The decision by the BCCI to send the Indian cricket team on a much shorter tour of South Africa than CSA had hoped for has brought about some really interesting reactions. A good many of them are abusive, and no doubt abuse will follow in the face of the harsh realities I am going to point out here. Fair enough, for every abusive comment this article gets shall just serve to underline the problem with SA cricket at the moment.
First off, broadly at fault are the ICC with their decision some time ago that "all Test nations must play each other home and away within a 5 year cycle". This has led to the congested world cricket calendar. It has not, so far as I am aware, been looked at or modified in the face of things like 20-20 World Championships and of course the IPL. As well as doubling the amount of cricket nations play, it's served to make Test series disposable and forgettable. The top nations playing the minnows so frequently has not enhanced the minnows at all and nor has it increased interest. A bit of space between big Test sides against the smaller ones tends to build up more interest.
Now, on to the harsh truths of SA cricket and indeed CSA. It baffles me that CSA have the audacity and nerve to complain about someone else limiting a Test series when they themselves did this earlier in the year. SA were supposed to play Tests against Sri Lanka; a series in which SA would have fancied their chances of cementing their World Number 1 status. CSA requested that the series be cancelled, though - a request that Sri Lanka could do little about except accept. What's good for the goose and all that.
This idea that the BCCI and CSA are "strong allies" is also an illusion. Too much has always been made of the fact that India were the first nation able to host SA when the era of isolation came to an end. It was a decision born from economics and availability; far too much has been made over the years of any "special relationship" India sought from SA. Any good relations between the two came to an end right around the financial farce around hosting the IPL in SA. With the BCCI constantly battling corruption and match fixing in their domestic game, does anyone really think they didn't care about their prized tournament being tarnished by the questions over the money from the competition?
South Africa also has to accept that it's not seen as a particularly interesting or lucrative side to play. Whereas the world was most forgiving of the Hansie Cronje incident - for that was something which could have hit any nation - the team ever since, in particular in the last 8 or so years, has not exactly endeared itself to the cricket world. Yes, SA has some of the greatest, gifted players the game has ever known, but they play a dull, technical and precise game. Gone are the days of flair and excitement.
SA and the team itself tend to shoot themselves in the foot. The last time England toured here, for instance, we were bombarded with adverts and comments highlighting and indeed exaggerating the amount of SA born players in the English team. This all created a sense that it wasn't a worthwhile series for most viewers, so far did it go to cheapen the visitors value.
Captain Smith also doesn't help. More than one international captain has commented that, whereas banter and sledging are all part of the game, Smith seems to stand at slip and just unleash the same homophobic abuse at all batsmen for the whole innings. If I recall correctly, Nasser Hussain asked him if he didn't have any more interesting abuse for a change, but still Smith continued calling him the same thing again and again. And let us not forget the era of Andre Nel, whose pantomime perfomances were just embarassing for everyone to watch.
For all the loyal, dedicated fans SA has, South Africa also has to accept that it does not have any great rivalry with any other Test side, except perhaps only in the head of the likes of Barry Richards, a gent who lest we forget recently claimed to have "suffered more than anyone else because of apartheid". England and Australia see each other as their greatest rivals, whether they are 1 and 2 in the world or 7 and 8. After that, both see India as the next greatest challenge, then the West Indies, mindful always of the great team they fielded in the 70s and 80s. India see maintaining supremacy against all visitors at home as their greatest rival, followed by a desire to win when touring Australia and England. No Test team out there sees SA as anything but a conventional tour, none of them see a series as a "resumption of rivalry". With the less than endearing approach of Smith and the workmanlike, technical approach of the team, it is not like any rivalry will be born in this era.
It's incredibly frustrating that South Africa are the number one Test team in the world yet have attained it in a way that inspires neither respect, interest or rivalry with any other Team. Whereas the likes of Kallis, Steyn and indeed Smith (when he keeps his mouth shut) are truly great players, they are just not characters like Hansie, Donald, Gibbs and Fanie all were. They were players that excited the crowd and provided opponents with a real sense of challenge. Until SA has players like that again, the sense of "so what" about both playing SA and their Test ranking will remain.
I'd like to think that the cricketing world would love to see a South African side that once again played interesting cricket and contained players who were interesting characters. The dedicated SA fans, who have put up with so much nonsense off the field, certainly deserve a team worthy of their following. Until that time, expect all series featuring SA to be along the lines of what India propose - that is, what they have to play, not what they want to.
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