South Africa’s Real Cricket Problems

The racial overtones rampant in South African cricket mask the true reasons for South Africa’s poor performances against Australia this summer. Percy Sonn’s ham-handed substitution of Justin Ontong for Jacques Rudolph in South Africa’s playing eleven at Adelaide has disintegrated into a racial melee between the UCB and the local press and public attacks on UCB chairman Gerald Majola by Gauteng chairman Dr. Mtutuzeli Nyoka. Nyoka, who lost out to Percy Sonn in an election for UCB presidency, criticized Majola and the UCB’s positions on the success of transformation as "buffoonery” and "pure idiocy.”

The UCB went on the offensive during the Newlands test match, publishing an anonymously authored report slating the South African press for its slanted reporting of cricket, particularly when it came to players of colour and issues of transformation. The author attacked both non-white and white journalists, noting that the former should know better for using "sensational headlines,” "pious rage” and "destructive innuendo,” arguing that the media does not realise the "complexity of the task facing the UCBSA in transforming the game.”

The anonymous nature of the report, and its heated rhetoric, using words like "vile,” "nonsense” and "patronising,” undermines a legitimate concern of South African cricket’s governing body, that players, fans and the public at large support transformation.  It highlights the UCB’s mismanagement, poor communication and lack of accountability and professionalism.  Instead of presenting a reasoned case, the UCB resorted to vituperative hyperbole; instead of transparent discussion, they hid behind anonymity.  It’s hard to take seriously an organization that abdicates critical self-examination in favour of finger-pointing and childish attacks. It demonstrates a culture of unprofessionalism.

In the wake of Percy Sonn’s management fiasco, Majola assured the players that UCB policy required only one non-white player in the national team and that Gibbs and Ntini both satisfied the requirement on merit.  Certainly, team selection during the recent home tests has borne out Majola’s word, as Boeta Dippenaar was dropped in favor of Darryl Cullinan, who in turn was replaced by another white player, Graeme Smith, all on merit. Paul Adams’ recall again raised transformation issues, but the rationale behind his selection made cricket sense: he was the highest wicket-taker among the domestic spinners, is a wicket-taking bowler and could do no worse than Claude Henderson or Nic Boje had done. The selectors also made clear that Adams’ inclusion was a gamble.

But the UCB and particularly the selectors, has some explaining to do about Jacques Rudolph’s replacement for purely racial reasons. When injury forced Justin Ontong out of the first test in South Africa, Ashwell Prince was selected ahead of Rudolph on the back of a solid 92 for RSA ‘A’ against Australia in his only first-class match of the season.  How Prince leap-frogged the consistently good Rudolph to earn a spot in the national team was never explained. The atrocious treatment of Rudolph is symptomatic of the UCB’s ill-defined and poorly communicated transformation policies, and every player fears that they might suffer similar treatment.

Race-related news may hog the headlines, but fundamental problems with South African cricket go unnoticed. Its popular to blame transformation for South Africa’s brilliant crash against Australia, and the UCB’s poor communication on transformation certainly undermined team morale, but there are other reasons for RSA’s poor showing: selectorial incompetence, administrative arrogance and a domestic structure in decay.

The revolving door of national players is a sign of selectorial bungling.  In six tests, the selectors could not decide if Henderson, Boje, or Adams is their number one spinner. Dewald Pretorius was rushed into the test eleven to replace a recently recalled Steve Elworthy, but was dropped after one poor test and replaced by the chronically over-looked David Terbrugge. When Shaun Pollock, RSA’s main strike bowler was ruled out of the test series with injury, the selectors replaced him with Andrew Hall, a batting allrounder.

The batting order has been tampered with more than a Waqar Younis yorker. Jacques Kallis has shifted down the order. Rudolph was dumped without a match. Boeta Dippenaar has been in and out of the side for over a year. Lance Klusener was sent home from Australia, flown back to Australia, dropped in South Africa and then recalled, at least in limited overs cricket. Ontong was promoted but quickly forgotten in the wake of his injury, and Smith and Prince were awarded test caps, but then ignored for the one day stuff before Smith finally replaced an out of form Gary Kirsten. Neil McKenzie, after fine performances in the test matches both home and away, quickly became redundant when the limited overs series began and made his way back into the final eleven with South Africa on the brink of ignoble defeat. On top of that, the UCB ignored Darryl Cullinan, recalled him and then threw him out when he raised pay concerns.

The selectors simply have no idea about the best fifteen players in the country. Their ignorance is demonstrated by an inability to articulate the purpose of the RSA ‘A’ side, with inconsistent and ad hoc selections for that team. In the main, the selectors have not played top class cricket and make fundamental errors like replacing an injured opening bowler with a batting allrounder.

