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Cricket news - Might England offer a blueprint for CSA's domestic revamp?
In just over a month, the attention of all cricket lovers will be gripped by the World Cup in England and Wales. This is good news for Cricket South Africa (CSA), who will hope the glitzy showpiece serves as a distraction from the chaos unfolding back home.
The board and the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA), the union representing professional players in the country, have been at loggerheads for some time now. Earlier this month, CSA approved plans that will change its two-tiered domestic structure of six franchises and 13 provincial teams to a single-tiered system of 12 provincial teams in May 2020, with the option of adding two more teams in the future.
This decision comes after CSA's chief executive Thabang Moroe predicted a loss of $24.8 million over the next four years, down from his initial assessment in October of closer to $46 million.
SACA have claimed that they were not consulted as per the agreement in their Memorandum of Understanding, while CSA offer a contradictory account. Either way, an austerity plan has been put in place to plug the financial sinkhole that South African cricket has become. In a press release, SACA chief executive Tony Irish said that these measures would "likely lead to at least 70 players losing their contracts and many other players at franchise level having their earnings reduced."
As tensions mount, domestic cricketers plod along, giving their all in empty stadiums while the cream is routinely skimmed off the top by English counties dangling Kolpak contracts or wealthy T20 leagues promising a whirlwind life as a freelancer. However this impasse is negotiated between the suits who handle the money and the players who make it, one truth remains: the remodelling of the domestic game in South Africa is long overdue.
In 2004, 11 provinces were reduced to the six teams we have today. The provinces have remained, but for the past 15 years they have merely served as semi-professional feeders to the half-dozen franchises that remain the final stepping stone to a national contract.
The logic was sound. From December 2001 to March 2002, South Africa played six Tests - three away, three home - against Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australia. In all but the final encounter in Durban, the Proteas were routed. There must have been a reason for this yawning chasm in class.
One theory was that Australian cricketers had been forged in the burning furnace of the Sheffield Shield; a no-place-to-hide competition of six states waging brutal wars of attrition. In an environment where only the strong take on the strong, nothing but strength could survive.
South Africa's shift in 2004 did not pay immediate dividends of course. Six more Tests against Australia home and away in 05/06 resulted in five defeats without even a consolation victory. But now Graeme Smith was at the wheel and with a domestic system squeezing the best players through a bottle neck, Biff started to build a team of world beaters that would go on to lift the Test mace on three separate occasions from 2009 to 2014.
But new problems have arisen. Kolpaks, selection targets, a weakening Rand, the lure of T20 franchise cricket; these are headaches administrations of the past did not always have to contend with. The bottle neck that only allowed Test-ready players to pass through has stunted the development of countless others, who have either had to eke out an existence with a province or abandon the sport altogether.
In conversations with several South Africans on Kolpak contracts, there is a consensus that domestic cricket back home is at a low point. While the top 15 or so players in the country are good enough for international competition, those lower down are not up to scratch.
Whatever their motivation, however they've communicated with SACA, CSA's decision is a good one. The question that needs to be asked is how the new structure will take shape.
Mirroring the English model is a good place to start. Eighteen counties compete in two divisions in four-day, first-class cricket with promotion and relegation. In white ball cricket, every county has the opportunity to lift a trophy. More exposure, more opportunities, a wider variety of opposition.
For Allan Donald, who has played and coached at first-class level in both South Africa and the UK, the move can't come soon enough.
"Having a broader spectrum to pick a Test team means you'll likely create a better Test team and that is the point of domestic cricket," Donald told Cricbuzz between games as Kent's bowling coach. "The English domestic scene is so exciting and offers so many players a chance that guys back in South Africa haven't had. I can only see the standard and talent increase across the country."
Donald raises an important caveat, however. It's one thing to create new teams but this is not Kevin Coster's Field of Dreams. Fans won't miraculously appear from the heavens.
"Cricket is a religion in England," Donald explained, and this devotion leads to thousands occupying stadiums around the country. Blockbuster fixtures are sell-outs. In South Africa, you'd be hard pressed to find the proverbial man and his dog watching the Lions play the Cape Cobras on a Thursday in Potchefstroom.
Despite the marketability of being included in a 'Big 3', cricket is a minor sport in South Africa. It is dwarfed by the wide appeal of soccer and the Protea on the chest will never elicit the same emotional response as rugby union's Springbok.
"It will be a very long time before domestic cricket in South Africa is supported the way it was in the 1980s and '90s," Donald said. "Fans don't really care about it. The public struggles to get behind a handful of franchises. There is a risk that the new structure will dilute that fan base even more."
As we saw with the formation of the IPL, there will be a core group of fans who will support their local team no matter who is playing. But big names bring big numbers. The likes of Aiden Markram, Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and other rising superstars must be included in the conversation and planning.
The players are going to drive the new venture, not the decision makers in air conditioned offices. This makes the poor communication between CSA and SACA all the more confounding.
The question then turns to the point of the restructure. Is it simply a cost-cutting scheme? According to CSA's chief financial officer, Ziyanda Nkuta, 12 provinces will be cheaper to run than six franchises and 13 provincial teams.
Is the main purpose to increase the quality of domestic cricket and provide better support to the Test team? Six franchises laid a foundation for the country's most successful era at the elite level. Might we see a dilution not just in fan support but also in the quality of cricket?
How will the important need to transform the racial makeup of the sport impact this new venture? There is no doubt that the introduction of quotas has provided opportunities to deserving players who were struggling to gain a foothold. However, it is equally unarguable that quality white cricketers have been elbowed out of positions only to be replaced by others who have weakened the entire system. Perhaps with more teams, there will be no need to crowbar players into sides who don't deserve to be there on merit.
"It comes back to opportunities," Donald said. "In England, there is promotion and relegation and players move freely between the counties depending on their ability. If South Africa followed this model, I believe many of the problems facing the domestic game back home could be resolved."
There is a growing consensus amongst supporters, former players and coaches that domestic cricket in South Africa is at an all-time low since the fall of apartheid. Something had to change.
It remains to be seen how things will take shape on the field, and the spat between the board and the players' union has yet to run its course. But CSA have identified a problem and have taken a decisive and necessary step to remedy it. That, at least, deserves commendation.
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