Questions on and off the field for South Africa as busy summer kicks off against Netherlands
Netherlands have their own points to prove against the "big boys", with the ODI Super League being scrapped going forward
You may expect the usual David and Goliath angle for a preview about a series between South Africa and Netherlands but this won't exactly be it. You only have to go back a little over four months for the last time a so-called David beat South Africa's Goliath, when Ireland registered their first ODI win over them and took what could-yet be 10 crucial points off them in the World Cup Super League.
The series was shared and South Africa were shaken, even if circumstances at the time suggest that Ireland's victory was an anomaly. It came at the height of South Africa's third wave of coronavirus and players on tour had family and friends who were ill at home. It also came during an incident since described as an insurrection in South Africa, characterised by riots and looting in the provinces of Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal, where a significant number of the national squad are based. It's fair to say that South Africa's minds were elsewhere. They went to lose an ODI series in Sri Lanka, but since that defeat they have won all but one of their matches, the T20 World Cup opener against Australia, so the wheel appears to be turning. But how far? This summer might tell.
This week marked the start of the fourth wave of the pandemic in South Africa, with a three-fold increase in the seven-day rolling averages of positive cases, the bulk of them in the Gauteng province where this series is being played. One of those cases was Lungi Ngidi, who has been withdrawn from the squad thereby depriving South Africa of their senior-most seamer for the ODIs against the Dutch. Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje are being rested and with Ngidi now out, it will be up to a three-time ODI capped Daryn Dupavillon, twice-capped Junior Dala and uncapped Sisanda Magala to lead the attack. Happily, for South Africa, they also have three seam-bowling allrounders in their ranks. Dwaine Pretorius, Andile Phehlukwayo and Wayne Parnell will all add experience to a green pace pack.
Though the civil unrest was short lived, South Africa remains far from stable with rolling blackouts at their worst in 2021 and the economy in freefall, and cricket has not escaped the crunch. Money is still tight at Cricket South Africa and that's not the only shadow hanging over the administration.
The Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) project will reach its conclusion as the season starts with the transformation ombudsman, Dumisa Ntsebeza, set to release his report on November 30, the day before the final ODI against the Dutch. It is expected to contain recommendations that could directly impact the national team. Head coach Mark Boucher was among those who was implicated in testimony detailing racism, and responded with an affidavit admitting to naivety and apologising for his past conduct. His assistant, Enoch Nkwe, resigned in the midst of these events, citing problems with the team culture without going into any further details. Nkwe may yet be courted by Netherlands, where he was previously assistant coach, and where he has family.
But out of all that, South Africa have emerged, finally, with clarity on their anti-racism gesture. Less than 48 hours before the first international delivery of the summer is bowled, CSA released a statement confirming that the team will take a knee throughout the season. "The Proteas should continue to take the knee as a contribution towards the global sports endeavour to demonstrate its commitment to eradicating racism and all forms of discrimination," CSA said.
Considering that South Africa previously had a three-pronged approach to showing anti-racism (take a knee, raise a fist or stand to attention) and that several players only took a knee when it was mandated by the board (and one, Quinton de Kock only after sitting out a game for refusing to accept the instruction at first), there will still be questions about whether South African cricket is inclusive enough or representative enough. Addressing these questions remains an ongoing process, but there will be plenty of on-field tests as well in a busy summer ahead.
Lined up are ODI series against Netherlands, India and Bangladesh - which will collectively go a long way to determining their chances of automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup - and Tests against India, New Zealand and Bangladesh. The T20 format takes a backseat, with only four fixtures against India but, all in all, it's a full schedule that could prove crucial for Boucher's longevity as head coach and several players' careers.
Netherlands can only dream of a sentence like that being written about them. As the only Associate in the World Cup Super League, they are relishing their opportunity to play against the big teams but it will be shortlived. The scrapping of the league and return to a one-off qualifier event for the 2027 World Cup has created uncertainty among Associates, who fear their chances to test themselves against the best will be severely reduced. In the long-term, Dutch coach Ryan Campbell believes it could shrink the game; in the short-term, it gives a team like Netherlands even more incentive to make statements where they can, especially against a side like South Africa, where many of their players started their careers.
The Netherlands squad includes a former South African international, Roelof van der Merwe, three former provincial players, Colin Ackermann, Stephan Myburgh and Brandon Glover, and an uncapped South Africa-born player, Clayton Floyd. Their mentor - and greatest player to date - Ryan ten Doeschate is also South African, so the connection between the two countries from a cricketing perspective is strong.
And then there's the added niggle. Expats have historically been fan favourites for some actual banter (not the kind that has been talked about in the English circuit over the last few weeks) and for the first time since the pandemic began, there will be a cricket crowd in a South African stadium. Current government regulations allow for a maximum of 2,000 fully vaccinated spectators at sports events but Cricket South Africa has petitioned for this to increase to 10% of stadium capacity. ESPNcricinfo understands that this request will be granted but that it needs to be published in the national gazette and that may only happen in time for the Test series against India. So it may be a small crowd for this series, but certainly a vocal one, albeit sans minors. Children under 12, to whom the Covid-19 vaccine is not yet available in South Africa, will not be allowed to attend matches and there's another hard sell: no alcohol is allowed to be sold at sporting venues.
The absence of a party atmosphere will not take away from this series, marking the start of the festive season in some way. Pandemic-weary South Africans are looking forward to a more "normal" December-January after last year's holiday lockdown, and having international cricket will be one way of enjoying summer. Despite six regulars - big names like captain Temba Bavuma, de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje - being given a break from the biobubble for these matches, there are enough eye-catchers to keep people interested. Janneman Malan, David Miller, Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj have all put in standout performances over the past year and more will be expected this summer. And if the start of it, a three-match ODI series against Netherlands, doesn't seem like an enticing match-up for you, just think back to July and that match against Ireland.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent