South Africa once led way but are now one of Test cricket's have-nots, says Tim Wigmore of the Telegraph.
At Lord's seven years ago, Graeme Smith and the rest of South Africa's team assembled on the outfield after an exhilarating victory over England. They were there to hold aloft the Test mace, their reward for becoming the No 1 team in the world.
Twenty-one years after South Africa's readmission to international cricket, this was a stirring achievement, all the more notable for happening with a diverse team who had come a long way in representing all of the nation. To show they deserved to be at the top, a few months later South Africa would win a Test series in Australia too.
These heady few months remain the crowning glory of South African cricket since readmission: twenty-eight years in which, despite their performances in knockout World Cup games taking in tragedy, comedy and farce, South Africa have consistently been near the summit of the international game. Indeed, between losing in Sri Lanka in 2006 and in India in 2015, South Africa did not lose a Test series away from home.
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This remarkable era is now a faraway age. The South Africa England will meet from the first Test on Boxing Day are fresh from an abject World Cup, when they won only three games and came seventh. The team who once could not lose away just lost consecutive Tests by an innings in India. Even more concerning are the consecutive Tests lost to Sri Lanka since 2018, including losing 2-0 at home at the start of 2019.
And yet, however dispiriting these results, sometimes the actual business of playing the game has seemed like light relief set against everything else interwoven with South African cricket. This turmoil is inextricably intertwined with both South African politics and global cricket politics.
"Cricket's in crisis," says Tony Irish, chief executive of the South African Cricketers' Association. "The board of Cricket South Africa needs to be held accountable."
Banks and financial institutions have always supported sport, seeing in it a way to reputation-launder. Yet the stench of administrative malfeasance in South African cricket is such that it even led Standard Bank, the team's title sponsor, to flee. Standard Bank's statement this month declared that Cricket South Africa's "long-standing problems" had, by association, "damaged the bank's reputation". So things have got so bad that a bank that, four years ago, was found to have paid £20 million in bribes in Tanzania has now deserted South African cricket.
A few vignettes from recent weeks show the extent of the turbulence. Chief executive Thabang Moroe was suspended for his running of the game. Four of Cricket South Africa's 12 directors have resigned, citing concerns over finances, governance and how players have been treated. South Africa's 317 professional players refuse to have any dealings with South Africa while the other eight directors remain on the board.
All the while broader issues - the continued flight of leading players to overseas domestic competition; a court battle between the board and the South African Cricketers' Association; projected financial losses of more than £30 million over the next four-year cycle; and consequent uncertainty over the future of the domestic structure - continue to simmer."
An incompetent group of people have been running Cricket South Africa," laments one insider. "The entire board needs to stand down."
"It's a little bit embarrassing," says Lance Klusener, who played 220 times for South Africa and is now coach of Afghanistan. "It's extremely frustrating and disappointing that an organisation that has done so much for cricket since readmission has been allowed to deteriorate."
Perhaps the biggest self-inflicted wound is in how South Africa have attempted to create a glamorous Twenty20 tournament of their own. The Global T20, brimming with overseas stars, was launched two years ago. But the South African market was not big enough to sustain it. The competition was scrapped before a ball had been bowled, costing the board more than £10 million.
Instead, the lower-budget Mzansi Super League was created. Yet in its first season, the tournament made a loss of around £5 million, which is likely to be repeated for the recently concluded second year.
"It's not financially sustainable," an insider warns. "We're going to have a financial crisis if the competition continues in its present form."
Never have cricket's finances been so distorted. Until 2014, all Test countries received the same distribution from the International Cricket Council, mitigating differences in what countries earned from their domestic markets. But from 2016-23, India are due to receive $405 million (£312 million) from the ICC, England $139 million and South Africa and a series of other nations only $128 million. So India and England, already comfortably the wealthiest nations thanks to their home markets - and because they schedule more games against each other than anyone else - now use ICC funds to open the gap even wider. The big three - Australia, England and India - are also hosting all men's global events from 2016-23.
The upshot is that, despite their consistency over the past 28 years - since readmission, they have the second best win-loss record of any nation in Tests and one-day internationals - South Africa are now one of Test cricket's have-nots. For all their specific problems, in some ways they are better viewed as a litmus test of whether international cricket can keep its mid-table sides competitive.
"The smaller countries are up against it," Irish observes. "There needs to be a more equitable global economic structure for the game to allow the poor countries to survive. The small countries, however, also have to run the game efficiently, and this has certainly not been the case in South Africa over the last two years."
Also, South Africa have continually been shorn of many of their best players. A combination of the weak domestic economy and weak rand, transformation targets - which means no more than 30 white players can play for the six domestic franchises at any one time - and the lure of county cricket or foreign T20 leagues encourage South African cricketers to look abroad. Thirty-three South Africans are playing county cricket either as Kolpak players or through European or UK passports, Cricket Monthly recently found. It is possible to compile a Test-class bowling attack out of South Africans who have decamped to England. A four-pronged pace attack of Kyle Abbott, Duanne Olivier, Wayne Parnell and Marchant de Lange would be supported by off-spinner Simon Harmer.
"We don't have the option of all the best players," captain Faf du Plessis lamented after the series in India.
While South Africa's first choice XI remains strong, they have never been so ill-equipped to cope with a smattering of absences. Poor recent results from the under-19s and A team suggest the woes will not be fleeting.
"Revenue streams are drying up," observes Ashwin Desai, a sociologist and author of Reverse Sweep, a history of modern South African cricket. "The dream of cricket becoming a grass-roots sport is dead."
For all the broader fears, the past fortnight has induced optimism. Jacques Faul, the new and well-respected acting chief executive, appointed Smith as director of cricket. Smith, in turn, enlisted his old team-mates Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, Charles Langeveldt and Ashwell Prince to coaching roles.
These appointments may well produce a short-term bounce. Yet South Africa's chances of a sustained uplift of the sort needed to emulate Smith's team at Lord's seven years ago depend on deeper changes.
"The issues around the national team have been fixed in a way," Irish reflects. Now, "the rest of the things - the financial situation, the governance structure, the domestic structure - need to be sorted out".
- Telegraph Media Group