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SA cricket can learn a great deal from the Springboks’ success

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

As imperfect as rugby structures are, the question for cricket is how does one achieve what rugby has achieved? How does one get past the narrative that transformation causes a lowering of standards?

Graeme Smith is a big man. As he stood next to Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi on the Newlands boundary on day two of the Test match between South Africa and England, he seemed smaller somehow.

That had nothing to do with Smith’s cricketing prowess or his determination and grit, all of which are legendary. Peter English, writing in January 2009, described Smith as “the bravest man in world cricket” after he came out to bat at the Sydney Cricket Ground despite a broken hand. As the Australians would have said, “his blood is worth bottling”.

The ubiquitous Barmy Army tried to drown out the on-field interview with Kolisi and Smith, but that was always going to be hard to do. We know our heroes in these parts and Kolisi is far more than just the Springbok rugby captain, or the local Stormers captain for that matter.

He is a leader of men who has become a role model. In his leadership and in his Rugby World Cup-winning team, we see the best of us and what we aspire to be as a country. That Kolisi does not seem to put a foot wrong and carries himself with a level of preternatural confidence simply makes us more in awe of him.

The fleeting sight of Kolisi as he went back to his seat was enough to get fathers and sons out of the seats for a quick selfie. Kolisi obliged at every turn. Then a quick embrace from England’s Jonny Bairstow on the boundary ropes before the match resumed.

Kolisi is the real deal, towering above those around him.

As the newly appointed Cricket South Africa Director of Cricket, Smith would have done well to take in that moment. It is said that the best and first decision Rassie Erasmus made was to select Kolisi as captain and back him throughout. He faced criticism for this decision in some quarters, but stood his ground. The rest is history. Kolisi does not play a full 80-minute game and so his selection was about more than how well he plays in his No 6 position. It was about having the right person at the right time who was able to lead this team in an unflappable manner. A diverse Springbok rugby team, captained by an African black man remains a powerful image for reasons we all understand. Kolisi and his team were the ultimate iconoclasts.

Rugby structures in South Africa are not perfect. We know that Makazole Mapimpi battled to be recognised and never believed he could earn money from the game let alone play for the Springboks. He knew his rural background was an impediment. Yet, his story of triumph can be told along with that of several other African black players now. So, imperfect as rugby structures are, the question for cricket is how does one achieve what rugby has achieved? How does one get past the narrative that transformation (itself an off-putting word), causes a lowering of standards and that it is what’s ruining cricket in South Africa?

As the director of cricket, Smith will have to face these tough questions. He has been tasked with not only improving the Proteas’ on-field performance, but also looking at the development of the game strategically – or the pipeline, as it is known. Surely that must mean looking at what is happening at school and club level, and then also trying to improve the domestic franchise competition? That is a tall order, but not an impossible one if there is an organisational commitment to developing the game.

As Shaun Pollock astutely observed, cricket has deep challenges given the lure of Kolpak deals (which allow players from countries with free-trade deals with the European Union to play in EU countries without being considered as overseas players). This has weakened our domestic game since there can be no transfer of skill from experienced players to younger players. The competition remains largely mediocre and the gap between franchise cricket and international Test cricket is more like a yawning chasm now.

The set-up in rugby is far different as the layers of competition allow for the exchange of skill between experienced players and novices. In addition, players are able to ply their trade overseas and remain eligible for selection at the highest level in South Africa. Much has been written about the lure of the British pound when it comes to Kolpak deals. South Africa – and other under-resourced countries – simply cannot compete with these earnings in foreign currency.

Smith, therefore, has his work cut out for him. It is, however, hard to see how he will be able to do much more than provide strategic guidance to the Proteas given that his contract is for a mere three months.

The position needs someone to be appointed for at least five years and this person must be able to work with CSA (interim) CEO, Jacques Faul, the coaching staff, players, clubs and schools to develop a strategy to ensure that the game is supported in suburbs and townships alike. The turmoil within CSA will not aid Smith in his task. Where there is poor governance and corruption, strategic issues take a back seat. One cannot blame Faul, or anyone coming into the CSA set-up right now for simply trying to salvage cricket from the wreckage of a weak board, and an inept, corrupt administration. Hundreds of millions of Rands are unaccounted for and one suspects Faul is spending his time dealing with forensic audits and trying to find a replacement for Standard Bank given its pending withdrawal of cricket sponsorship.

What the current board members do not realise is that their credibility is in tatters. They themselves have brought the game into disrepute. The suspended CEO Thabang Moroe should be put to a swift disciplinary hearing and booted out if even half of the media reports of his tenure are true.

