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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Can cricket in SA rise to the challenge?

opinion

It’s just not cricket - in the boardroom or on the field.

Whether it’s the English side beating the Proteas with precision at St George’s Park, our Under 19s losing to Afghanistan, or the shameful boardroom shenanigans of Cricket South Africa, things are not looking good in the world of cricket.

The Proteas head to the Wanderers without key player Kagiso Rabada and captain Faf Du Plessis has come under increased pressure given his recent lack of form.

New coach Mark Boucher and director of cricket Graeme Smith have their work cut out for them.

But, like turning South Africa around after a decade of state capture, it will take a while to turn around a team quite clearly in transition. In addition, dealing with the imperative of a transformed and diverse team will take nous and courage.

Smith 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 organisational commitment to developing the game.

As Shaun Pollock astutely observed, cricket has deep challenges given the lure of Kolpak deals.

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 South African 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.

It is, however, hard to see how Smith 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 appointed for at least five years and who is able to work with Cricket South Africa (interim) CEO Jacques Faul, the coaching staff, players, clubs and schools to develop a strategy, thus ensuring that the game is grown 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 inept and 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 media reports of his tenure are true.

According to recent reports, however, this process will hardly be swift. Moroe, in typical South African fashion, was suspended with full pay. Something seems wrong with that equation.

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.

Bavuma was sent back to his franchise to achieve the ‘weight of runs’ and work towards selection again. Bavuma replied with his bat and scored 180 for the Lions who played against the Dolphins. He has now been recalled to the test side.

Much was written about the decision to release Bavuma from the test squad and allow him to force his way back into the team. Bavuma had recovered from his side train by the time the test match at Newlands rolled in and had he been included, he would have been one of only two African blacks 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 Amla, De Villiers and Steyn.

But, 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.

CSA president Chris Nenzani responded to the issue at the time by saying that the CSA racial targets were still in place, though accepted that 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.

It is said that the best and first decision Rassie Erasmus made was to select Siya Kolisi as Springbok 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 90-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 a 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. His rural background was an impediment and he knew that.

Yet, his story of triumph can be told along with that of several other 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 is ruining the game.

Erasmus had ‘ways of seeing’ 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, 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 seeing cannot be the preserve of a single race. As a white Afrikaner he had the 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?"

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 and so the further question is whether he will remain, or whether someone else will arise to take up the challenge?

Whether Smith continues in the role or not, the requirement will be that relevant stakeholders 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.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february