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How will South Africa face the future?

This World Cup exit - after losing to Netherlands - beats all their previous exits, and the recovery is going to be tough

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Tomorrow doesn't exist. Not in South African cricket. After their worst World Cup exit, there are no thoughts of tomorrow, or next week, or the next tournament. There is only the pain and the puzzle of now.
How did it happen that South Africa, who flew so far under the radar that they weren't mentioned as favourites when the tournament began, but then became talked about as the team who could win it, crashed out after being beaten by Netherlands? No disrespect to them but the Dutch are not a team that on an ordinary day - even when T20 cricket reduces the gulf between sides, and one over, one crazy catch like Roelof van der Merwe's, one person, can change everything - South Africa should lose to. Sunday was no ordinary day. It was a day that will scar a generation of players.
Disappointment at major tournaments is something some teams become used to. West Indies have gone from two-time T20 champions to Super 12 exiles. New Zealand have never won a World Cup despite reaching the last three finals. South Africa are also in that bracket and the nature of their exits means they are more storified and more in the spotlight than others. Each tournament exit somehow builds on the one before, spiraling them through a narrative of doom.
They hear of 1992, though most of the current squad were only young children with no memory of what 22-off-one-ball is about, and of 1999, which some of them may have watched on television with the same disbelief as teenagers, who watched them against Netherlands. Then the wheel of misfortune starts to spin faster. Rain in 2003. Being 27 for 5 against Australia in 2007. Shahid Afridi in 2009. New Zealand in 2015
Something died in South African cricket after that last one, and every one of the current squad saw it. Quinton de Kock, David Miller, Rilee Rossouw and Wayne Parnell experienced it first hand. The players felt betrayed by their administrators who interfered in selection on the eve of the match and the golden thread of trust in the system snapped. If you think there's an exaggeration in this analogy, think again. In recent weeks, players involved in that 2015 episode have spoken about how difficult it was to get over. Dale Steyn did not talk to anyone about the pain of that day for more than a year. Faf du Plessis in his recently released autobiography Through Fire wrote that it took the squad more than 18 months to just start to rebuild. Things have never been the same.
The 2015 debacle was about transformation, which has always been one of tenets of the new South Africa. The need to change had come up many times before and affected starting XIs but never in a more consequential match than on that day. It has dominated the cricket conversation since and has reared its head at the most inopportune of moments.
Temba Bavuma was named South Africa's white-ball captain in March 2021. He had only played six ODIs and eight T20Is at the time but averaged 55.83 in 50-over cricket and 35.57 in T20Is. He spoke with the calm of a softly-flowing river and the confidence of the great ocean. With no-one else to lead South Africa, following the failed de Kock experiment, Bavuma seemed the sensible choice. His form in Tests has long been a talking point because he is yet to score a second century, but his T20 numbers only really became a discussion point this year, and only after he missed the England tour with an elbow injury and fellow opener Reeza Hendricks reeled off four half-centuries in succession. The conversation was about runs but, because it's South Africa, it was soon also about race. Bavuma went into the T20 World Cup with the weight of being the country's first ever black African captain and being out of form. That is an intersectional burden very few players will ever understand the heaviness of carrying. He struggled through the tournament, but South Africa's failure to reach the final four is not his fault.
Some will say, once again, that the administrators are to blame. Should they have made the bold call to drop the captain despite the optics? Or should they have explained their decisions better? Should they have communicated a little more with their coach Mark Boucher, whose last assignment is this World Cup and who resigned with a year left on his contract? Should they have persuaded, perhaps even begged him to stay, given that his departure only casts more uncertainty over an already shaky set-up? And what are they left with now?
Malibongwe Maketa, who has a good rapport with and the respect of players from his time as Ottis Gibson's assistant, will take the team to Australia for the three-Test series over the festive season and then the job is set to be split. A red-ball coach will work closely with the first-class set-up and the Test side; a white-ball coach will be in charge of the limited-overs teams and therefore World Cups.
Cricket South Africa is due to advertise the posts imminently but the board is likely to find a dearth of responses. Several high-profile coaches, including former South African national players contacted by ESPNcricinfo, have said they are not interested in the position. There are several reasons for that: concerns about the CSA administration, which has only just pieced itself together after falling apart, a lean FTP which has only Ireland and Zimbabwe playing fewer bilaterals than South Africa in the 2023-2027 cycle, and worries about depth in the system. Although South Africa continues to produce exceptional sportspeople through its school system, it does not have the resources to entice all of them to stay in the game. Some leave for other countries, or leagues where the money is better; others pursue different careers, where the heartache is less.
Much hope is pinned on the SA20 to change that but the franchise league kicks off with a dark cloud looming over it. Bavuma and South African allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo went unsold at the auction and only six black African players were picked up by the six teams. Tested in the open market, 30 years of transformation failed. What does that say about a system set up to provide opportunities that were ripped away from the majority of the population for hundreds of years by racial segregation? Maybe just that it needs more time.
While that happens, teams around the world improve and innovate. The T20 game of 2022 is not the T20 game of 2007. It's dynamic and unorthodox. It doesn't follow scripts (and South African cricket loves a script, even though it often can't read) and requires skills that are sometimes lacking in the South African set-up even though several players are regulars in overseas T20 franchise leagues, where they are exposed to modern tactics. Batting line-ups need to be flexible (why can't Hendricks bat in the middle-order?), and bowlers versatile. One example is slower balls, which Lungi Ngidi has mastered but he, and to a lesser extent Anrich Nortje, are just about the only ones. South Africa have upskilled in various departments but their T20 blueprint is stodgy and that has to change. They have to change. And for that to happen, they have to get over the pain of losing to Netherlands.
They didn't look as broken as they have before, which could be a good thing, but they seemed resigned, which is not. Bavuma said the younger players such as Tristan Stubbs and Marco Jansen would be shielded from the disappointment and hopefully he is right. Neither were part of the XI that lost to Netherlands but Stubbs played in four other matches and underwhelmed. Jansen may have escaped as he was only part of the squad - roped in as an injury replacement for Dwaine Pretorius - and did not play at all.
Perhaps the luckiest thing to come out of all this is that South Africa's next big thing, Dewald Brevis, was left at home. The day before the senior side crashed out of the T20 World Cup, Brevis failed in the CSA T20 Challenge final but his team still won. He has experienced both individual and collective success and hopefully he holds on to that. Brevis plays T20 cricket, albeit only at domestic level, in a way that suggests he can take the game forward, and not chase it. South Africa need to find more players like him, but also avoid turning him into a messiah.
No one person - administrator, coach or player - is going to take South Africa into tomorrow. Collectively, they will have to crawl their way there and stand up again.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent