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Picture: 123RF/ALLAN SWART
Picture: 123RF/ALLAN SWART

The brilliant former England captain-turned-writer Michael Atherton recently said the modern game is “consuming itself” with its wild orgy of scheduling, every nook and cranny on the calendar stuffed with more cricket, of all formats. It is, he said, impossible to keep up.

Indeed it is. The question cricket lovers might want to ask themselves is, why try? The cricket calendar used to allow everyone to keep an eye on what was happening around the world, but unless you’re a spreadsheet fanatic with insomnia and multiple satellite subscriptions, you have to pick your poison and stick with it.

These choices, I suspect, will be influenced by how much credibility — or “authenticity” — the cricket has. At the moment, and this is changing quickly, international fixtures still command the greatest respect among the majority of followers. And in the fight among domestic T20 tournaments for a greater audience share, credibility will be the key, not just money.

In fact, those tournaments that make a point of not prioritising money may be more successful in the long run. It is already happening. The Big Bash was in serious trouble a couple of years ago with a lack of public interest resulting in dwindling crowds. Short-sighted greed was partly to blame when the organisers expanded the competition to a gluttonous two months.

With the golden egg-laying goose in intensive care, Cricket Australia performed much-needed surgery on the schedule. But they also stopped obsessing with signing overseas players. It became apparent that by giving so much time and attention to the Overseas Player Draft, it was sending the wrong message to supporters. It was reflecting an apparent lack of confidence in its own players.

These days the Big Bash teams are focused on unearthing cricketers in their own catchment areas, big-hitting and yorker-bowling players who might never have been given an opportunity otherwise. Franchises will still take the opportunity to sign eye-catching, headline-grabbing internationals such as Quinton de Kock, but for the most part they are content with proven T20 cricketers who will help them win matches rather than put another couple of hundred bums on seats.

And they’ve stopped feeling insecure about not having “big names” from elsewhere. Supporters care far more about results than who gets them. Perhaps the record crowds that the tournament is now enjoying are merely coincidental. Maybe it has nothing to do with the change of perspective.

It is a problem the ILT20 can only dream of having. The United Arab Emirates league currently exists only because of money. The only reason most cricket lovers have to follow the tournament is to track the progress of players from their state or county. It is convenient wallpaper for the multitude of satellite broadcasters desperate to provide content. And a fantastic way for otherwise idle or unwanted professionals to be paid handsomely.

Players hopping between tournaments before they have been concluded is just weird. Whatever the chances are that they might contribute to a win in three games before they move to a different tournament — for more money — the suck on the credibility vacuum is intense. Is Nicholas Pooran, as brilliant as he is, worth a gamble on the reputation of the SA20? Perhaps he is.

If the franchise world is leaving you a bit bewildered but you’re still keen to watch some “meaningful” cricket, I suggest you cast an eye over the SA Under-19 team in their World Cup endeavours. The opening game was a drama of Shakespearian proportions. Utterly compelling.

The Junior Proteas were reduced to 145/6 against West Indies, recovered to 285/9 with brilliance from Dewan Marais (65 from 38 balls) and captain Juan James (47), before reducing their opponents to 73/5 in just 10 overs. Left-arm fast bowler Kwena Maphaka had 3/6 in his first two overs. He is a prodigious talent and, still just 17 years old, is playing his second Under-19 World Cup. The mind boggles.

The Junior Proteas lost the services of opening bowler Martin Khumalo after just 2.1 overs and were denied the frontline off-spin of James, both to injury. Suddenly they needed 18 overs from the part-timers. What do you do in such a crisis? Turn to the wicketkeeper of course.

Lhuan-dre Pretorius handed the gloves to reserve keeper Ntando Zuma and delivered nine overs of highly respectable off-spin at a cost of just 45 runs and the game was won by 31 runs despite a brilliant 130 off just 96 balls from the appropriatetly named West Indies keeper, Jewel Andrew. Maphaka wrapped things up to finish with 5/38.

It was a glorious reminder of the talent SA still produces, and even more glorious to watch young cricketers, well-coached, playing with pride and passion. Pretorius and Maphaka have already been signed by SA20 franchises, and they will become wealthy — along with several more of this squad. But for now, it is the final time they will play with the innocent love for the game with which they started. 

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