CSA domestic shakeup plan: Leap or plunge?

Thabang Moroe (Gallo)
Thabang Moroe (Gallo)

Cape Town - A middle ground ... between what is almost undeniably, in this turbulent economic and socio-political climate, a rock and a hard place for Cricket South Africa.

That was my own wish, on immediate thought, when it became known over the last few days that cricket’s controlling body in the country intends quite radically reshaping - though sceptics might brand it a reinvention of the wheel - the labouring domestic first-class set-up from the end of next season.

In what is being touted by CEO Thabang Moroe as a key cash-saving device at a time when CSA are haemorrhaging money (revised loss expectations of some R350-million have been reported for the next four-year period), their board has given the green light for a return to a provincial-based, 12-team model from the current six-team senior franchise system.

There are significant hurdles to jump first: the franchises will have to consulted, while key stakeholder the South African Cricketers Association (SACA) has already expressed its ire over a lack of communication with it over what is clearly a major alteration to the environment.  

The franchise framework was introduced in 2004/05, streamlining into six what had been an 11-team senior provincial system, as Western Province and Boland became the Cape Cobras, Free State and Griquas the Eagles (later Knights), Eastern Province and Border the Warriors, Gauteng and North-West the Lions, Northerns and Easterns the Titans and KwaZulu-Natal were reborn as the Dolphins.

But a second-tier, still dubiously first-class-status and not widely loved or saluted Provincial Challenge competition remained.

At the time of its installation, of course, the franchise model was hyped as potentially the best thing since sliced bread, supposedly promoting a better climate of strength versus strength for the shaping of mentally- and technically-ready future Proteas international stars and overwhelmingly emulating the long-time Sheffield Shield model in Australia, featuring the six state sides.

Also around that period, Aussie cricket was at giddying, dominating heights globally, suggesting that their home-based model was a rich breeding ground for the national cause - there have been fewer superlatives around it in more recent years with both the Test-level Baggy Greens and their white-ball parallel teams having lost plenty of their prior eminence.

Domestic landscapes world-wide have faced increasingly severe challenges since that mid-2000s period, too: for one thing, Twenty20 cricket was still very much in its novel infancy (and certainly minus the proliferation of cosmopolitan T20 leagues and their often-specialist travelling players to have subsequently mushroomed).

International cricket was also largely still comprised of just the two most established formats (Tests and 50-overs); the gradual filtering-in of the third meant international stars began playing even more infrequently than they were already for their provinces, states, counties and the like.

So domestic cricket in South Africa has suffered, in line with that of so many other top-tier nations, through the inevitable, ever-encroaching, diluted-pool-of-players hallmark it now carries for the most part.

With just six teams playing double rounds of matches - and in applicable cases knockout phases, into the bargain - over three major competitions, the landscape has just become too samey: how enthusiastically or convincingly, really, can you hype up what might be the seventh or eighth “cross-Hennops derby grudge match” between the Lions and Titans, or the “Cape coastal feud” between the Cobras and Warriors in a particular season?

But whether a dramatic rise by 100 percent of the competing, premier-tier teams will really serve as a freshening, constructive solution is a moot point. (Bear in mind that it could eventually be more, as CSA earmark a further swelling from a dozen to 14 outfits after season three of the revamped structure.)

I am not inclined to completely diss the concept at this point, especially as the seasoned, dedicated figure who is Corrie van Zyl (former SA fast bowler and currently CSA’s general manager of cricket) has indicated that eventually a Section A and B may develop – perhaps giving better context and incentives to teams, a la the County Championship model in the UK.

There are plenty of passionate, often unsung administrators and coaches in some of South Africa’s less urban or outright “platteland” areas, and rough diamonds in playing terms - well worthy of polishing - may conceivably be nursed to the fore under a significantly rebranded domestic set-up.

Given statutory transformation requirements within existing franchise sides, too, various players of proven first-class quality are often enough required to sit out matches - ironically depriving some of the more callow, developing figures of their on-field expertise and wisdom.

With a broader network of teams, you would hope that street-smart cricketers (remember that the halcyon, enormously enriching days of a global superstar Desmond Haynes or Malcolm Marshall in your domestic team are sadly long gone in this country) will be prudently dispersed across them and get to turn out on a more consistent basis.

And while SA-born, county-committing Kolpak players can be an emotional subject and far from everyone’s cup of tea back home, you would imagine there would be better - and frankly useful, essential? - scope for more of them to get more actively involved again during the South African summer, spreading their knowledge and bolstering team quality and balance in an expanded landscape.

Still, CSA’s evident nirvana of a 14-team system not too far up the line does bring into sharp focus whether the country will suddenly be ready to showcase 154 truly first-class players on any one day of supposedly top-flight, potentially seven-matches-at-once domestic competition.

My own regret on that front is that the organisation never got around to trialling a more moderate expansion model suggested in early 2016, when there were advocates for the current, six-team franchise structure being cranked up by two to eight (Potchefstroom, and one of East London or Kimberley, supposedly intended then as new headquarters).

There’s a need for change, and I buy in, in principle.

 But shifting from six to a dozen just seems a little too much like a leap across a sinkhole that could translate into a painful fall.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing ...

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