If a fish rots from the head, the fish that is South Africa’s men’s team limping home across the Indian Ocean on one battered fin is cursed with a rotting head at each end.
At one end, the damage caused by a bumptiously aggressive, arrogant administration that wouldn’t know reality if it smacked it upside the head with — as we say here on the sharp tip of Africa — a wet fish.
At the other end, the hurt of a broken bunch of players who, in the wake of South Africa’s worst performance in a series in living memory, could use some aggression or even arrogance and have had far too much reality for their own good.
India have been the undoing of many of cricket’s finest teams. This South Africa side, wounded by the still fresh retirements of Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, and with the scars left by the excision of AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel yet to heal, was not among the best. But they should have done better than become the first South Africa team to suffer innings defeats in consecutive matches since 1936.
India dominated every aspect of the series to such an extent that the South Africans didn’t know where to look. Not that they knew beforehand.
If they gazed upward they saw those bilious board members and execrable executives cheerfully chugging their way through another few million in losses. If they cast their eyes downward they saw a domestic system dangerously eroded by the inexorable exodus of players and coaches.
The South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA), the country’s professional player body, estimates Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) losses will amount to around $6.8 million by the end of the 2022 rights cycle. We know this because the figure is in the court papers for the legal action SACA are taking against CSA over a plan to restructure the domestic game that will double the number of teams in the top flight, which, perversely, could lead to 70 players losing their jobs.
And yet CSA are blithely — or even blindly — lurching ahead with planning for the second edition of the Mzansi Super League (MSL), the T20 competition in which money flows down the drain faster than runs hit the scoreboard.
How can that kind of logic vacuum not have an effect on Faf du Plessis and his team? If the people who call themselves custodians of the game don’t have enough custodial sense to recognise the MSL for what it is — a terrible, wasteful, stupid idea — what right do they have to hold the players to a competent standard?
It is no longer even a mild surprise when a prominent player abandons his dream of making it to the international level in favour of a Kolpak contract or moving to England, New Zealand or Australia. The surprise is that more have not gone that route. Yet. Now coaches are following their lead. Even administrators — the better ones — are jumping ship.
Cricket is as much at the mercy of a weak currency as every other industry in South Africa, a challenge not eased by the endemic corruption at the highest levels of a society that once gave the world reason to believe evil could be conquered. But Nelson Mandela is dead, as is South Africa’s hope for a future in which the legacy of apartheid has ceased to be the everyday reality for millions of its citizens.
Infect that already poisoned scenario with a middle class that refuses to see the cruel folly of the assumption that the privilege it was born into is its right, and it isn’t difficult to understand why the country is shambling towards becoming a failed state in which a good day is when the power company sticks to the schedule of rolling blackouts.
That same middle class claims cricket as its cultural property, a beacon of its superiority over the common masses, the great unwashed, the dreaded Them. You know — soccer people.
Efforts to right the wrongs of the past are sneered at by people who don’t want to know, or have willfully forgotten, that South Africa have never chosen their cricket teams on merit. For the first 103 of their 108 years as a Test-playing nation — not considering the 22 years of their isolation — the quota was 11 white players.
Attempts to undo that crippling disadvantage have not succeeded nearly as well as hoped, and have indeed damaged the cause by sewing doubt and suspicion: Proof of how debilitating the past was for the game.
This thing runs deep down our country’s roots, far further than the turf under a cricket pitch and into the gold mines themselves. Where there is money to be made there is evil to be done, and there was a lot of money to be made in South Africa. Hence a lot of evil was delivered in the form of brutal laws enforced by murderous authorities.
Apartheid still stinks in South Africa’s streets: In those where black people endure life with hardly any delivery of the services the politicians they vote for — in decreasing numbers — promise to provide, as well as in the streets that gleam with affluence where the few black people to be seen are gardeners and maids.
The other edge of the sword of South Africa’s inequality between rich and poor, which the World Bank has estimated to be the worst in the world, is the greed and cynicism that lurks to exploit that gap for all its worth. How difficult is it to tell poor people they should be angry with their lot, and that they should take out their frustrations on those even worse off than them?
Welcome, South African cricket, to all that. Actually, the game has been central to all that for as long as it’s been in South Africa. It arrived as part of the colonial experiment, was nudged into the post-colonial experiment, and then subverted into the mythology of the apartheid experiment. Now it is a small but visible part of the pseudo-democratic present, a minnow in an ever-shrinking pond.
“Being a fish out of water is tough, but that’s how you evolve,” Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani-American comedian, said. Or you become a casualty of evolution; a victim of bigger, stronger but not necessarily better forces. If you’re limping home on one battered fin, both your heads rotting, good luck avoiding the sharks.
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