SA’s quality gap is colour-blind

Sunday Times


WHEN Stephen Cook sent the first ball he faced in test cricket scurrying to the midwicket boundary easy as you like at Centurion on Friday, the argument that a quality gap looms between the domestic and international games seemed also to have been dispatched to the fence.

Not quite. Even though as storied an opponent as James Anderson bowled it, it was a poor delivery – a leg-stump half-volley that far lesser players than Cook would have dealt with similarly.

But he would face many more, significantly better deliveries on Friday, and he overcame the challenges they presented to become just the sixth South African to score a century on debut.

Gap? What gap?

Not everyone saw things that way.

“I think the gap is getting bigger. The franchise teams are getting weaker. If you put a guy like Stephen in, he is experienced and he has been playing franchise cricket for many years in probably a tougher environment than it is now.”

And that, no less, from former SA opening batsman Jimmy Cook – Stephen’s father.

“You never get Hashim (Amla) and those guys playing franchise cricket. They never play in that system.”

Time was when that wasn’t the case.

“I only missed one game for Transvaal when we were playing those rebel games,” Cook said. “You never missed a game for your province. So your better players were always involved. Now they are not.”

For Dean Elgar, there was no gap. Instead, there was something far larger.

“You take a leap, and it’s vast,” SA opener Dean Elgar said. “The intensity is totally different. The bowlers are totally different. The batsmen are also totally different. I can’t say you can speak of them (domestic and international cricket) in the same sentence.”

Warriors chief executive Jesse Chellan took a contrary view: “The gap hasn’t been large. You’ve got to admit that the franchise system has served the Proteas well – that’s why the team has been No. 1.

“Has the franchise system delivered players to the international side? Yes.”

But Titans coach Rob Walter, who knows the international scene from his time as SA’s conditioning coach, acknowledged the problem and took on board the responsibility of trying to solve it.

“The role of us as coaches is to shorten that gap,” Walter said. “But for players who have not had to perform at that level, you’re having a theoretical rather than a tangible conversation.

“It’s hard to simulate the conditions of facing an attack like England’s. It’s hard to leave, and leave, and leave …

“But Temba (Bavuma) has been able to adapt his game to perform well at the highest level and so has Faf (du Plessis).”

Might part of the issue be the way transformation is implemented at franchise level, where six players of colour – three of them black African – is the stipulation? Are traditional selection criteria and balancing the team superseded by colour coding?

“It’s really irrelevant which players are playing; it’s about how well they implement what you are saying as a coach,” Walter said.

“We’d be looking in the wrong direction if we blamed transformation. Besides, if you crack the nod, then you’re ready.”

Bavuma was ready. So was Kagiso Rabada. As, clearly, was Cook.

There is a gap. But it is colour-blind.

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