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Cricket news - South Africa no longer hold a strong hand of cards
Better than any other nation, South Africa know the power of the cricket photograph. The collage of their World Cup exits has become iconic, each image telling its own different story of heartbreak in a unique way, and each carrying with it enough baggage to fill 1000 words.
It is an impressive collection, but it will not have a new addition from the 2019 tournament. All of those photographs speak of a moment when a feeling of hope and possibility slipped away suddenly, but resignation has been a more consistent companion than hope throughout this campaign.
Yet there have still been moments that offer the same sort of snapshot, a point in time that provides insight into the broader context. A particularly poignant one arrived in the 35th over of Pakistan's innings, with the sight of Quinton de Kock having a full go at his bowler, Kagiso Rabada, who had just been hit for consecutive boundaries by Haris Sohail. Rabada hardly responded, which was in keeping with his general demeanour over the course of a morning in which he was listless with the ball and absent-minded in the field, often needing a prompt from teammates when he had drifted out of position.
Barring a feisty spell against India, Rabada has been a disappointment at his first World Cup. A tournament that has brought out-and-out fast bowling back into the limelight has largely passed the 24-year-old by, as lesser-known quicks have outgunned him in both the speed and wicket stakes. He currently has six wickets from as many matches.
Yet to criticise Rabada would be harsh, given that his situation offers a portal into the broader issue, which is South Africa's falling standing in the world game. During the game against Pakistan, South African columnist Tom Eaton tweeted a telling table, showing the number of deliveries that the great fast bowlers of the game had bowled in international cricket by the time they were Rabada's age. With 10,974 deliveries, Rabada has more than double all of them bar Wasim Akram and Kapil Dev, who straddle the 12,000 mark.
Clearly Rabada's workload has been debilitating, something which Faf du Plessis acknowledged after the defeat to Pakistan. He went on to say that the team management had tried to stop Rabada from going to the IPL, then wanted him to come home halfway through. Instead Rabada went to India and came home with a back injury. Du Plessis did not go into the reason why South Africa were unable to protect their greatest asset, but a brief look at their financial situation explains it.
With the game's broadcast money flowing increasingly towards the wealthiest nations - India, England and Australia - CSA are seeing their revenues eroded. The extent of this became clear during Duanne Olivier's departure for Yorkshire, when it was revealed that South Africa were unable to match the salary offer of an English county. They are not in a position to incentivise their players sufficiently to skip the IPL, or lose goodwill with the BCCI by recalling them early.
The upshot of this is that South Africa are not only losing players to other countries, but their best cricketers are also being compromised by their need to earn extra income in foreign leagues.
These two different categories of players - the ones who leave and the ones who stay - are also connected in more ways than one might assume. Some might ask what difference Olivier or Kyle Abbott would have made to South Africa's World Cup campaign, the answer to which appeared towards the end of Du Plessis's discussion on Rabada's workload. "You need three or four or five bowlers in the wings waiting, so you can have a bit of a rotation system," he pointed out. How many fewer deliveries would Rabada have needed to bowl if Abbott had not left for England at the beginning of 2017?
The lack of depth also became apparent in South Africa's shifting selection policy ahead of the World Cup. In January 2018, selection convenor Linda Zondi said that his panel intended to use the next nine months to hand out opportunities on the periphery, before moving into the last six months of World Cup preparation with a clear squad in mind. As it turned out, South Africa chopped and changed right through to their final limited overs assignments, with a member of the support staff admitting privately during the Sri Lanka series that they still had "more questions than answers". In the end, unconvinced by the alternatives, they stuck with the old stalwarts despite concerns over form and fitness.
In the end it all comes back to money, unfortunately, but where to then for South Africa?
For starters, they could use what they do earn more wisely. CSA are hardly in a position to ask for more accountability from their players. Not only are those same players taking them to court over a decision to reduce the domestic cricket system from two tiers to one, but their appalling handling of a new Twenty20 league - which was supposed to insulate them from the falling value of bilateral international cricket - has left them without a leg to stand on. Good governance is essential if you are going to squeeze every last drop out of limited resources. Ask New Zealand.
But in time, South Africa might also begin to see AB de Villiers's last-minute offer to play the World Cup in a different light. Reaction to that revelation has been almost universally against the batsman, who admittedly left his approach too late, but it has also ignored the wider issues facing South African cricket - the same ones currently being felt by Rabada.
South Africa produces excellent cricketers who have a growing demand for their services in leagues where they can earn more and play less. The old model of players plugging away in increasingly meaningless international fixtures to fulfill CSA's requirements for the likes of World Cup selection - as de Villiers was expected to do - will not last. South African rugby faces the same financial difficulties as cricket, and it has already woken up to the reality that to be competitive internationally, it needs to pick players who ply their trade for higher-paying clubs in Europe.
After the results at this World Cup, South African cricket will have to acknowledge that it no longer holds a strong hand of cards. They came into this tournament wondering if they might be able to bluff its way through, but it has been called out. A more intelligent strategy is desperately required.
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