Du Plessis pleads for action to safeguard South Africa's future
In the aftermath of Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw taking Kolpak deals, Test captain Faf du Plessis has asked his country's cricket administrators to act quickly to prevent more players from leaving. The pair have joined Stiaan van Zyl, Hardus Viljoen and Simon Harmer - all of whom have been capped in the last two seasons - in effectively ending their international careers and du Plessis does not want to see more talent lost.
"It's a red flag and we have to address it. It's important that we look at how we can learn from this and make sure that this isn't something that two years from now, has meant we've lost 10 or 15 players and we say, 'oopsie', du Plessis said. "We need to make sure we get better at it. There's too much talent in South Africa to lose guys like that."
Du Plessis identified three general reasons for players packing up and placed Abbott's somewhere in the midst of those but hoped Cricket South Africa (CSA) will take all of them seriously. "Opportunity, money, transformation - there's a lot of things that different guys will look at as their excuse or their reason for going overseas. Every single reason that is causing players to leave is a concern and we need to look at every single one of them," du Plessis said.
"I can tell you directly that's not Kyle's reason for leaving. We've spoken about it and it's more the point of view of security and what the future holds. He's someone who has been not sure [of playing] for a very long time. Possibly inside he just wants to be sure. We know Kyle and we respect him for what he's done for us as a team, and I respect his decision. I don't agree with it but I respect it."
From a financial perspective, Haroon Lorgat, the CSA chief executive, admitted that their "declining currency" makes it difficult to retain talent and they cannot simply throw more money at the problem. CSA has substantial cash reserves but they would set a dangerous precedent that would encourage more players to seek deals overseas as bargaining chips
Lorgat made it clear that if he had been able to engage with Abbott on the issue, it would not have been with chequebook in hand. "It's not cash, cash and cash. It's pride, career, conversations. It's the investment that we make in them holistically," Lorgat said. "Right now we have got some world-class stars who are not here because we pay them substantial rands. They want to represent their country and they earn a comfortable living out of playing for the Proteas.
"They are amongst the top 5% of earners in the country, and they get that income supplemented by some of the other leagues that they play. We are also in the process of launching our own domestic league which we think will make a difference."
Lorgat pointed to the medical costs CSA had to bear for Rossouw's injuries - a stress fracture of the foot and a dislocated shoulder are among them - as well as the fact that CSA do not schedule cricket during the IPL, to allow players to make themselves available for the entire duration of the tournament and the resultant disappointment when players turn their backs on the system. "We invest huge sums of money in every individual. Sadly there's no return for us in the years to come."
Russell Domingo, the head coach, echoed the disappointment but more from a cricketing perspective. For Domingo, having players in the set-up who are only intending on leaving derails his plans.
"There are obviously issues that players haven't been sincere about because I've been picking guys and they've known that they're done, which sets me back and our team back massively," he said. "It's a massive concern because as soon as we give a young player a Test cap, they can go and sign a Kolpak. So if Kagiso Rabada breaks a finger tomorrow and I ask Duanne Olivier to come and play a Test match, but bear in mind that Kagiso is coming back straight afterwards because he's one of the best bowlers in the world, Duanne might say, 'Well stuff that, when am I going to play again? I'm going to go and sign a Kolpak.' Those are the type of challenges we're sitting with."
That suggests what players want are guarantees and neither South Africa, nor any other team, can give them that although Domingo wondered whether longer contracts for younger players may help. "Guys like Kagiso and Quinton de Kock who we would love to contract for 10 years, or five years, maybe that's what the board has got to decide."
For now, South Africa will concentrate on counting the other factors du Plessis mentioned -opportunity and transformation - in the hope players can feel more secure.
The six franchises only allow for around 90 professional contracts and the ongoing domestic review is currently considering expanding that to eight teams, which would allow for another 30 contracts. They are also relooking at the composition of those franchises by limiting the number of Kolpak returnees who can play in South African domestic cricket during the English off-season. "We cannot have places that are being used up by professionals that will not avail themselves to the Proteas. We need to keep those spots open for those South Africans who want to play for the Proteas," Lorgat said.
Even if there are limits on the likes of van Zyl, Harmer, Viljoen, Colin Ingram and Rory Kleinveldt (all of whom have gone Kolpak and play in the South African domestic competition), there is still the issue of transformation which regulates how franchises balance their sides. Each starting XI is required to have six players of colour including three black Africans which leaves five spots for white players. CSA has also extended targets to the national team - six players of colour, including two black Africans - although those are applied over a seasonal average.
CSA's commitment to change remains aggressive and Lorgat stressed that he did not believe it was driving players away. "I haven't received from any player in the national setup, feedback that they are concerned they won't get selected because of transformation targets. In fact we've openly said consistently that they are the best XI on the field, and so it was in the past," he said.
That transformation would be blamed for an exodus was expected, but it is a policy South Africa cannot run away from. The sports minister has impressed on them that unless they act on the issue, they will remain banned from hosting major tournaments. At the same time, they need to be able to give players incentives to stay because as deep as the talent pool has proved, du Plessis wants the administrators to act before it runs dry. "It's too important and too valuable to sit back and say whatever happens, happens and there'll be enough players to fill the gaps. That's not good enough."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent