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Ken Borland

To finish the season with smiles on faces compared to how SA cricket was feeling in December was a tremendous achievement 0

Posted on April 12, 2023 by Ken

Compared to how South African cricket was feeling midway through the season – at the end of December 2022- to finish the summer with the smiles back on everyone’s faces and a general sense of excitement about the game in this country was a tremendous achievement by all involved.

Last year ended with the Proteas going to Australia and being put to the sword in humiliating fashion: bowled out for just 152 and 99 in the first Test in Brisbane, then thrashed by an innings and 182 runs in Melbourne. They needed the help of the weather to avoid defeat after they were forced to follow-on in the third Test in Sydney, but perhaps the first signs of renewal, the first tiny green shoots, became visible then as they did at least only lose six wickets on the final day as the batsmen discovered some defiance.

The Proteas had been in Australia in November as well, for the T20 World Cup, and a promising campaign looked set to deliver them into the semi-finals until they totally failed to pitch for their decisive game against minnows Netherlands and lost, eliminating them from the playoffs in embarrassing fashion.

The lack of form of captain Temba Bavuma caused great bother, but the sometimes ugly vitriol hurled at him was just plain ugly.

The performances of the national team cast a spotlight on the domestic game, the pipeline for the Proteas, and the inescapable conclusion that it is probably not fit to be called high performance. The quality of South African batsmanship was particularly worrying.

There were the controversies over fitness tests which, more often than not, seemed to make our teams weaker rather than better.

The Social Justice and Nation-Building fiasco thankfully came to an end in 2022, but there was still a bitter taste in many cricket-lovers’ mouths as Cricket South Africa’s inquest into alleged racist behaviour by Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher fell apart.

CSA also spent much of 2022 trying to remedy their poor financial situation, which saw them make a R200 million loss in the previous year. The search for sponsors and trying to play more international cricket (especially Tests) in a jam-packed schedule with constrained coffers were only adding to the strain.

The financial battle is ongoing for CSA, but the improved performances of the Proteas, the better image enjoyed by the board and administrators and, crucially, the tremendous success of the SA20 tournament provides hope that those coffers will be enjoying more inflow in the near future.

The Proteas are very much the shop window for CSA and the appointments of Shukri Conrad and Rob Walter as dual national coaches has certainly worked in the short-term. While both coaches will be pleased with how their tenures have started, they have both stressed that South African cricket is on a journey and there will still be many obstacles ahead to overcome.

It is not exaggerating to say that journey probably began when CSA stopped trying to chase Graeme Smith away and instead gave him control of the SA20, the former national captain and director of cricket turning the tournament into an unmitigated success.

“We must not underestimate the impact the SA20 had,” Walter said when asked how he felt the turnaround had happened. “With all the crowds and the quality cricket being played, there was definitely momentum coming out of that. The Proteas jumped on the wave and played really well.

“We have played some nice cricket but that does not mean we’re at our best yet, which is exciting. It’s a process in which a lot of people are involved. We’re trying to create a platform from which we can play, this team is still young, but it’s nice to see the positive signs. I kept a close eye on South African cricket while I was in New Zealand, and one thing that really rings true is that the playing resources are very significant,” Walter said.

The change in mood has not just been seen at the macro level of the team and the organisation though; individuals such as Bavuma, Aiden Markram, Sisanda Magala and Heinrich Klaasen have turned their summers around in remarkable fashion.

Bavuma shoved aside his injury problems and loss of form, as well as the rabid critics clamouring for his head, to enjoy a triumphant end to the season, making career-best centuries in both Tests and ODIs. Taking T20s off Bavuma’s plate, but giving him the Test captaincy taken from Dean Elgar, would have been a tough call for Walter and Conrad to make, but it has been shown to be the correct move.

Magala’s season began with CSA banning him from playing for the Central Gauteng Lions because he failed a fitness test; he ended it with a five-wicket haul at the Wanderers as the Proteas beat the Netherlands 2-0 in their ODI series to keep alive their hopes of automatic qualification for the World Cup later this year. From being ruled unfit to play by CSA, Magala attracted buyers from T20 leagues all over the world and is now playing for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL.

Markram was unequivocally backed by Conrad and Walter in all three formats and had blossomed into the player we all knew he could be by the end of the season. So too Klaasen, in and out of the team previously, had become a first-choice player in white-ball cricket.

The Proteas Women’s team also deserve credit for their major role in the turnaround, reaching the final of the T20 World Cup hosted by South Africa and given a wonderful reception.

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