TELFORD VICE, Bulawayo
PROGRESS can be hard to measure, especially when the vertical line of the graph is 25 years long and the horizontal plots what Cricket SA (CSA) have achieved in that time.
For some, SA becoming the top test team in 2012, and defending that title for 21 months, will loom as the tallest skyscraper in this Manhattan.
But that achievement has become the fading silver lining in the darkening cloud that represents SA’s shamble down the rankings. They are currently sixth, and will take on Australia and England in the coming months.
For others, SA reaching the knockout stages in six of their seven World Cups is up there. But crashing out at the first hurdle five of those six times is the other edge of the sword.
That a team perennially as good as SA have yet to reach a World Cup final is vexing. How many finals will they have to lose before they win?
Still others will see value in the fact that SA have won two-and-a-half times as many of their matches since re-admission in 1991 compared to before.
However, in the bad old days they did not play against anyone who wasn’t white – handy for avoiding excellent Asians and wondrous West Indians – and the post-isolation landscape is strewn with enough poor and middling teams to bump up the numbers.
None of those accolades belong the suits, whose best contribution to the cause of any team on the up is to get out of their way. Like wicketkeepers and umpires, they do their best work when they are not noticed – when they understand that they are not sultans but servants.
Happily, CSA got the message back then. If they had been the hyper-sensitive, out-of-touch, bullying bunch they have become, Graeme Smith might never have lifted the mace on that magical August afternoon at Lord’s.
So, what do CSA’s administrators have to show for their efforts these past 25 years, besides not spotting Hansie Cronje’s corruption?
And taking two years to fire their former chief executive, Gerald Majola, after it emerged he had hidden R4.7-million in external bonuses from their governance committees?
And whimping out on the full implementation of the Nicholson recommendations for restructuring their board, measures that were the bright light at the end of that long, dark tunnel?
And slamming a centralised chokehold on information and even others’ opinions to put the game behind a wall Donald Trump would envy? Not true? Ask HD Ackerman.
So, what was there to celebrate at two apparently lavish functions – dissenting journalists were not invited – in Johannesburg this week?
Plenty. Much of it is in Bulawayo struggling muscularly against the confines of a team shirt. His hair is a touch grey but his body looks younger and stronger than it should after bowling 49 354 deliveries in 525 representative matches, 284 of them for SA.
A year away from his 40th birthday, his voice booms as big as ever. It is a voice that has become more emboldened the further he has moved from CSA’s grip. Bulawayo, it seems, is far enough to put important issues into sharp focus.
“We need to get away from the quota system; teams should be selected according to performance and not by looking at how many players of colour are needed on the field.”
Yes, that really was Makhaya Ntini, Zimbabwe’s acting head coach.
“Players today don’t have the big hearts we had. Now, the moment they get out of the under-19s they get pushed into the (senior) system.
“That kills the rest of them, who are looking for that to happen to them. So they end up not working hard enough.
“When I played my first one-dayer in Australia against New Zealand (in 1998) I was told, ‘This is how we want to see you going forward. We see that you’ve got potential and that you can play the game. You are here to learn’.
“Imagine if that had happened to Rabada?”
Ah, Kagiso Rabada, who will need careful managing to fulfill his potential. Only 21 years old and just 42 matches into his international career, and already the signs are worrying: he has bowled the most overs for SA this year, 89.5 more than the runner-up, Imran Tahir.
Blessed with Rabada’s talent Ntini would have been fast bowling’s Muttiah Muralitharan. If Rabada has Ntini’s commitment, that legacy will be his.
Who can blame Ntini for his bittersweetness?
No-one wants to be called a quota player. Ntini was. Rabada never will be. No-one wants to be disregarded because of race. Ntini was. Rabada never will be.
“I’m grateful for the success but it could easily change – that’s just the nature of sport; there’s always an ebb and flow,” Rabada said this week with the breeziness of someone who doesn’t have to think beyond the boundary as often as Ntini.
So CSA’s drive towards transforming the game, often clumsily inept, must happen. Keep doing it, suits, but do it better. Do it properly. That would be progress.