South Africa’s men’s Test side heads to Sydney seeking consolation. The series has been lost, and the vultures are circling; another batting disintegration in Melbourne has led to deep, probing questions about the state of Test cricket in South Africa. Where has it gone wrong?
South Africa has traditionally been one of Test cricket’s powerhouses since returning to the international arena after their apartheid-induced exile, spending three separate periods as the world’s number-one ranked Test side. They had won three of the previous Test series in Australia, an immense achievement and one indicative of their past strength. Their cricket on the field has often been noted for its resilience, competitiveness, and, at times, abrasiveness. Past legends like Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, and Gary Kirsten would have to be prized out with a hammer and chisel, a stark contrast to the fragility of their current batting line-up.
South Africa hasn’t reached 200 in their last seven innings, unsurprisingly losing their last four Test matches. Batting woes were an overriding theme of 2022 for the Proteas, even in their impressive series win over India. They only scored two Test hundreds all year; Saul Erwee and Kyle Verrayne both passed three figures in their excellent bounce-back win in Christchurch, while their leading run scorer for the year, skipper Dean Elgar, averaged an underwhelming 28.85. On the rare occasions their batting fired, they invariably won. Their bowling attack was typically impressive, led by the outstanding Kagiso Rabada, who took 47 wickets in 2022 in just 8 Test matches at an average of 22.25. At the same time, Marco Jansen emerged as an exciting prospect, another addition to their enviable battalion of fast bowlers. Sadly, Test match quality batters currently seem a rare commodity in South Africa.
South Africa’s batting inadequacies have provoked several theories and responses, with people pointing fingers at various issues. The restructuring of the first-class game has come under the microscope; moving away from the six-team franchise system to 15 teams split into two divisions has been a contentious idea, though it is far too early to judge whether the changes have had any ramifications. The notion is to create a more comprehensive player pool, creating greater competition for spaces in the national squad. While the regions are more representative of their people and cultural identity, providing greater opportunities for underrepresented minorities.
While that all sounds good in theory, the return to a two-division structure has reduced the number of first-class games, diminishing the opportunity for players to impress. The tournament is disrupted by the new Twenty20 competition starting in January, the SA20, meaning players will have to adapt their mindset and approach. Cricket South Africa has pinned many of its hopes on the SA20, seeking to create a competitive, commercial product that can generate much-needed revenue. Worryingly, all three of their domestic competitions currently lack sponsorship.
Whether the SA20 can compete with the likes of the Big Bash and the IPL remains to be seen. The tournament hasn’t attracted as many star names as desired, shorn of any Australian or Indian players, resulting in a heavy English presence. The tournament has been heavily marketed, indicating the growing popularity of franchise cricket, both to fans and cricketing boards. Test cricket is in a vulnerable position, unable to compete financially. In the new Future Tours Programme, South Africa will play just 28 Tests between 2023 and 2027, compared to England, who will play 43 Tests in the same period. The prioritisation of T20 cricket has seemingly reached South Africa, which has already lost global stars like Quinton De Kock to the lures of franchise cricket. A reduction in Test cricket is unlikely to help South Africa’s batters forge the necessary skills and temperament to succeed in the longer format.Embed from Getty Images
A lack of consistent selection has also hampered the Proteas, who used 22 players in their eleven Test matches last year; captain Dean Elgar and wicket-keeper Kyle Verreyne the only two constants. Verreyne was one of the few success stories of last year, seizing on the opportunity presented by Quinton de Kock’s Test retirement. His keeping was impressive in English conditions, while he showed dogged resilience at times with his batting, typified by his stern resistance on the opening day in Brisbane. He has shown he has the appetite and character for Test cricket; the next step is finding greater consistency. Admittedly, injuries have affected selection; two of their more consistent batters, Tenda Bavuma and Keegan Peterson, have spent time on the sidelines. They’ve also been exposed to several bowler-friendly surfaces, notably the dubious pitch at the Gabba, though there was nothing wrong with the surface at the MCG.
South Africa’s batting woes could be seen as systematic of a general decline in Test match standards, as the international calendar has become bloated with white-ball cricket, leaving batters constantly having to adjust between different formats, a stiff task both technically and mentally. Hopefully, the structural changes imposed on the domestic game will have the desired effect, creating a broader and more racially inclusive playing pool. South Africa has a rich pedigree in Test cricket, with a history of producing performances despite being continuously bogged down by a myriad of political problems away from the wicket. For now, Sydney represents a chance to salvage some pride and start 2023 in more optimistic spirits.