RUNS FOR THEIR MONEY
SA20’s smashing season starkly illustrates the peaks and troughs of South African cricket
Hurdles facing SA cricket could not have played out more starkly than they did this week.
The 2024 SA20, the shiny new toy on the South African cricketing landscape, has reached its final weekend against the backdrop of another roaringly successful campaign.
In its mission statement, the SA20 aimed to become the second-best T2o league after the Indian Premier League (IPL). It’s fair to say it’s well on track to achieve that lofty goal. In fact, it might already have achieved it.
It’s a tournament that’s appealed to a new generation of fans. It has shone a spotlight on South African domestic cricket in a way not seen since the advent of night cricket in the early 1980s.
The SA20 is fun, fast, colourful, skilful and wonderfully watchable. In short, it’s great entertainment, offering something for all tastes, even for more traditional supporters of the game.
If the longer format is someone’s passion, the sight of fast bowlers steaming in, of batters hitting a classical cover drive, or a slip taking a fine catch, all remain vital parts of the SA20. But there is the addition of a range of new skills, of pizazz, flair and risk all added to a pot of talented players, both local and international.
It’s a cosmopolitan league, owned by IPL giants, studded with the best white-ball players in the game, and played in brilliant summer sunshine on some of the best cricket grounds in the world.
The team’s kits are dripping with sponsors’ logos, adding to the sense that this is a valued and valuable cricketing “product”.
The SA20, although co-owned by Cricket South Africa (CSA), SuperSport and Indian businessman Sundar Raman, is not run by the mother body. It’s organised, managed and funded independently of CSA and is largely free of petty political agendas.
CSA is a necessary beast, as cricket has many layers and needs organisation and operational support at amateur level. But CSA’s structure is such that mostly bankrupt provinces wield disproportionate administrative power over the professional game.
Apart from the SA20, cricket is run by committees and subcommittees made up of union members with no track record of success. They rely on CSA handouts from broadcast income, largely earned by the men’s Proteas team, to exist.
The system is antiquated, allowing for mediocrity to thrive. There are many good people in the trenches, but a system that rewards politicking over genuine service to the sport is killing cricket domestically.
And the men’s Test team, the major earner for CSA, has been devalued and slowly eroded. The power of India, England and Australia in the global game is certainly a major factor in the dynamic, but it’s not the only problem. That the Proteas men’s team doesn’t even have a title sponsor is a glaring manifestation of current issues and a warning that more problems are approaching.
The SA20 was a month-long cricketing celebration, but the likes of the men’s Proteas and the men’s SA Under-19 team were in the headlines for less celebratory reasons.
The “David Teeger issue”, which has been well documented, undermined the SA Under-19s’ World Cup campaign. Yet the team played some good cricket before losing to India in the semifinals.
Left-arm fast bowler Kwena Maphaka, top-order batters Steve Stolk and Lhuan-dre Pretorius, and all-rounder Tristan Luus all look like great prospects, which is worth celebrating. But will their futures include playing Test cricket for South Africa?
Because across the world a callow men’s Proteas side were, not surprisingly, being walloped by New Zealand.
The Black Caps won the first of two Tests by a mammoth 281 runs and it’s impossible to see how the second, starting in Hamilton on 13 February, will play out much differently. There were six South African players on Test debut at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui, and of those who had Test caps, only seamer Duanne Olivier was in double figures. They were always up against it.
It was a stark illustration of the peaks and troughs of South African cricket, further depicted when the Proteas women’s team secured their first One-Day International win over the mighty Australia in Sydney.
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All-rounder Marizanne Kapp almost single-handedly dragged her team to victory by scoring 75 runs and taking three wickets. Just a week earlier, South Africa beat the Aussies in a T20I for the first time. The women’s team continues to grow, although consistency is their major flaw.
Back to the men’s team, which started the New Zealand tour with eight debutants in the squad because the bulk of the best players stayed at home to play in the SA20.
It undermined Test cricket and with calendars increasingly stressed with an explosion of T20 leagues, which can be good earners, preserving Tests will become more, not less difficult.
CSA could have fought harder to have these Tests played at a later date as they only have to be played in a two-year window that forms part of the World Test Championship.
The outcome of the first Test also revealed that the gulf between South African first-class cricket and the Test arena might be wider than thought.
All of the six players on debut were very experienced at first-class level, yet they were mostly exposed by their lack of patience when batting, and discipline when bowling.
Seldom, if ever, has South Africa gone into a Test match with such a benign seam attack. Olivier, Tshepo Moreki, Dane Paterson and Ruan de Swardt took only three of New Zealand’s 14 wickets between them. Part-time spinner Neil Brand claimed eight wickets, including six for 119 in the first innings.
New Zealand’s seamers – Matt Henry, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson – who bowled with more pace and much more discipline, claimed 11 wickets between them.
South Africa shouldn’t be on tour with such an inexperienced team. Coach Shukri Conrad can only play the hand he has been dealt, but at least he’s a realist.
“If I’m brutally honest the match did highlight the divide between first-class cricket and Test is wide,” Conrad said.
“An example is the relentless pressure a bowling attack puts on the batters in Test cricket… Similarly for our bowlers: when they erred they were punished. You might get away with that at a lower level.”
The reality is that the Proteas should be in New Zealand with a better team. Players shouldn’t have been forced into making such a difficult choice. The Test team should be as valued as the SA20. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.