November 21, 2012

From South Africa to the other SA

Johan Botha has no regrets about leaving his home country and is enjoying the chance to play more first-class cricket as captain of South Australia

The most notable proof of how much it meant for Johan Botha to have played international cricket is his son. Austin's name is a combination of the place Botha made his Test debut, Australia, and the country where he played his first one-day game - India. Realistically Botha has little chance of playing for South Africa again, but he will always have those two firsts.

To clarify: Botha has not retired from international cricket, neither has he fallen out with the South African administration. He made a choice to move on before he was moved on, and as a result it is unlikely he will be able to win back his spot.

Botha's sidelining was clearly signposted, even though for a while it looked like he was on the up. He was named T20 captain in August 2010, when Graeme Smith stepped down as leader in the shortest format. Smith also declared his intention to give up the one-day leadership after the 2011 World Cup and Botha was touted as his successor.

Less than a year later, Botha was done out of both roles. AB de Villiers was appointed to lead in both limited-overs formats and Botha could see the end. He was left out of January's one-day series against Sri Lanka and competition for his place was fierce. More often than not, he lost out to Robin Peterson.

"Losing the captaincy played a role in being left out of the side more often," Botha said. "You want a guy who is captain to be a regular in the team, and I thought that if AB is captain and I am not, they might start thinking that way: that I don't have to be in the team all the time.

"I didn't have any problem with that. AB is a great player and he's always in the line-up. That's what the team wanted and that's great. I had seven years with South Africa and if it never comes up again, I'll still be happy. I played five Tests, almost 80 ODIs and 40 T20s, so it's not like I have to go back there one day. If this is it then this is it."

Botha is comfortable talking about international cricket in the past tense. He identified being chosen as captain for the first time as among his proudest moments, along with winning back-to-back one-day series against Australia in 2008-09. He can even pick out his best game. "Beating India at the World Cup last year in Nagpur was a special effort."

"It was a great opportunity to lead a team who wants to improve. And I didn't want to look back years later and think that it was something I should have done"

He also doesn't hesitate to mention his one regret. "I would have liked to have played one Test in South Africa." As he watches South Africa's changing approach to spin and the emphasis that has been placed on Imran Tahir's role in the Adelaide Test, he may wonder if it could have been him instead.

When he asked Cricket South Africa to release him from his national contract, Botha did not want to spend any more time wondering. He walked out of the door in search of a place where he could play cricket regularly. "I didn't want to just travel with the team and just sit around," he said.

The few weeks he spent playing for the Adelaide Strikers last summer and his relationship with coach Darren Berry through the Rajasthan Royals gave him a ready-made option. South Australia were interested in signing him long-term and he thought it would be an ideal fit for his lifestyle.

"I wanted to have more time with my family," he said. "It was a great opportunity to lead a team who wants to improve. And I didn't want to look back years later and think that it was something I should have done." September's World Twenty20 was pegged as his last appearance for South Africa and he was only used sparsely in the lead-up to that. Now his new life has truly begun.

One of Botha's main reasons for moving had nothing to do with international cricket at all. He simply wanted the chance to play more first-class cricket. Given the international schedule, Botha played only one match for his home franchise, the Warriors, in the 2010-11 season and none the next summer. "I still want to give first-class cricket a good two or three years. I really enjoy four-day batting and I didn't want to give it up."

That is an unusual take on the game from a modern-day player. Many of them are attracted to the big money and short time-frame of 20-over competitions. In some ways, so is Botha; he was one of the best-paid South Africans at the IPL, where the Rajasthan Royals forked over $950,000 for him before the tournament's fourth edition, and he will return to them in 2013.

He has also played in the Big Bash League, and said he would consider an English team for another T20 competition during the southern hemisphere off-season. But some of the glamour has worn thin for Botha, and the desire to play in an environment dedicated to more serious cricket, especially from a batting perspective, has grown.

Apart from a stint where he moved to No. 3 for the Royals, Botha was never really taken seriously as a batsman and he is keen to change that view. Being part of a team's full domestic season will afford him that opportunity, especially as he hopes to move higher up the order.

"There are no preconceived ideas about me here," he said. "Being a spin bowler, in South Africa I was always No. 8, and someone who could bat a bit. Certain things are a bit different here."

One of those has been the focus on the first-class game in Australia. Around the world, long-form domestic cricket is poorly attended, and its importance as the primary source of future Test cricketers has been almost forgotten. In Australia, Botha has seen the opposite.

"There is a big focus on Shield cricket," he said. "The Big Bash is not the main focus. Even though it will take up some time over December and January and it's there, it's not the thing that gets the most attention from players. I feel the guys really want to play Shield cricket and win games there. And when they are not playing Shield cricket, they play grade cricket. I never did that in South Africa. It's really good."

South Australia have had a tough few years in the competition and one of their reasons for contracting Botha was in the hope he could change their fortunes. They began the season with an innings defeat to Tasmania but after a draw with Queensland, they managed to beat George Bailey's side in Hobart to record a rare victory - the state's first in two years. Botha said he has found playing here a "challenge," at times but can see progress being made. "The guys have responded well so far and we are after more Shield wins," he said.

While the cricket has gone well, the adjustments for his family have not been as smooth. Botha's wife, Monica, has had to be almost completely self-sufficient in taking care of two-year-old Austin, especially when Botha travels to play in other states. After three and a half weeks in Adelaide at the start of the season, Botha spent time away in Perth and is currently in Melbourne.

"We're in a really great place on the western side, towards the beach," Botha said. "But yes, it can get a bit tough. There are no helpers and there are no grannies. The biggest thing when I am not at home, is for Monica to do everything alone. I got what I wanted in terms of being able to play cricket and be with my family, but when I go away, it's harder for her."

How well his family eventually settles in will determine whether Botha extends his contract to a third year, as the current option allows, or even further. For now, they still regard South Africa as home. "We had a house built in Port Elizabeth, which was completed in December," Botha said. "That's our house. Here, we are just renting."

They will return at the end of the summer when Monica is due to give birth to a girl in March. Given their time in South Australia, Adelaide may be a fitting name. "I think we'll have to go for a straightforward name this time," Botha said. "It definitely can't be something like Sydney, even though that's where I played my first Test."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent