March 23, 2016

The Phangiso saga

Over a decade into his career, his action has been called into question and tested. That isn't the only thing keeping him out of South Africa's side, though

The World T20 in India is the ideal place for South Africa to use Aaron Phangiso as Imran Tahir's spin partner in the XI © AFP

Four thousand, one hundred and fifty-eight days after he made his first-class debut, Aaron Phangiso, an unflashy left-arm spinner, was reported for a suspect bowling action.

Phangiso is a cricketer who is valued for his consistency. He does not have many variations or offer much with the bat. He is decent without being a dasher in the field and he has essentially been playing cricket in the same way for more than a decade. In that time he has bowled 15,728 deliveries across all formats in serious cricket. That something could have been wrong with his action all along seemed strange; that something could have gone amiss recently was equally so.

Independent tests at an ICC-approved centre revealed Phangiso was bending his arm far more than the 15-degree limit. One source said he deviated to as much as 22 degrees. So, nearly a dozen years into his first-class career, Phangiso's action was declared illegal.

However, within ten days Phangiso had remodelled his action and was cleared to continue playing. "Normally a thing like this takes longer than four or five days to fix. It can take two months," Claude Henderson, South Africa's spin bowling coach, said, marvelling at the speed of the rehabilitation. Two weeks have passed since then and Phangiso has not been included in an official XI, despite vocal support from, among others, former South Africa captain Graeme Smith.

"I think #proteas should play Phangiso today," Smith tweeted before South Africa took on Afghanistan at the World T20 on Sunday. "Give him game time before moving away from Mumbai and his role will become crucial with Tahir."

After the match, which South Africa won, Smith offered a critique of team selection, tweeting that Phangiso should have played, "2nd spinner crucial".

Why so much fuss over Phangiso, who has been solid on the international stage without setting it alight? Here's why:

He is not just any sportsman. He is a South African sportsman. He is one of only eight black South Africans to play ODI cricket for South Africa (out of 115) and one of six out of 64 to play T20 cricket.

He is also a spinner in a cricketing system where the quicks form the bowling aristocracy. Most often, there is only space for one of his kind in a team, and even then, they are not expected to play a starring role. As a result, Phangiso travelled through the 2015 World Cup without playing a single match.

In Australiasian conditions, South Africa had mitigating circumstances for benching Phangiso for the duration of the tournament. But after they secured progression to the quarter-final and had only UAE left to play, they did not. Phangiso should have played that game. A selector explained that accommodating Phangiso would have had to come at the expense of Imran Tahir. The schedule meant Tahir would go without game time for 12 days before the knockouts. "That's too long," the selector said at the time, although he did not have an answer for whether it was better that Phangiso had gone more than a month without a match, which would leave South Africa in an even more precarious position if he was needed in an emergency.

In less than a week Phangiso had gone from being reported to being a tournament winner to standing on the brink of losing everything

A few days after South Africa exited the tournament, CSA announced a change to their transformation policy. For the 2015-16 season they would require all domestic teams to field six players of colour, of which three must be black African. For the first time, more than half the team was required to be non-white.

CSA did not make public any guidelines at national level but in the weeks that followed the World Cup, it emerged that the CEO, Haroon Lorgat, had been consulted over the semi-final side and emphasised the need to "consider the best XI bearing in mind the transformation guidelines". In that match, South Africa fielded Vernon Philander, who had spent most of the tournament nursing a hamstring injury, ahead of an in-form Kyle Abbott. The story dominated headlines for days and the "quota system" became a hot topic.

It was also on the agenda at the ministry of sport. Government officials met with administrators from various sporting bodies including the South African Rugby Union, Netball South Africa, and CSA, to sign a memorandum of understanding to drive change.

Neither the ministry nor CSA have revealed the extent of that commitment but it becomes obvious with a little examination. Since the 2015 World Cup semi-final, South Africa have played ten Tests, 16 ODIs and 12 T20s and in those 38 matches, they have only gone once, in an ODI against England on February 3 this year, without at least one black African in the side. On four occasions, they have fielded two black Africans, and once, they have gone into a match with three.

That statistic is heavily influenced by the rise of Kagiso Rabada, who has made 32 appearances. Others have featured much less regularly: Temba Bavuma seven times in Tests, Phangiso six times, across two ODIs and four T20s, and Eddie Leie twice in T20Is.

Compare that to the period between January 2011 and December 2014, when South Africa went without a black African in their Test team and only occasionally featured black African players in their limited-overs side, and the shift in mindset is clear. Still, it has not been enough for some.

Since the 2015 World Cup semi-final, in 38 matches, South Africa have only gone once without at least one black African in the side, though Kagiso Rabada skews those numbers © Associated Press

In November, after South Africa's limited-overs teams returned from their successful tour of India, a group of players calling themselves Black Cricketers in Unity sent a letter to CSA detailing their concerns over the treatment of black Africans players in national squads. The authors said they were "sick and tired" of being picked for squads but not playing XIs, and insisted, "If we are not ready for international cricket, stop picking us." They cited the case of Phangiso at the 2015 World Cup as one example but the major catalyst for their action came after Khaya Zondo was included in the limited-overs squads for India but did not play a single game, even when JP Duminy was injured.

During his return from that tour, Phangiso was prevented from boarding an international flight from Dubai to Johannesburg because he was drunk and disorderly. CSA gave Phangiso an unknown sanction but buried the incident from view, including from its own board. It only came to light when the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport published a story in January this year. Lorgat defended the secrecy when he told Times Media he had "kept the president informed and‚ in view of the BA [black African] player issue that had surfaced at that time‚ we had both agreed that we should contain this matter and also not issue the standard media release". Exactly a month later, Phangiso had not played a game but was in the news for wrong reasons again. He had been caught by television cameras pretending to snort a substance off his leg while sitting in the South African dugout during the second T20 against England. Phangiso apologised for what he called a "silly and irresponsible thing to do".

Three days later he was reported for a suspect action during the domestic one-day cup semi-final between Lions and Warriors. "I went with him into the match officials room, where they told us they were going to be reporting him and I was shocked," Geoffrey Toyana, Lions' coach told ESPNcricinfo. "I couldn't understand where it was coming from. Obviously Phangi was really worried. It was his career on the line."

Phangiso was tested two days after that, on a Friday, and allowed to continue bowling while awaiting the result. That Sunday he was back on the park for Lions again, for the one-day cup final. If the tests were playing on his mind, Phangiso did not let it show. He bowled a typically strangling spell and ended up with figures of 3 for 33, which was crucial to the Lions victory.

The following Tuesday, March 1, his action was declared illegal. In less than a week Phangiso had gone from being reported to being a tournament winner to standing on the brink of losing everything. He had already been named in South Africa's World T20 squad and if he could not clear his action by the time they left for the tournament on March 9, he would not be able to travel with them.

Time was against him but everything else was not. CSA arranged for Phangiso to work with Henderson and High Performance Manager Vincent Barnes and to be retested around March 7, with the result to be obtained a day later. While social media sprouted unpleasant remarks about how Phangiso was getting what he deserved after his poor off-field showings, Phangiso's Lions team-mate, and the only viable candidate to replace him in the national squad, Leie, came out swinging in his defence, posting an impassioned plea asking people to respect that Phangiso was "just someone trying to earn a living for his family," and signing off with the hashtag #HandsOffPhangi, which gained some traction.

South Africa's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, issued a statement of concern and called "upon the leadership and administrators within Cricket South Africa to save the talent and future of this black diamond and other players who might be faced with similar misfortunes." He added that, "all this should not serve as ammunition to those who continue to slow our transformation objectives".

Phangiso was tested as planned on March 7, a Monday. On Tuesday, he was cleared. On Wednesday he could have played for South Africa against Australia but team management decided not to rush him. That night Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach, said he could not give the minister, or anyone else, a "guarantee" that Phangiso would play. On Thursday, Phangiso travelled with the squad to the World T20. On Friday he bowled an over in the warm-up against India. Just one over.

Exactly what changes Phangiso has made to his action are only known to those who watched that match and the warm-up match after that against a local side, where he took his first wicket with a new action. "A lot of things have changed with his run-up," according to Henderson.

The rest of us expected to see that on Sunday, when South Africa played Afghanistan. Of all the matches in the group, that was the one Phangiso was most likely to play. But after losing their opening match England, South Africa were in a must-win situation, and so wanted to field their premier spinner, Tahir.

Many critics, such as Smith, felt they could have played two spinners despite the nature of the Wankhede wicket, and that they should have, in preparation for slower surfaces elsewhere. As it happened, South Africa did make one change to their attack, and replaced Dale Steyn with David Wiese, who conceded heavily. Phangiso, who is known for control, may not have been the worst choice.

Now South Africa go to Nagpur, where New Zealand needed three spinners to beat India. Given JP Duminy has been ruled out with a hamstring injury, it increases the chances South Africa will shorten their batting line-up and play Phangiso thousand-fold.

"If we can't find a way play him, we've made a mistake," Mark Boucher said ahead of the Afghanistan game on television punditry. Minister Mbalula is likely to agree.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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