TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
SHAUN Pollock to Graeme Smith at Kingsmead. Makhaya Ntini to Stephen Cook in Potchefstroom. Deon Kruis to Jacques Rudolph at Centurion.
Those were the first balls bowled and faced in what might have been called, “Skattie, we shrunk the game.”
It was October 7, 2004 and the inaugural season of franchise cricket was upon us.
From 11 teams playing in two pools in the previous season’s first-class competition, now there were only six named things like Eagles and Warriors. At least we knew who Western Province-Boland were.
The suits told us this brave new world would give us a steady diet of strength-versus-strength cricket, fewer one-sided games, and a way to keep up with the Australians – who have fielded six teams since 1977-78, up from three in 1892-93, four in 1926-27, and five in 1947-48.
A dozen years on, two of the three matches in the opening of first-class matches last week were over early on the third day and only one of the six first innings totals topped 300.
So, has domestic cricket gone forward or backward?
Early season pitches and batsmen still stirring from a winter’s hibernation will take some of the blame for what happened last week, but there’s a bigger picture.
Did first-class cricket sell its soul along with its relevance in 2004?
“The importance of the first-class competition remains the same because it’s there to shape not only test cricketers but cricketers per se,” a veteran administrator, who declined to be named, said.
“But it’s profile has really gone backwards. That’s happened because franchises belong to nobody in the public sense.
“They mean nothing to anybody. They are of no consequence.
“The first-class competition is not in a good space in terms of its profile, but from a cricketing perspective it’s got to be looked after and funded.”
Not that he was nostalgic for what some see as a golden time for the provincial game: “First-class cricket never was a big seller. Even at Newlands, outside of the Christmas-New Year period, and even if you were vying to win the trophy, there was nobody there.”
For former test fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam, who played 24 of his 46 first-class matches before the advent of the franchise era, the deal cuts both ways.
“Some players were far behind the required level, but after the franchise system was introduced that gap was slightly closed because they didn’t take five or six years before they could perform at the higher level,” Ngam said.
“So it was good and it remains good, but it’s also bad because so many cricketers are leaving the country because they can’t find places within the system.”
Hardus Viljoen to Omphile Ramela at the Wanderers. Marchant de Lange to Dean Elgar at Centurion. Andrew Birch to Imraan Khan at Buffalo Park.
Those were the first balls bowled and faced last week, an indication that as much as things change they also stay the same.
Even if they sell their soul.