The ODI series win in South Africa will go down as one of the memorable overseas achievements by an Indian team. This is notwithstanding the fact that the hosts were depleted and missed two of their batting pillars—skipper Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers—for large parts of the series.
South Africa started the ODIs as the No. 1 team in the ICC rankings and they were expected to have quality reserves. But only in the truncated match at the Wanderers, where the wet-ball made things difficult for the Indian wrist-spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, did the Proteas take the attack to the opposition. South Africa have launched the ‘Vision 2019’ project with an eye to widen their player pool ahead of the World Cup and the team coach, Ottis Gibson, chose to look at the positive side of the series defeat. Far too often we hear about ‘following a process’ and ‘building for the future’ from the losing teams these days. This is actually a modern-day method of masking failures, for sport is about glory-hunting. Traditionally, South Africa have played spin better than any other non-Asian side. Their record in India attests to that. But the Saffers lost 30 wickets in five matches to Yadav and Chahal in this series. They at times played the spinners like novices. Their younger batsmen looked clueless against the turning ball. Both AB de Villiers and du Plessis are 30-plus cricketers. They can’t go on forever. What lies in store after them? This correspondent spoke at length with former South Africa fast bowler Fanie de Villiers—he played 18 Tests and 83 ODIs, and accounted for 180 wickets across formats—on the subject and he would now be extensively quoted… “The likes of one-day cricket and T20 cricket in South Africa are different from what I would have liked them to be. I would have liked seasoned players to play one-day cricket. I would have liked a senior player, who has played for a long time in provincial cricket, to debut in one-day cricket. Because they have got the expertise of wrist-spin, the expertise of line and length if they are the bowlers, and they have got the expertise of using the crease better to keep runs down etc. They will be better players than the younger guns. South Africa has got a system where we blood young players into the world of senior cricket at T20 and one-day cricket level. Our selectors use this format as a medium to develop them for the next level, which is Test cricket,” he says.
De Villiers agrees that throwing young players in at the deep end of one-day cricket is somewhat unfair. The trickle-down effect, however, is that South Africa get finished articles for their Test team. And white-ball cricket has never been the Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) top priority. They basically use it as a platform to make youngsters Test-ready. But tell the former quick that these young players aren’t good enough, and he would snap: “How many young players at the age of 22-23 really make you think that they are seriously good players? Many become superstars later in their careers… Gary Kirsten started at 29. You can’t really judge any player who is under the age of 23-24. “You don’t know their guts or determination yet. Let’s look at the youngsters coming into our system—you have got (Heinrich) Klaasen, (Aiden) Markram, (Andile) Phehlukwayo and others. They might become true superstars. You just have to look at (Kagiso) Rabada to see how early we can develop them into true potential. Did you think Phehlukwayo was good enough to play for South Africa in this series before his knock at the Wanderers?
“Probably he is still not there on the bowling side yet, but he can develop because there’s something special at an early age. He is 21, but look how he batted and won the third ODI for South Africa. If somebody can do that at the age of 21, then he has got serious potential. You can’t judge players so early.” About 14 years ago, South Africa changed their domestic cricket structure to make it franchise-based, rolling over the provincial pattern. Eleven provinces made way for six franchises. De Villiers says the change brought in a strong political dynamic to the whole equation. But he prefers to concentrate on the bigger picture. “The only change in South Africa that has taken place from a provincial structure of cricket to a franchise-based structure is that we have got a Rand versus Pound effect, and also a political dynamic in our selections. That has had a big effect on our cricket. A lot of cricketers didn’t get opportunities and left. They were better players than some of the young players playing. But they left because of those two reasons. We all have a very strong political goal that we are trying to achieve in this country. And that goal is more important than anything else; certainly more important than winning games at all costs.” When a country sets a strong and inclusive political goal, then planning long-term becomes more important than short-term results. The present South African system wants to take the game to every possible nook and cranny of the country. And de Villiers drives home the point that neither it is affecting South Africa’s present nor will it have a negative impact on its cricket future.
“It won’t affect the future of South Africa cricket in the long run. Look at Rabada. Look at (Hashim) Amla and (JP) Duminy. Look at the way Phehlukwayo is coming through. (Khaya) Zondo, too, is very talented and hopefully he has the character and personality to reach the next level. We are still No.1 or 2 in Test cricket and also No.1 or 2 in one-day cricket. I think it’s very important to understand our goals and appreciate them.
“The marketing of cricket in a changing South Africa is very important. At this specific stage, selection policies are very much in favour of that, which is to the good of the South African cricket. Even if we lose some games along the way, it’s just a short-term price to pay. We see cricket as a game for the masses and long-term we will all benefit from it.”