The UCB’s decision to cut short the selectors contracts indicates that they recognize the problem. The promise is that the new selection panel will have a "new look,” whatever that might mean. In January, UCB president Percy Sonn suggested that Graeme Pollock, a selector that has played test cricket, might lose his job for leaking the Ontong selection debacle.  Pollock has a keen eye for talent and knows his cricket; sacking him would be a mistake. Selectorial indifference, however, is directly correlated to administrative incompetence.

Gary Kirsten recently told the press it was difficult for players to concentrate on their duties in the middle with off-field problems. It’s unfair to expect optimal performance from insecure, demoralized and disenchanted players, especially when the root of the problem lies with administrative inefficiency. The UCB is going to have to address the compensation issues raised by Darryl Cullinan and it’s unclear why Cullinan’s reasonable request elicited such a violent, bridge-burning response from Majola. In a climate of uncertainty, selectorial ineptitude, poor communication, and political gamesmanship it’s foolhardy to expect insecure players to be unconcerned with compensation. Majola dismissed national coach Graham Ford’s complaint about the national selectors lack of communication with him and skipper Shaun Pollock as "excuses” for poor performances. With administrators dismissive of the needs and concerns of those responsible for performance, it’s perfidious to lay the blame solely at the players’ and coach’s door.

Amazingly, against this backdrop Majola deflected attention from a promise to assess the UCB’s management structure by hinting at cutting players’ salaries. "In the future we should look at having a performance agreement with players. We need to look at something that will make them perform.  You cant be paid huge retainers in you’re not performing well.”  In light of the controversies surrounding the national team, the statement was unbelievably poorly timed, coming in the midst of the limited overs series against the Australians and forced Shaun Pollock to respond on behalf of his players. Naturally, Pollock criticized the idea as unfair, stressing that players already lost out on incentives for poor performances. Players now must add salary cuts to the list of insecurities resulting from poor administration and communication, nebulous transformation policies, mistreatment of senior pros and young players, loss of incentives and sponsorship, and possible career-ending poor form.  Majola’s thoughtless remarks only deepen the divide of mistrust between South African players and administrators.

Sure, the responsibility for performance ultimately rests with the players.  Administrators sit back in luxury suites, safely insulated from Glenn McGrath’s testing deliveries and Shane Warne’s mesmerizing leg-spinners. They don’t have to bowl at the destructive Adam Gilchrist, or match wits with the Iceman. The sole task assigned administrators is to make sure that players’ only worries are scoring runs, taking wickets and holding catches. Instead, they have inflated their self-worth with idiotic policies, untimely press statements, thoughtless sound bytes, and abysmal administration unworthy of a cricket powerhouse. Majola, Sonn, Magiet and friends should bear in mind that it’s easier to find new administrators than it is to replace international calibre cricketers. They certainly wouldn’t be missed.

Finally, the UCB must face up to the fact that the expanded first class system has diminished the quality of domestic and in turn international, South African cricket. With the increased number of players, the overall competitiveness of local competitions suffered. England tried to improve competitiveness at the domestic first class level by creating two-divisions to refine the bloated county system. Australia’s intensity and ability to produce players that adapt to international cricket with relative ease is attributed to the fierce competition of their domestic cricket, where six State level teams compete and only the best players survive. By contrast, South African players like Andre Nel, for example, thrive domestically but struggle on the international stage.

The UCB is obligated to expand cricket to South Africa’s non-white communities, so eliminating teams is not viable. A two-division system, with weaker teams relegated to a second division, stigmatises and devalues the achievements of players in the lower division and makes it more difficult for them to earn higher honours. One solution might be a dual conference set-up, similar to that of professional sports in the USA, with an equal number of approximately equal strength teams in each conference competing for playoff positions. This would insure inter and intra-conference competitiveness, rivalry, continue to propagate competitiveness and stimulate fan interest.

Hopefully the new look selection panel will include former cricketers who actively scout players, rather than picking from newspaper scorecards and reputation. Poor communication on issues like compensation and transformation cannot continue and the local press is not the appropriate forum for Sonn and Majola to tout ideas, nor raise concerns and criticisms.  The first line of communication must be with coach and players and only after healthy debate among the participants should the UCB involve the media. Blindsiding players in the middle of a series with public suggestions of firing of the national coach, pay cuts, or increased quotas is distracting and demoralizing. Finally, the UCB must admit its policies and domestic structures contribute to poor performance by diluting domestic competitiveness; only then can sustained competitiveness be harmonized with growth and transformation.

Change is vital to South African cricket’s growth, development, and competitiveness. The road ahead is rocky, as Gerald Majola’s UCB faces a crisis of performance and morale less than a year before South Africa host the 2003 World Cup. Yet, the administration steadfastly refuses to admit its own role in creating the problem. South African cricket stands on the precipice of disaster and only administrative reform can save it. Let’s hope Majola is up to the task.

©2002 Justin Lichterman

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