SA cricket: widespread alarm bells

Russell Domingo (Getty)
Russell Domingo (Getty)

Cape Town – Perhaps it was because the veteran fast bowling legend discovered winter rainwater in his kitchen or something.

More likely, though, it was Dale Steyn’s sharp, utterly candid response -- coming just as the last rites were read on them at Southampton - to the Proteas’ nine-wicket Twenty 20 international pulverising at the hands of England on Wednesday.

By means of his Twitter account (@DaleSteyn62), the slowly-rehabilitating competitor, in lingo possibly not suited to the proverbial family environment, used one word to apparently sum up things at the Rose Bowl: it began with ‘f’, ended in ‘k’ and had liberal use of the letter ‘a’ in the middle.

It may also have been the most apt way of assessing South Africa’s performance, which set new standards of late in meekness and bankruptcy on their England tour.

The brutal truth is that both the senior national side and the parallel-travelling SA ‘A’ crew are looking much more vulnerable this UK summer than we might have expected them to, following the prolonged glories of the last southern hemisphere season.

What a difference only some three months (since they won the Test series to close off their praiseworthy all-format New Zealand mission) can make … and in the nastiest of ways.

Cold fact: the Proteas have won just two of their last seven white-ball internationals subsequently, and suddenly look glaringly bereft of appetite, initiative and any cutting edge.

It is a badly-timed trough - even if it can be foolhardy to link the various formats too liberally - as the prestigious four-Test battle for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy lies only a fortnight away with game one at Lord’s.

The lean trot began with the 2-1 one-day international series reverse to the English, then the (depressingly familiar) one-from-three record at the multinational ICC Champions Trophy, ensuring an early exit after a promising enough start, and now the especially galling outcome in the first of three T20 clashes with England.

Things are also well less than hunky-dory for the SA ‘A’ team, who were well beaten (2-0) in the scheduled three-game unofficial ODI series by England Lions – one abandonment – and a few days ago were humbled by an innings by a Sussex combination closer to a second than regular first XI.

Concerned? Well, we’re all allowed to be.

The amalgam of results in recent weeks just begins to suggest that depth and genuine quality is becoming a problem in domestic cricket; that chickens are perhaps coming home to roost in a franchise landscape still more greatly shaped by the politburo, rightly or wrongly, than is the case in other countries.

More and more steely first-class (and in some cases considerably proven international, too) players from our shores have switched their main bread-and-butter loyalties to English counties, with Kolpak contracts in many instances rendering them ineligible henceforth for the Proteas.

Into that category fall such names as Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw (those two particularly sorely missed right now, I’d submit), but also Colin Ingram, Stiaan van Zyl and Simon Harmer.

Meanwhile the sort of raw tearaway the current Proteas look as though they could do with, Marchant de Lange, is playing for Glamorgan on non-Kolpak terms as his wife has a British passport.

As if to remind of his qualities, the still only 26-year-old bagged 5/95 on Wednesday, during the county’s ongoing Championship match against Durham at Chester-le-Street; he has played only two Test matches yet sports nine wickets and is entitled, looking at what’s left right now, to feel just a little miffed about his relative cold-shouldering from Proteas activity.

Recriminations certainly flew thick and fast from Wednesday’s bilious events (at least if you were South African) at the Rose Bowl.

Forthright former national captain Kepler Wessels, from the SuperSport studio, branded the game “embarrassing” and suggested the Proteas needed to “get some happiness back in the group” in a hurry, considering the lengthy nature of the visit with the main portion still to be negotiated.

The crux of the present problem, he felt, was that too many callow figures were being deployed by the Proteas brains trust at once, with dangerous limits on the level of steely experience around them. 

In England itself, one of their own ex-captains, Nasser Hussain, proclaimed with just a hint of parochial glee: “Shambles from South Africa … this could go pear-shaped, this tour. England bowled better, fielded better, batted better.”

The situation is hardly aiding embattled ODI and acting T20 captain AB de Villiers, under increasing scrutiny over his leadership, an issue not unrelated to his late-career policy of curtailing his presence to certain series.

At least on social media, there is a growing sentiment among supporters that his “pick and choose” habit rubs off badly on those in the SA ranks committed to all challenges.

Considering what he has given to the cause over more than a dozen years, De Villiers may be copping a slightly tougher dose of press and public hostility than he deserves, but he has undoubtedly become a hot potato of sorts in the national picture -- and recent results inevitably only aggravate judgements of him.

Nothing has happened more recently, either, to change my own suspicion that a little bit somehow died in the thrilling, multi-talented player with the selection shenanigans that immediately preceded the World Cup semi-final heartbreak of early 2015.

Then there is the coaching quandary.

Despite his unquestionably rousing 2016/17 campaign, incumbent Russell Domingo was advised he would have to join the queue procedurally for rights to the job after the England tour, and mystery surrounds whether he has actually applied to stay on or not.

Cricket South Africa were stubbornly in “state secret” mode earlier this week when contacted by Sport24 for information on whether Domingo was, indeed, in the pot and how many other applicants there might be.

“Closing date was last Friday and names will be submitted to the (appointment recommendation) panel … we will not be issuing details around number of applications or who has applied,” was all communications and public relations manager Altaaf Kazi would venture.

The sense of intrigue may not be doing either the Proteas’ camp harmony or the satisfaction levels of the team’s supporters too much good as things stand, and people are quite entitled – aren’t they? -- to wonder whether Domingo even has the total enthusiasm for what is left of his established tenure in the berth.

You also have to hope CSA aren’t too preoccupied right now with plans for their big T20 biff-baff next season.

Who knows, there may be certain puffs of smoke to judiciously subdue in the interim.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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