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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Lifting the cloud: South Africa’s return to winning ways

Adam Wilson reports on the state of South African cricket

CW: racism, abuse

Watching South Africa comfortably sweep aside India, widely held to be one of the best limited-overs sides in the world, in the shimmering December heat in Paarl, it was hard to reconcile the confident and mature display on the pitch with the chaotic few years that the team and administration have endured off it. 

Indeed, less than twenty-four hours after Quinton de Kock and Janneman Malan had sealed another series victory to go with their 2-1 defeat of India in the preceding Tests, the team had to adjust themselves to the announcement that the country’s cricket administrators will be arguing over the coming months in favour of the dismissal of their own head coach, who has been accused of gross misconduct and of bringing Cricket South Africa (CSA) into disrepute.

Mark Boucher, a former captain who played 147 Tests for South Africa between 1997 and 2012 was named in the board’s Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings in June last year as the perpetrator and enabler of a number of instances of racial discrimination that back to his time as a player. He has also been charged with improper conduct as head coach: his charge sheet, quoted by ESPNCricinfo, accuses him of exacerbating divisions and alienating players when the Black Lives Matter campaign hit the sport in 2020, and of treating Enoch Nkwe, his former assistant coach, in “a manner unbecoming of a leader in your position”. He will now be subject to a disciplinary hearing which could result in his dismissal.

These allegations are a reminder of the difficult period that Cricket South Africa has been through since the suspension of then-CEO Thanang Moroe, under misconduct allegations, in 2019. Persistent administrative issues climaxed in April of last year, when the South African Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture announced his intention to remove governmental recognition of Cricket South Africa’s authority over the sport. This would have defunded the federation and prohibited the South African team from representing the country internationally, effectively discontinuing the high-level organising of cricket within the country. South Africa’s three captains were reduced to issuing a joint statement apologising to stakeholders for the depth of the crisis within the sport’s administration.

Those captains hardly needed more on their plates; on the field, South Africa’s men’s teams have at times over the past years looked bereft of direction and ideas. Between 2019 and 2021 they endured one of the worst runs of Test form in their history, losing three series in a row for the first time since 2004, and with the white ball they suffered the ignominy of being the second team, after only Afghanistan, to be eliminated from the 2019 World Cup. Their T20 record has scarcely been any better – they went six consecutive tours without a series win between 2019 and 2021, and fell at the first hurdle at the T20 World Cup in October.

The chaotic state of the sport in the country was in many ways encapsulated in the behaviour of Quinton de Kock, South Africa’s star wicket-keeper. He began 2021 as South Africa’s stand-in Test captain, following the retirement of Faf du Plessis; he began 2022 by retiring from the format altogether, sensationally, in the middle of the Test series against India. In between, he was caught up in the row surrounding South Africa’s confused and often contradictory approach to the Black Lives Matter movement, notably (although not uniquely) refusing to take a knee before international matches. When Cricket South Africa issued a directive requiring their players to kneel before matches at the T20 World Cup, he instead issued an emotional statement and removed himself from the playing squad. His rapid reintegration – he played South Africa’s next match, despite assumptions that he would be sent home, and this time took the knee – only made the situation more confused.

But the series against India could well go some way to dispelling the shadows around the team, if not the still-troubled administrators. To win a Test series against this India team is an achievement in itself, with Australia and England both having failed to do so last year. There were therefore good reasons for India’s status as pre-tour favourites: put simply, they are a team to compare with almost any in the history of the game, and their pace attack – surely, the best in the world – was tipped to do well on the bouncy South African pitches. To have overcome such a team, after having lost the opening Test, and having lost the toss in the two must-win encounters that followed, and having dealt with Covid-19 and Quinton de Kock’s retirement, must surely give South Africa a huge amount of confidence. They attach, after all, a great amount of pride to their status as India’s final frontier – it will be a relief to have kept that record intact for another series. 

Indeed, it seems to have boosted the squad already. As much as the Test side flashed hot and cold last year, with wins against Sri Lanka and the West Indies punctuated by a difficult tour of Pakistan, the ODI team had not won a series since Australia’s visit in March 2020. In between, they were bowled out for 125 and 197 in consecutive games in Sri Lanka, lost at home to Pakistan, and – probably most ignobly of all – fell to a 43-run defeat to Ireland at Malahide in July, drawing the series 1-1. The spectre of the 2019 World Cup has loomed large in recent years.

But when Aiden Markram pushed a delivery from Shreyas Iyer to mid-off to seal the series win against India, South Africa could bask in the knowledge that they had outplayed their much-vaunted opponents in almost all facets of the game. Never mind that India have Jasprit Bumrah, Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant. Never mind that Anrich Nortje, who has never yet failed to impress at the international level, had been forced to sit out of the whole tour through injury. Never mind either that India are a team with serious World Cup ambitions and the strongest domestic white-ball structure in world cricket. South Africa won the series with a game to spare. 

Captain Temba Bavuma, who had set the series up with his hundred in the first match, put it well when he said his team was one without superstars. It is not that they lack world-class players; Kagiso Rabada, Nortje and de Kock would be serious contenders for any side in the world, in any format. But South Africa in their glory days were often defined by individuals. Graeme Smith’s tenacity, the genius of AB de Villiers – and, yes, Mark Boucher’s skill behind the stumps. The legacy of that great team is now being reassessed; all three have been mentioned in CSA’s hearings in connection with a mismanaged and potentially discriminatory team culture. Whether or not Boucher loses his job, it will be no bad thing if it is South Africa’s team, rather than star players or administrators, who make the headlines in the coming years.

The great initiative of the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings was to elevate the voices of the overlooked. We have heard much in the past from the storied greats of the game, Boucher, Smith and de Villiers amongst them; we have heard now from Paul Adams, Thami Tsolekile and Khaya Zondo, three black players who suffered in an uncaring dressing room not yet ready to embrace the post-Apartheid world. Their stories are saddening, but the fact that they are being told gives hope. If Temba Bavuma, Dean Elgar and their players can build a new legacy in South African cricket, where diversity is recognised as a strength and not endured as a supposed necessary evil, the current team may well in time come to be seen as greater still than their predecessors. 

There was a postscript to the win at Paarl, a match that deserves its own place in the history of the tour. Beneath the unmistakable profile of Table Mountain, at the grand old Newlands Cricket Ground in Cape Town, South Africa defended 278 to seal a clean-sweep of the series. It is only the second ODI whitewash that India have suffered, at the hands of anybody, in the past eight years. Quinton de Kock collected his second player-of-the-match award in two games, a reminder of the important role that the 29 year-old will still play in South Africa’s medium-term future. A brave and tenacious bowling display ensured that they fought themselves back into a contest they had no real right to win. Bavuma – South Africa’s first permanent black captain, it should not be forgotten, appointed in the midst of whispers of racial disharmony within the team – presided over it all with a calm and tactically astute performance.

And, as the squad celebrated the rewards of a home summer that few had thought possible, it felt fitting that Table Mountain, so often shrouded under its distinctive blanket of cloud, had emerged instead into the bright sunlight once again.

Image: Louis Roussouw / CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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