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Cricket news - What can South African cricket learn from rugby's success?

Siya Kolisi of the Springboks, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Rassie Erasmus during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Champions Tour

In the wake of the Springboks' remarkable 32-12 defeat of England in Yokohama on Saturday (November 2), a post-World Cup final meme started doing the rounds. It showed the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in white shirt and black jacket, a cell phone to his ear. He was smiling mildly and the caption next to his face said: "Rassie, how much do you know about cricket?"

The "Rassie" to whom the president referred is, of course, Rassie Erasmus, the Springbok coach, and a man widely credited with plotting the Springboks' turnaround since he took over coaching duties from Allister Coetzee in March 2018.

It was a time, said one former England player after the final, "When South Africa couldn't win a raffle".

After a seventh-placed finish at the World Cup in England and a hopeless whitewash at the hands of India last month, the Proteas are in a similar place to where their rugby counterparts were back then, which leads one to wonder whether there might be any lessons to take from the Springbok turnaround.

"After a one-off friendly against Wales in Washington DC, Erasmus' first series in charge was, as luck would have it, an incoming tour by England. The series opener was a high-scoring game at Ellis Park characterized by defensive frailties by both sides, with the second test taking place in Bloemfontein slap bang in the centre of the Highveld and in many respects the symbolic heartland of both Afrikanerdom and rugby - nominally the Afrikaners' game but perhaps, after the events of the last six weeks', their game no longer.

The Bloem Test took place on June 16, 2018, 42 years to the day after the schoolchildren of Soweto, the township outside of Johannesburg, had risen up against their oppressors, refusing not only to talk Afrikaans but to be taught in the language as a medium of instruction.

After early jitters, which saw the Springboks go 12-0 down, they ultimately prevailed 23-12 and so winning the series before losing the third and final test."

The England tour, with its June 16 beginning, was the first time Erasmus showed his hand. He knew that the likelihood of the 'Boks playing England at some late stage of the World Cup in 18 months' time was good, and the spine of the team - prop forward Tendai Mtawarira, eighthman Duanne Vermeulen, flyhalf Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf and Willie le Roux at fullback - was remarkably similar to the team that took the Webb Ellis Cup less than a week ago.

His senior lieutenants thus assembled, Erasmus reserved possibly his most audacious gambit for last: for the England series he made Siya Kolisi the first black Springbok captain in the history of the South African game.

So here we were, a June 16 Test - commemorated as "Youth Day" in South Africa - with the 'Boks being led by a captain who had learned his rugby playing for Grey High and African Bombers, the latter not only the most perfectly-named club in the rugby universe, but an institution in the black rugby-playing heartland of the Eastern Cape.

All of this might have been serendipitous, an accident of the fates, but despite Erasmus saying subsequently that he was "naive" in his decision to appoint Kolisi captain, the racial portents were good. Here was a coach who seemed aware of the broad canvass and the fine strokes. He concentrated on the scrum, a traditional Springbok strength, and he paid more attention than former 'Bok coaches to the attacking possibilities behind it.

As ever in South Africa, where every meaning seems to have another layer of meaning within it, Erasmus had unfurled his first double-whammy. He was winning on the pitch but he also seemed to be winning the infinitely more tricky public relations wrestle. So far, so good.

Crucially in the months that followed, Erasmus was cocooned by his employers, SA Rugby, and given the support staff he wanted, something Coetzee never had the luxury of. He continued his long-time association with 'Bok defence coach, Jacques Nienaber, the two having met in the Army.

Jurie Roux and Mark Alexander, SA Rugby's chief executive and president respectively, gave Erasmus space and respect. They didn't micro-manage him and if they interfered, which is unlikely, they did so privately. Cleverly, and with no small amount of wisdom, Springbok rugby seldom strayed from the category of sport in the nation's newspapers and websites.

Unlike cricket's almost constant mess and negativity, continuity was preserved. There were no governance spats, public disagreements with the players union or the airing of dirty financial laundry.

It wasn't all smooth, however. There were those who argued that Kolisi wasn't worth his place in the side, particularly after he played no part in the 2019 Rugby Championship, a competition against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand won comprehensively without him.

Others demurred about De Klerk, the pin-up blonde scrumhalf famous for a high-octane game liable to go badly wrong. Others still worried about Le Roux's lack of bottle and anxious hands, his propensity to run sideways rather than straight; and then there was winger Cheslin Kolbe's lack of physical stature despite the Fred Astaire lightness of his feet.

