Transformation: Proteas in bloom

2016-11-11 13:00
Faf du Plessis and Kagiso Rabada (Getty)

Cape Town – Stirring recent success by the South African national cricket team is leaving the misfiring rugby Springboks lagging in their wake – and in more than just the results column.

The Proteas, eight successive victories to the good across the formats, are simultaneously shifting toward a situation where transformation requirements are rendered near-obsolete.

At very least, they are currently sending out powerful public relations signals to the world of how they believe the process is finally bearing tangible fruit, some 22 years after the advent of democracy.

Bok rugby, by contrast, still seems a quite formidably long way off hitting its own declared, possibly optimistic target of 50 percent players of colour in the team by the time the next World Cup arrives in Japan in 2019.

The situation is barely helped by under-the-cosh coach Allister Coetzee choosing a season-low, mere three players of colour this week – Tendai Mtawarira, JP Pietersen and Rudy Paige – in his starting XV for the much-hyped Test against England at Twickenham on Saturday; a percentage figure of only 20.

Much of the Proteas’ six-match winning streak against arch-rivals Australia – five one-day internationals at home, and the first Test of the present series Down Under – has been achieved with a majority of players of colour in the XI.

A few months earlier, in Guyana, South Africa beat the very same Aussies with only three white players in the side, meaning that a 72.73 percentage of previously disadvantaged players aided the effort.

The widely-acclaimed, 177-run Test victory in Perth, secured on Monday, was marked by how fulsomely players of colour contributed to it, beginning with 21-year-old pace phenomenon Kagiso Rabada who bagged the player-of-the-match mantle for his second-innings “five-for” under trying circumstances – a specialist bowler down – and match figures of seven for 170.

He has 36 wickets after only nine Tests matches at an average of 24, already including four innings hauls of five wickets or more.

Rabada had Michael Vaughan, captain of England’s Ashes-drought breaking side of 2005, in raptures over his bursts of lethal Perth reverse swing on Twitter (@MichaelVaughan): “He is as good as anyone around at the moment … great to see someone make an incredibly difficult art look so easy.” 

In short, the Johannesburg-born paceman could well be world cricket’s next really big thing -- and exactly the sort of poster figure Cricket South Africa will be quite delighted to command.

Meanwhile JP Duminy, who had slowly been regaining the sort of assuredness and confidence to match his already known talent ahead of the Test, underlined that very fact with his 141 and game-turning partnership of 250 with fellow-centurion Dean Elgar.

A bright new spinning prospect, Durban-born Keshav Maharaj, announced himself both for sound discipline and some guile, and showed a quirky audaciousness with the blade as well.

Temba Bavuma, the pint-sized batsman with a gladiator’s heart, not only continued his sound acclimatisation into a regular Test spot in the middle order, but produced a flashpoint moment in the Test that is being hailed as one of the most sublime bits of fielding of all time – his acrobatic, quick-witted run-out of David Warner.

Vernon Philander, early last year at the undeserved epicentre of a “political” selection hullabaloo before the ill-fated World Cup semi-final, has been a rejuvenated, more niggles-free all-rounder of late, also contributing in widespread respects to the Perth thumping of the Baggy Greens.

The ever more multi-cultural Proteas look a harmonious, motivated group under the acting captaincy of Faf du Plessis – that may spark an issue of a wholly different kind fairly soon, when AB de Villiers is back fit again – and well set at this stage for the near-unthinkable: a third successive away conquest of Australia in a Test series.

Nor is it as though a queue of disgruntled white cricketers – an occasional phenomenon in earlier, perhaps more fractious times for the transformation process – are clamouring restlessly to further their careers abroad, citing lack of fair opportunity at Proteas level back home.

Recently, consistent weight of performance has seen patient campaigners like hard-hitting batsman Rilee Rossouw and all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius force themselves into the Test squad as well now, after earlier chances at limited-overs level.

That said, many enthusiasts will nevertheless find it regrettable that tenacious left-hander Stiaan van Zyl, just turned 29, is to take up a three-year Kolpak contract in the county game after 12 Tests and ill-advisedly varied berths in the batting order.

“Perfection” in the complex arena of transformation may always be an elusive goal, of course, but Cricket South Africa believe they are closer to striking the correct formula and balance.

CSA president Chris Nenzani, speaking after the launch on Thursday of new book Cricket and Conquest, the first in a trilogy aimed at representing the authentic history of SA cricket (editor-in-chief Andre Odendaal), told Sport24: “We believe we are winning the battle, though there is still some way to go.

“It has been a good period for us against the Aussies, both here and there … this should be a natural progression, and we need to reach a stage where we don’t look at players; we look at the team, and view the players as nothing but that.

“Let the people of South Africa, and the fans of cricket, begin to understand what we are doing, to try to give support to the idea of making the nation proud of a team that truly represents everybody.

“That does not necessarily mean the colour, the race of a person. Ultimately you wish for a player to be selected on the basis of undisputed talent, excellence, in the context of everybody getting their chance to be looked at.

“And it is what has been (happening); things are coming right, coming along nicely. Players must be good enough to play for South Africa, period. But what transformation does is try to level the playing field, to create broader opportunities.

“We have tried to create a canvas that ensures the team is representative, but at the same time we don’t polarise society or make unnecessary divisions.”

Are the national players buying in, with recent results arguably a reflection of that?

“I would like to think so,” says Nenzani. “I read somewhere Faf being quoted as saying ‘we as a team have embraced transformation’. That is important coming from someone leading so well on the field of play.

“It is so important because it sends a unified message, right throughout the system. The management team behind the scenes are putting in lots of good work too.”

After fresh pressure on sports federations from Government, CSA set new stipulations earlier this year, requiring that the Proteas field an average minimum of 54 percent players of colour, including an average minimum of 18 percent black African players, in a season.

The “average” element of the equation is not unimportant, because it has allowed the selectors the opportunity to be crucially more flexible in choosing certain personnel for most appropriate fixtures, and also help skirt rumpuses like the Justin Ontong-Jacques Rudolph affair of 2001/02 or the much more recent Philander-Kyle Abbott matter at CWC 2015 which caused similar dressing-room upheaval on the brink of a red-letter contest.

“We think for this historical epoch, we have found a better way (to manage) the process at a national level,” Nenzani believes. “We cannot yet say conclusively it is the best one at this stage. But it creates flexibility, and does allow management to pick horses for courses at times, without constraints or restrictions. For now we think it is working.”

Asked whether unwelcome flashpoints would be likelier to be avoided from now onward, he said: “I wouldn’t want to compare different eras in the development of our game transformation-wise.

“But the point we need to agree on is that we want to take stressful situations out of the team environment and allow time and space for the team environment to be as normal as possible without necessarily constraining it, while still ensuring inclusivity. I am convinced there is a better understanding now.

“As we stand right here, if you ask someone who doesn’t know that much about transformation requirements to select our national team, that person might very well come up with exactly the same team we are putting out at present anyway.

“The team you see at the moment is there on purely cricketing grounds, the ability of players, and inclusivity, without weakening the XI in the slightest.

“We are confident that when the Minister (of Sport) makes his declaration and determination on sporting progress with regard to (transformation) next April that we will score well; that there will be good news to tell from cricket’s perspective.”

As things stand, spanners flying into the works seem pretty unlikely for cricket.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  kagiso rabada  |  cricket

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