So, against this backdrop of squandering resources and a lack of care, no wonder CSA has lost the plot when it comes to development of the game.

It is also against this backdrop that the dropping of Temba Bavuma for the second Test match at Newlands caused consternation in some circles.

There has been much written about the decision to release Bavuma from the Test squad and allow him to force his way back through the “weight of runs” in franchise cricket. Bavuma had recovered from his hip injury by the time the Test match at Newlands rolled in and had he been included, he would have been one of only two African black men in the team. The other being Kagiso Rabada. Bavuma’s Test average is 31.24 after making his Test debut in 2014 and playing 39 Tests. He has one century to his name and 13 half-centuries.

There are plenty of sterile cricketing discussions one can have about batting averages and who is better or worse than Bavuma in a Test side, which is almost uniformly below par especially in the batting department. It does not help that the Proteas team finds itself in a time of transition given the retirement of a few key senior players like Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn.

CSA President Chris Nenzani responded to the issue by saying the CSA’s racial targets are still in place, though he accepted they would not be able to be met in every match given that coaching staff needed “flexibility”. The “colour by numbers” approach is a truly unsatisfactory way of dealing with team selection because it can be both damaging and artificial. It also cannot work if the real hard work of development does not happen at school and club level. Again, that requires focus (which has been absent), and money (which is being withdrawn by a key sponsor). It also requires being able to really see how sport fits into the larger narrative of post-apartheid South Africa. That is the stuff of hearts and minds above and beyond the numbers game.

Rassie Erasmus had a way of seeing into the future when he stuck to his selection of Kolisi as captain despite the mutters from the usual crowd that Kolisi was selected as captain only because he is black. Erasmus backed the likes of Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am and others. He assiduously built a team and a brand. His talk to players on “what constitutes pressure in South Africa” will long be quoted. “Pressure is not having food to eat. Pressure is when a relative is murdered.” Yes, we live in a complex land and Erasmus understood that more than most. He also showed that understanding and foresight cannot be the preserve of a single race. As a white Afrikaner, he had insight into the psyche of our country. It’s always more than a game, after all. That Erasmus had a diverse group of players to bring into the squad certainly helped and so the question needs to be asked again: What can cricket learn from rugby when the game at school and club level needs to be improved urgently?

Bavuma has now become a cause celebre. One cannot speak on his behalf, but it must be awkward to be singled out in the way that he has.

Faf Du Plessis who has been a wonderful servant of cricket and is a genuine leader on and off the field sounded uncharacteristically clumsy when he responded to questions regarding the non-selection of Bavuma. “We see no colour,” he said. Giving Du Plessis the benefit of doubt, we knew what he was trying to say, but it may help for the Proteas’ messaging to be a bit more nuanced and on-point. Race matters in South Africa and in South African sport. It always has and probably will for the foreseeable future so it could not have come as a surprise that Bavuma’s exclusion caused raised eyebrows.

There is a story about a New Zealand rugby coach telling Heyneke Meyer, that while he can pick his best XV, Meyer was unable to because of quotas and politics. It was a low blow, but the response to it would have been simple now. Is the lesson of the Rugby World Cup win not that if we develop talent across the board then our diversity will always be our strength? And surely the response to that New Zealand coach would be that we have won the Web Ellis trophy as many times as New Zealand has?

But development is work and it is too early to tell whether Smith has the nous and commitment to navigate the inevitable political complexity in sport. Smith’s three-month contract will not be enough, so the further question is will he remain, or will someone else arise to take up the challenge?

Whether Smith continues in the role or not, the requirement will be that relevant stakeholders should be convened to have honest conversations about the state of the game in South Africa. That honest rendering will be difficult in an environment where many are in their positions only for what they can gain. The discussions need to be followed by action at school and club level. That will require resources, of course, and that takes one back to questions regarding the position of Faul, who surely needs to remain in his position and a board that surely needs to fall on its sword if progress is to be made?

As with many of our country’s challenges, there are no overnight solutions. Adding to the complexity, the “hard yards” of building the game also takes place against the increasing changes in the international game and the selfish dominance of countries like Australia, England and India.

Calm heads and rational thinkers are required in this emotive South African context where affect often dominates. Smith is no stranger to leading from the front and building a team. This next challenge may prove to be the biggest he has faced, yet he cannot do it alone.

Whatever one’s views on Bavuma’s exclusion from the Newlands Test match, CSA has failed dismally if we are arguing about the selection of one African black batsman in a Test match in 2020. We need to be sure we are not having the same discussion in five years’ time. DM

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