Several years ago, Kumar Sangakarra, the Sri Lankan master, argued in his Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord's that cricket on the island only came truly of age when it embraced unorthodoxy. The MCC coaching manual might have encouraged the along-the-ground cover-drive between cover and extra-cover but Sanath Jayasuriya pragmatically weighed up the options and carved it over the top. Lasith Malinga bowled his slinging yorkers, almost impossible to dig out, and Muttiah Muralitharan bamboozled the world's best batsmen to the tune of over 800 Test wickets strong.

Embracing unorthodoxy had its advantages. A mere 15 years after playing their first Test, Sri Lanka won a World Cup. This was cricket's virtuous circle: use what you have with confidence, secure in the knowledge that your bravery will be rewarded; when your bravery is rewarded keep the template because it's your best way of ensuring that success comes your way again.

One of the neglected aspects in the discussion of Erasmus' success is that he's been prepared to embrace unorthodoxy and harness it to his ends. Take De Klerk. The Sale Sharks scrumhalf is probably the most unconventional player in his position in the world game. He's a nuisance as a defender and capable of great bouts of improvisation as an attacker. Erasmus has harnessed his talents without shackling him. After playing poorly against the All Blacks, he had a very good final.

Similar pragmatism drove Erasmus' approach to using his French, English and Japan-based players like Frans Steyn at Montpellier, Franco Mostert at Gloucester and Le Roux at Wasps and Toyota Verblitz.

Which seems a handy reminder that cricket could learn not to alienate their players, and not to be in an almost constant low-scale war with the SA Cricketers' Association (SACA), the players' union. The names of the high-profile cricketers who have either taken the Kolpak route or are in the midst of qualifying for England like Essex's Simon Harmer, are well-rehearsed, but there's an entire category of players who have moved - or fled - beneath that, and a category further below that.

Last week, playing for Wellington, Devon Conway, the former Lions left-hander, scored 327 not out against Canterbury. He'll qualify for New Zealand in September 2020, a month before Australia hosts the next T20 WC.

Rusty Theron played for the USA against Papua New Guinea in September, with Davy Jacobs, his former Warriors skipper, turning out for neighbours Canada. The three are just the tip of an iceberg that probably now numbers in the hundreds. No system can sustain such regular losses of talent and intellectual capital indefinitely and hope to prosper.

Theron, who played four ODIs for South Africa and a handful of T20s, was a boarder at Grey High in Port Elizabeth, just like the Springbok captain, Kolisi. Such institutions produce good young cricketers and rugby players as a matter of course, but such is the mistrust between the administrators and the players that so many of them now live elsewhere.

Kolisi's path only went as far as Cape Town. He stayed in the system, paid his dues with the Stormers, and is now the closest thing the country has to an international sporting superstar.

Erasmus' willingness to tolerate - and even embrace - the unconventional finds an interesting echo in Theron. The fast-bowler was unlikely to have had a long international career but the thing about him is that he was different. South African cricket has all but lost its ability to harness those who haven't been mechanised through the endless talent-acceleration and high-performance factories.

Kolbe, who jinxed around England's captain, Owen Farrell, and then ghosted past Joe Marler to score the Springboks' second try in the final, is a lightweight in international rugby terms, but a player who steps with the confidence of a tap-dancer.

Cricket's flirtation with Kolbe's equivalents - a Paul Adams, say, or, to some extent, a Hashim Amla - is all but over. With the exception of wrist-spinner, Tabraiz Shamsi, the different has been all but filtered out of the local cricket system in favour of versions of the same.

Finally, because comparisons between rugby and cricket suggest themselves at the moment, it doesn't mean that such comparisons have a great deal to offer. Rugby is an explosive game of physical courage and strength, ideally suited to proving people wrong because it only lasts for an hour-and-a-half rather than for days on end.

Although played between teams, cricket is less obviously a team game than rugby. Team unity is thus more elusive and more complicated, something that must constantly be striven for rather than assumed.

In a fraught environment where administrators who have little or no playing experience insist, for political reasons, on interfering, such unity is probably beyond all but the godly. And so it will remain in South African cricket for the foreseeable future as the system bleeds good players and even the country's president draws attention to the administrators' shortcomings.

While the nation is happy and proud at the moment, there's a small part of me that suspects the mandarins at SA Rugby might have hoodwinked us all. Despite evidence to the contrary, the power in the game remains in the hands of white, Afrikaans-speaking men like Roux, Erasmus and Nienaber, and is therefore less transformed than it might appear. Given recent events in Japan, perhaps it's a good thing.

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