• Sach Aggarwal

OPINION | Optimism in store for South African cricket after a dreadful 2019



South African Cricket has been through a dreadful year, both on and off the field, with multiple disasters seemingly all coming together at the same time. Retirements, financial losses, poor results, sponsors pulling out, an entire sacked coaching unit.


All of this, however, pales in comparison to the shambolic mismanagement by Cricket South Africa, leaving the national team in a state of disrepair before the Test series against England. While South African cricket has not been in great shape on the field in recent times, it is important to take a closer look at the root causes off it.


So where, when, and how did it all start? Let’s go back to July 2018, when Thabang Moroe was made permanent CEO of CSA. From day two of his reign, controversial calls were made: he announced that the Mzansi Super League, South Africa’s answer to the IPL and Big Bash, was to start later that same year and that SuperSport would be an equity partner, receiving broadcasting rights in return.


Questions were raised about the sensibility of Moroe and his board pushing for a flagship T20 event to start four months from the announcement. If this itself wasn’t enough to make them look foolish, then SuperSport announcing merely a month later that they were no longer interested in their 49% equity share certainly did.


The costs of MSL were now purely down to CSA, and to compound matters, Test match and domestic 4-day-match sponsor Sunfoil decided to withdraw their sponsorship of CSA, along with women’s cricket sponsor Momentum also pulling out. Despite Castle Lager sticking with their sponsorship, CSA were left in a very precarious financial predicament, the extent of which was not released until later.


In an effort to reduce costs, CSA announced an entire reformation of domestic cricket in April 2019, moving away from a franchise-based system and towards a 12-team provincial set-up, claiming that this would reduce projected losses over the next four years from R650 million to R350 million (approximately a reduction of £15 million). At best, it was a strange projection given that the franchise system has proven to be lucrative in other countries.


Proper reasoning for how the restructuring would lead to fewer losses was not given by CSA, and unsurprisingly, the South African Cricketer’s Association (SACA) expressed serious doubts about the financial benefits of the restructuring. Soon after, due to having been excluded from examining the financial details of CSA’s plan, SACA took CSA to court in May 2019, right before the World Cup. It was an apt reflection of the quagmire the Board were in that South Africa had arguably their poorest showing at the World Cup since readmission.


As if on cue, it soon transpired that CSA had made a loss of R200 million (approx. £10 million) in the past financial year, largely down to the botched MSLT20 launch. How deliciously ironic then that, in September, CSA exercised step-in rights to put the Western Province Cricket Association into administration and suspend the entire board over the handling of funds (an R81 million loan) for an upgrade to Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. They stated that “CSA will exercise its rights until such time that it is reasonably of the opinion that the WPCA administrative and financial affairs are being conducted according to best practice…and that the association can assure equity partners and stakeholders that projects currently underway will unfold as planned.”


The matter went to court, with the WPCA claiming CSA was acting on unreliable information and hadn’t even given them an internal hearing before putting them into administration. No prizes for guessing who won the court case. In November 2019, CSA were ordered to bear all of the costs of the ordeal, and the WPCA board was reinstated. All of this was on top of a SACA claim the month before of R2.5 million in unpaid players’ rights from CSA, dating back to the 2018 MSLT20 league. In response, CSA suspended three officials for an alleged dereliction of duty who were banned from entering the premises and were given no explanation for the failures in their roles.


Further damage was done towards the end of 2019 with a restructuring of the team’s coaching hierarchy which saw Ottis Gibson and his entire team fired after the World Cup. The new structure would be headed by a Director of Cricket, not a Head Coach, and the natural choice for the new top position would be legendary captain Graeme Smith. Except that Smith was to subsequently decline the position due to ‘frustrating’ negotiations and receiving the impression that there would be a lot of meddling and interference from above. Not a great look for an organisation when one of their most loyal and passionate servants over the past twenty years turns down a position of such precedence due to his reservations with those above him.


The nail in Moroe’s coffin came in early December when CSA, in true dictatorship style, revoked the match-day accreditations of no less than five South African cricket writers because of their critical coverage of the CSA over recent months. Unsurprisingly, this caused serious outrage and was retracted within 24 hours. Nonetheless, this lost CSA the support of its largest sponsor, Standard Bank, who wanted no association due to irreparable reputational damage, as well as SACA, the journalist association SANEF, and past CSA leadership.


If nothing else, all of this showcased CSA’s remarkable aptitude for managerial ineptitude. As with most cases of poor management, it is hard to tell how much, or after what time, the chaos behind the scenes translates to sub-par performance on the pitch. Indeed, a brief look at South Africa’s results in 2019 shows many low-lights. Losing a Test series on home soil 2-0 to Sri Lanka, a side that had won just two Tests against major sides other than South Africa since 2014, particularly rankled.


