What cricket can learn from SA Rugby 

The Springboks are the toast of the country while the Proteas are drowning in despair. But the Boks were there not so long ago. Can the cricketers turn it around like their rugby brethren?

As the rest of the country was swept up in the wave of Springbok euphoria, South African cricket was putting the final touches to its preparations for the new season and, hopefully, a new path that will ultimately lead to the collective pride its rugby counterparts have sparked across the nation. 

Most of the Proteas watched the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup at a Cricket South Africa (CSA) sit-down in Durban, with executives and national team members putting their heads together for the season to come. It would not have escaped their notice that, not too long ago, the Springboks were in the doldrums, too, their confidence shorn by a limp win record and dwindling support in the stands and on the streets.

The marbled streets of Rome that captain Siya Kolisi and his team are now walking on were not built in a day. There were dark, dark times, when even some of the heroes of the World Cup admitted that they wondered just where they were going. 

South African rugby put its unflinching faith in Rassie Erasmus, a salt-of-the-earth type whose only answer was to work harder. No excuses. No bullshit.

Work hard, restore the faith and rekindle the pride of a sporting nation that lives vicariously through the players who wear the national colours. The Springboks couldn’t even walk comfortably down the street 18 months ago, as the heckling and hollering about their embarrassing performances rasped sharply in their ears.

Now, they can barely walk down those same cobbles without being mobbed by the masses, eager to shake their hands and thank them for the past month of joy. Sport ridicules and rewards with equal impunity. You earn your stripes and lose them by the season.

Rassie Erasmus Avenue 

Cricket in South Africa is at a depressingly low ebb, primarily because the powers that be have not yet turned the corner into Rassie Erasmus Avenue. The blunders of the Indian tour appear to have been a minor metaphor for what is happening within the four walls of the establishment tasked with leading the cricket machine.

They have yet to hold their hands up and admit that they got certain, crucial things wrong – and then taken decisive measures to correct their path. When Allister Coetzee was lanced unceremoniously from his Springbok coaching post, it was the right decision for the team and the sport.

SA Rugby realised that the national coach’s shoes were too big for Coetzee and summoned the unflappable Erasmus from his high office to fix things. South African cricket needs an Erasmus of sorts as its director of cricket for starters, but the noise around that position has gone as cold as the bowling attack in India.

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Graeme Smith, the greatest Test captain that South Africa has ever had, was one of three candidates interviewed for the position, along with former interim director of cricket Corrie van Zyl, respected international coach Dave Nosworthy and acclaimed commentator Hussein Manack. If social media polls were a barometer of public pangs, there was only one name that the people wanted.

Smith, by virtue of his record and international respect, would seemingly have the Erasmus touch.

But after weeks and months of waiting on replies to emails and the parameters of the job and even simple meetings, Smith has shouldered arms to the possibility of taking the job.

His withdrawal, coupled with a frank press release, spoke volumes about the inner workings of a company that seems to be getting in its own way more often than not. Former Proteas coach Gary Kirsten, a Cricket World Cup winner with India, opined that rugby got itself into calmer waters with a combination of good governance and consistency in selection. Everyone was on the same page. 

The longer the wait continues to fill that pivotal position, the more the sense of anxiety grows within South African cricket circles.

What is going on?

Who is next?

What does the future hold?

Smith was supposed to be an answer, but the manner in which he has left the conversation only serves to reiterate the current confusion. He was certainly not going to be the messiah, but his is a respected and experienced cricket voice. 

And make no mistake, he was very keen to help the team and brand that he helped shape restore its pride and its performances. South African cricket leadership is short on credibility and nous at the moment and a Smith appointment may have assuaged several of the fears many have around the game.

Of course, director of cricket is not the only position that requires filling. Never have there been more acting or interim positions in the highest office of the game, and the sense of paranoia that such temporary solutions breeds is not helping.

Corridor of uncertainty 

The second edition of the Mzansi Super League (MSL) started on 8 November, but the build-up to what is supposed to be the financial lifeblood that saves cricket has had the soundtrack of ambulance sirens rather than vuvuzelas in the stands. The priorities there also seem misjudged.

A national roadshow visiting the mayors of the metros that the tournament’s games will take place in has left the public and the fourth estate baffled. Politicking to politicians does not put bums on seats, especially at a time when the word is that costs are being cut at every turn.

Rugby executives visited many of those mayors themselves, but they came to party and to provide the click-hungry posers a priceless picture opportunity. Cricket would have been better served engaging with the schools and the streets, to redirect foot traffic towards its empty stadiums.

Tough times in SA cricket 

The potential national strike by the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca), averted by the hasty payment of an outstanding figure of more than R2 million just before the tournament started, was yet another illustration of the brittle ground that cricket is trying to build on in South Africa. 

Many are disillusioned with the rapidly approaching expansion of the franchise system, with players expected to take pay cuts at a time when more and more money is on offer around the world. It is a dangerous stand-off and those who have the option of looking elsewhere are doing exactly that.

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It is on that ominous runway that the second edition of the MSL is attempting to take flight. The travesty is that, on paper at least, the tournament has potential. There are some very good players from around the world, youngsters are stepping up and games have been entertaining.

But there is a lack of atmosphere to the league and, as a consequence, a lack of interest from sponsors. The failure of the men’s national team to perform at the Cricket World Cup, followed by the Test series humiliation in India, has ensured that public interest is particularly low.

The continued lack of corporate sponsors or partners for a tournament that allegedly generated plenty of private sector interest a year ago is a mystery. The old adage says money talks, but the silence around cricket is deafening. And the trio of high-profile suspensions within the CSA offices will hardly encourage potential sponsors as there appears to be no stability. There are no familiar faces within the cricket sphere, and the traditional cricket market has always thrived on the tried and tested.

Additionally, the “broadcast deal” with the financially terminal South African Broadcasting Corporation means that television rights are still not a potential source of much-needed income. The longer they give the rights away for free, the cheaper the price becomes for any future bidder.

All this is going on while many talented young cricketers try to rebuild their confidence and reputations, ahead of a massive Test series against England at the end of the year and beyond. There are some extremely frank decisions that need to be had in the weeks that lie ahead, even as the MSL roadshow continues.

Following the Springboks’ success

The MSL has attracted its fair share of stars from near and far, all sneaking into the country with little ceremony. Now South African cricket has to rebuild. And build. And build. And they will need experts to do the construction and restore the nation’s faith. 

The powers that be will pray that the MSL draws an audience, even though the first weekend was hijacked by the Springboks. The national trophy parade coincided with the opening weekend of MSL fixtures and the smart money was always on the casual South African sports fan lining the street or their living room to salute world champions, rather than missioning to a stadium in the hopes that the temperamental spring weather would play along.

Smith appeared to be the silver lining in very overcast climes. But his hasty retreat has only made the gathering cumulonimbus appear even more lugubriously on the cricketing horizon. And when it rains…

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