South African cricket has not had a good winter. A good T20 campaign will put a smile back on its face but, just beneath the surface, the crinkled frowns of concern will still be there.
The defections of senior players to county cricket on Kolpak contracts have been accepted as inevitable given the value of the contracts on offer - generally in the region of three times what they are able to earn in South Africa. So Dale Benkenstein, HD Ackerman, Lance Klusener and several others are unavailable to play for the Proteas.
This winter, though, all that changed with the departures of Vaughn van Jaarsveld and Keegan Afrika, both 23. All at once the myth that only senior and white cricketers were turning their backs on their homeland was shattered.
When a second black player, Garnett Kruger, signed for Leicestershire a couple of weeks ago the alarm bells should have been ringing in every office at Cricket South Africa's Wanderers headquarters, not just the chief executive's and the president's.
Money is one thing, but it is not everything. Ryan McLaren agonised for two weeks before turning his back on his homeland and throwing his hat in with Kent and England. It was his lifetime's dream to wear the green cap of South Africa.
So what is the 'X' factor that pushes more and more players out of South African cricket? For want of a better phrase, let's call it the 'egg-shell syndrome.' Virtually everybody is forced to walk on them all the time. There is a constant fear of treading on toes, causing offence or being misunderstood.
This may sound like an extraordinary exaggeration, but it is not: at least half the country's domestic players don't really know their status within the team and the squad which pays their salaries. Are they good enough, or black enough? Were they dropped on form, or colour?
|This weekend the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper ... claimed they [the players] had all signed a memorandum calling for the scrapping of quotas; it claimed that they had agreed to hand this memorandum to Cricket South Africa bosses. It even named Ashwell Prince and Makhaya Ntini as principal instigators|
The quota system employed at domestic first-class level stipulates that a minimum of four players in each XI must be non-white. It is a well-intentioned piece of administration that has succeeded in speeding up transformation for the three or four years. But now, it seems, the players are sick of it - all the players.
I was among those who believed quotas were a necessary evil; I advocated them. But the people whose lives are affected by them know far more than me. More than most, in fact.
Last week coach Mickey Arthur convened a meeting of the country's top 25 players, all those on national contracts and most of those who represented South Africa at the Emerging Players tournament in Australia two months ago.
They spoke behind closed doors about everything - their frustrations, their fears and their anger. They spoke about the 'cliques' that have troubled the team for the last few years, they spoke about former fitness trainer Adrian le Roux's claim that there was a 'drinking problem' amongst certain players...and they spoke about 'transformation' and quotas.
This weekend the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper published a story about what they claimed the players had decided to do. It claimed they had all signed a memorandum calling for the scrapping of quotas; it claimed that they had agreed to hand this memorandum to Cricket South Africa bosses. It even named Ashwell Prince and Makhaya Ntini as principal instigators.
The story may, or may not have been true. As always, there was probably a bit of fact and fiction.
There has been no doubt about the result, however. The players have been 'got at' by the many political figures involved in SA cricket, those with powerful agendas extending many miles beyond batting, bowling and winning or losing. The players are running scared once again.
Far from achieving their aim, which was to create transparency in selection and an atmosphere in which honesty could prevail, it is back to the egg-shells. Everybody puts their head down and gets on with his job, afraid to rock the boat with a single question.
The politicians have won again.
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency