When washing the car or mowing the lawn is more fun than watching cricket, it’s time to take stock of why failure is the ODI default mode for the national side
German playwright Bertolt Brecht was fond of saying there are no naturally occurring famines, they are all man-made. In analogous vein, we might say that disasters don’t occur naturally in the cricket world, either. They have to be formed, sometimes with painstaking ineptitude, and the latest meltdown has been years in the making.
One could, for instance, trace the seeds of this most recent disaster to the last World Cup in 2015. In that tournament, SA lost in the semifinals to New Zealand, whereupon Haroon Lorgat, then CEO of Cricket SA (CSA), launched an investigation into why the team didn’t win the damn thing.
Former Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar and ex-Proteas batsman Adam Bacher were invited to sit on a task team and then, suddenly, Lorgat and the powers-that-be changed tack. Lorgat muttered about "parameters not being established" and the matter died a quick and suspicious death.
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A chance to publicise some home truths and to establish a winning culture was deemed potentially too divisive. An opportunity was lost.
At a push we might even trace the seeds of cricket’s most recent implosion to the last time the Proteas played tournament cricket in England. This was under Russell Domingo, who coached them to the Champions Trophy in 2017, a competition that featured the world’s top eight sides divided into two groups of four.
The Proteas were drawn with the three subcontinental sides, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and could beat only the latter, thus finishing third in the group and coming home. The result was revealing and two years later we can see the lesson wasn’t heeded.
The truth of the matter is that the national team have been playing erratic, fretful ODI cricket for five or six years now. Forget about "Pink Day" jamborees at the Wanderers; forget festival Sundays at SuperSport Park where braai smoke drifts lazily across the ground and you could imagine that all seems right with the world.
When it comes to winning the matches that count, the Proteas have become serial underachievers. Ours is a system that breeds stressed and insecure cricketers. We no longer breed truly destructive boundary hitters (and clearers) in, say, the mould of Australia’s Glenn Maxwell or England’s Eoin Morgan, who hit 17 sixes in last week’s match against Afghanistan.
Andile Phehlukwayo’s late rally against Pakistan notwithstanding, we have also lost the ability to fashion a method capable of dealing with both finger-spinners and wrist-spinners. Once we had Jacques Kallis, who devised a supple technique against quality spin bowling. In the past five years such technical knowledge has been lost, with all of SA’s frontline batters being exposed against spin at some point during this World Cup.
Technical and mental failings have been writ large at this World Cup, but something must also be said of the institutional malaise. CSA has, over recent seasons, upped the transformation targets in the domestic game. Many cricketers are now plying their trade as professionals elsewhere.
There is no trust in SA cricket — and without trust there is no core of shared values, and no agreement on the fundamentals that make cricket such a great game. Cricket has become polluted by cynicism.
The players hate the current administrators, who will now try to distance themselves from the World Cup failure, a failure they at least in part created. For their part, the administrators cannot abide the SA Cricketers’ Association, the players’ union, of which all the Proteas are a part.
And the public is getting so jaundiced about cricket that it is almost past caring, which will translate into poor attendances and a diminishing sponsorship landscape. The SA public is no more and no less fickle than supporters elsewhere, but why watch David Miller drop a sitter of a catch against India, when you could be washing the car instead?
Last week Pat Symcox, a former Protea himself, compared the current regime at CSA to Eskom’s long-standing saga of state capture. Symcox can be over the top and heedlessly destructive. This time, though, you rather feel he might have bowled the perfect delivery.