Winning the ODI series against Sri Lanka 5-0 did bring back a semblance of calm to the side, with Quinton de Kock amassing 353 runs and the bowling unit being dominant. Whatever confidence they gained from this was soon wiped out at the World Cup in England, where they registered a disappointing three wins and five losses, and were effectively out of the competition halfway through the group stages. The end of the World Cup also saw the retirements of legends Dale Steyn (696 international wickets) and Hashim Amla (18672 international runs), as well as vastly experienced players in Imran Tahir and JP Duminy.


As previously mentioned, Ottis Gibson’s entire coaching staff were axed as part of the fallout from the World Cup debacle, despite a largely successful tenure in charge – his team won 5 of 7 Test series, 6 of 7 ODI series, and 5 of 7 T20I series. The turbulence caused by this, as well as the retirement of four highly-experienced players became apparent in October, when South Africa were whitewashed in a three-Test series in India that included two innings losses. But it was also apparent in the amount of rotation in the squad, with no fewer than sixteen players being used across three Tests. For a side trying to find itself after retirements, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but paired with a new coaching setup, as well as a management crisis, it’s clear to see both the stress and the lack of organisational support the players will have felt.


How then, after all of this, did South Africa come out in Pretoria and beat England in the first Test of the series? It was a combination of many things: a new backroom team comprised of cricket veterans, a determined squad with the desire to prove themselves, the best leader in modern international cricket, a little bit of luck, but most importantly, a new winner’s attitude of being able to take anyone on.


Graeme Smith, the world record-holder for most Test wins as captain (53) took the position of interim Director of Cricket. Mark Boucher, who holds the wicket-keeping record of 555 Test dismissals was instated as Head Coach, with the experienced Jacques Kallis and Charl Langeveldt aiding as batting and bowling coaches respectively. Enoch Nkwe, who won 3 of 4 domestic trophies in his first season as Head Coach of Highveld Lions and Jozi Stars, was named as interim Team Director. Linda Zondi, who had an impeccable selection record across four years before the World Cup, was reinstated as the sole national selector due to budgetary reasons.


This new background team is comprised of proven coaches, but also boasts enough playing experience to guide the now young squad in the right direction. The disassociation from CSA does mean that funds for additional coaches and selectors are not there, yet it brings the benefit of the coaching and playing unit being able to work without meddling from outside and just focus on their cricket.


In his first press conference, Boucher identified that confidence is the most important thing that needs to be restored to the side, and that he intends to create a suitable environment for that. Captain Faf du Plessis has played a vital role in the recent past in keeping his side protected from all sorts of changes, and did a fantastic job of shielding his younger players from management chaos. Not only that, he has taken on the challenge of moving South African Cricket on from the generation of de Villiers, Amla and Steyn, another difficult task. Despite struggling for form with the bat in the last year, his presence and calmness on pitch is a shining example to the team around him.


The positive effect of the recent changes in staff and the resulting change in attitude showed in Pretoria. Despite some soft dismissals with the bat, there were shades of brilliance and aggression from Quinton de Kock in particular, scoring 95 on an unfriendly pitch. The bowling unit was back in form of old, hunting for wickets as a pack. Philander bowling five maidens for a wicket in a spell, while Rabada and Nortje bowling hostile pace at the English line-up brought back the intensity required to succeed in Test cricket.


Every wicket that fell brought more elated team celebrations, peaking with Maharaj’s wicket of Ben Stokes when the team realised that victory was near. Winning a Test match takes moments of individual brilliance, but winning at Centurion was a team effort and as du Plessis said in interview after the match, it was much needed.


Despite losing a final-day thriller in the second Test at Cape Town, South Africa showed they have the guts, the fight, and the ability to become a team to be feared across the world again. Numerous batsmen are in need of a big score to maintain this new-found confidence, and the bowlers will have to maintain their high standards, which going forward will be a big challenge given Philander’s retirement immediately after this series. However, there are firm foundations in place and a raft of highly-competent South African legends overseeing the development of the national team. It has been a tough few years for South African cricket, make no mistake, but signs are there that warrant optimism going forward.

 

Darcy Gross - often referred to as a badger and loves talking about cricket more than would reflect his ability with bat and ball. Loves Faf du Plessis, classes de Villiers' retirement as a tragedy, and wishes Kohli would stop being so good so that he could dislike him with good reason.

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