Much is being made of the state of South African cricket. The naysayers believe the descent of the sport in this country has already begun. The factors that have fueled this fire include recent results ie Test series defeats in India (3-0) and on home turf to England, as well as surrendering rather meekly in the first two One Day Internationals to the English. The Proteas showed tremendous fighting spirit to claw their way back from 2-0 down and win the ODI series. Nevertheless, the SA ‘A’ team generally lacks competitiveness, the Under-19s were eliminated in the group stages of their World Cup, suffering embarrassing reverses to Namibia and Zimbabwe along the way, and as a result the quality of coaching at all levels, player prowess and the quota system, requiring six players of colour in all domestic teams, including three black Africans, have been called into question. Add to that the match fixing saga currently engulfing the game in South Africa and it is clear we are in the midst of a difficult period in South African cricket. West Indies great Michael Holding has even warned that the Proteas could be going the way of the Caribbean cricketers who dominated the sport in the 1970s and 80s, but today are among the also-rans.
I remain optimistic because I believe sporting success is cyclical and there are enough signs that all is not lost in South Africa. Just a year ago the Proteas were on a nine-year unbeaten run away from home in Test cricket. Why, they were the number-one ranked side in the world to boot. Back in 2001/02 Australia annihilated the South Africans in one of the most one-sided series every seen. Coming into that it was hailed as the battle between numbers one and two on the planet. The aftermath of that series resulted in a rebuilding process and the side duly recovered. Back then the argument was that provincial cricket was too weak and the 11-team competition was restructured in 2004 into the six-team franchise system we have today.
Great players are not going to come around all the time. For example between Novembers 1995 and 1996 the Proteas brought in exciting youngsters like Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Paul Adams, Herschelle Gibbs and Lance Klusener. But between December 1996 and January 2000 Adam Bacher, Mark Boucher, HD Ackerman, Makhaya Ntini, Gerhardus Liebenberg, Steve Elworthy, David Terbrugge, Boeta Dippenaar, Nantie Hayward and Pieter Strydom were all handed caps. Only two (Boucher and Ntini) of the latter group went on to have successful Test careers. In the former bunch it was a 100% success rate. In 2004 Hashim Amla, AB De Villiers and Dale Steyn were all blooded. Simply put, you are not going to have a 1995/96 or 2004 every year. There will be lean times.
By way of example two years ago this country’s under-19s won their world cup but this year they are not as good. In 10 years’ time the bulk of the national side could be make up of the class of 2014 with one or two from this year having forced their way in. Obviously there is room for experienced veterans, fresh faces and the like. Moreover 10 years ago South Africa also crashed out of the Under-19 World Cup after losing to Australia and the Windies in the group stages and then falling to Nepal (yes, you read that correctly) in the Plate semi-finals. I think we can agree that a decade later it did not affect the national team. In fact, the only player from that side that is actually a fixture in today’s senior national side is Dean Elgar.
But back to local cricket. So how weak is the current SA first class competition? I believe the best judge of the strength of the Sunfoil Series is to see how its players have adapted to the pressures of international cricket. The last 10 players to have made their debuts for South Africa are Stephen Cook, Hardus Viljoen, Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Dane Vilas, Simon Harmer, Temba Bavuma, Stiaan Van Zyl, Dane Piedt and Quinton De Kock. In many of these cases it is simply too early to tell but for starters Cook has taken to Tests like a duck to water with a ton in his first match. Fair enough, Van Zyl did the same and went on to struggle but remember he has been played out of position for most of his fledgling career.
Viljoen, Morris and Vilas may yet play a significant role (okay, perhaps not Vilas) in the future but for now they are just squad players brought in owing to an injury crisis. Rabada has shown that he is going to be very, very special. The same can be said of De Kock and young Bavuma has shown a maturity beyond his years and I am happy to tick his box in this case. Piedt has also had an impressive start while Harmer looks to be a deputy and/or spin twin when South Africa finds itself in subcontinent conditions.
There are two gems (Rabada and De Kock) found in that dectet with at least another two (Piedt, Bavuma) that fall into the “very good” category. We can probably add another two (Cook, Harmer) to the “dependable performers” list. All in all that is hardly a disaster in my view and I am happy to declare here that it is my opinion that those wishing to pen an obituary for South African cricket, had best reconsider. This is hardly the beginning of a West Indies-like decline.