vitally beef up their franchises.
The Ram Slam T20 also happened to be the event later tarnished by slow-drip revelations of likely individual player corruption. (Tighten your seatbelts, because there’s a fair chance further biggish names will be linked to such impropriety and only harm that specific brand further, even as “investigations continue”.)
My fear is that we’ve been told relatively little and that there may be considerably more to know.
Is it any surprise that interest in the domestic game is quite feasibly at an all-time low?
Never mind game-manipulating skulduggery, but standards also appear to have wilted all too acutely and painfully.
It has become too noticeably a premature playground for callow kids, far too many of them struggling just to tread water, as it were, at that level, whatever their flickering signs of raw talent in some cases.
Transformation is a thoroughly laudable and necessary objective, but in current complexity of implementation has only created what I am deeply tempted to label a soulless, development-geared equivalent of the former Vodacom Cup in rugby, which at least had a higher-level Currie Cup ahead of it for strength and superior competitive legitimacy.
I am perfectly content, at times, to watch certain young prospects strut their stuff in televised franchise competitions, but always somehow thinking to myself “this is fine, now where’s the real-deal stuff?”
Which, well, doesn’t seem to exist anymore … you just get a scary sense that franchise teams were considerably stronger and more balanced, say, five or 10 years ago and more certainly before that.
Teams are too artificially structured and continue, counter-productively, to carry barely-empowered passengers, who are there largely because it is prescribed they be there in a policy that, I fret, may ultimately benefit nobody and dangerously drag down the overall cricket product.
This season too many of the established, streetwise players whom greener customers desperately need to share slip duty with in combat, have been pushed to the fringes or out of squads altogether.
Nine times out of 10, this has been to oblige tricky quota demands, with their associated risk, a bit bizarrely, even to elbow out certain multi-decorated players of colour at times.
Keeping domestic cricket healthy and competitive is an increasingly challenging task worldwide, it is true, but South Africa’s “special needs” make that quest even more unenviable.
I fear chickens coming home to roost in the next few years as the steady depletion of no-nonsense Princes, Van Wyks, Kemps, Petersons and McKenzies from first-class duty only accelerates the weakening of the franchise scene and, by extension, lessens the likelihood of properly-prepared players feeding into the national side.
For the moment, the Proteas themselves should remain consistently enough “thereabouts” in all three formats, given that they ought to be able to squeeze more juice out of their established juggernaut surnames before a fresh wave of retirements – a la Smith, Boucher, Kallis and company of a couple of years back – kicks in.
They are also fortunate that genuinely outstanding black African cricketers like Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma made fulsome arrival statements in 2015/16.
This pair will boost the cause immeasurably for a variety of reasons in the years to come, provided they are not crudely over-exposed or misused because of the sheer “political” usefulness they bring along to the party, allied to their wholly merit-based (glory be!) skills.
Not unrelated to that topic, I believe burnout is going to be a major, ever-expanding threat to several Proteas players, who understandably will wish to do everything they can to maximise earnings in non-rands currencies before they shift off into the sunset.
Think our still “gun” stroke-player and public drawcard AB de Villiers, just for instance: having already completed two taxing visits to India this season (for the bilateral series and then WT20) he is about to embark on the seven-week Subcontinent slogathon that is IPL 2016.
Should his Royal Challengers Bangalore outfit go all the way to the May 29 final, that is only about a week before the Proteas swing back into action after their recess in an ODI tri-series in the West Indies, also featuring Australia.
The national side’s bosses are certainly going to have to box much more smartly, determinedly and precisely for the rest of this year in managing the mental and physical workload of De Villiers, whilst the same applies to someone like Rabada; the last thing you want to see is this sublime young pace prospect morph into some unsubtle, plodding tread-miller.
As things stand you almost wish he was Australian or English, if only because you have to suspect he would have been “rotated” more prudently, for longer-term benefit, in the past season had he worn either of their particular colours.
Early homecoming from the latest WT20? Eish, that’s one of the lesser of my SA cricketing worries for the foreseeable future, actually.
The weight of the other bubbling issues, unless very astutely and well-meaningly monitored and constantly, transparently assessed, might even drive me back to the remote sanctuary of Vermaaklikheid …
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