South Africa cricket could face talent exodus

Both Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn are reportedly keen on playing in the BBL that coincides with South Africa's home series against Sri Lanka Getty Images

On Wednesday, Rob Walter became the third South African cricket official in a month to leave for New Zealand, accepting a two-year coaching deal with Otago. Walter was the most successful coach on South Africa's franchise circuit, having won three trophies in four seasons with the Titans, and was set to take the A side to Australia, which should have put him in line for the national job. Walter, though, did not believe it did, telling ESPNcricinfo he could not see himself coaching South Africa in the "short-term," and was looking to further his experience.

It's only the latest sign that South African cricket is staring at an exodus of its top talent. A weakening rand, a domestic structure that offers too small a pool for its talent, and the decision to push through transformation is squeezing opportunity, especially for those at lower levels. Employees in coaching, management and administration are heading abroad in search of wealthier pastures.

A range of former players and senior officials in the system confirmed to ESPNcricinfo - asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject - that they are also aware of several players considering options abroad. At least four currently contracted internationals are among those named by sources. Consider that the South African Rugby Annual listed 280 players plying their trade abroad at the end of 2015 and South African cricket may not feel too badly, but a significant flight of players will affect the domestic game.

"I'd say 80% of the reason players leave is money," one former player said. "In South Africa we just don't have the amounts to pay our players what they can get overseas. And when they are at a level that is not international, there is a lot less stress. Some players just decide they don't need that high-pressure anymore."

Those pressures include anxiety over whether they will continue to be selected, as South Africa target aggressive transformation. An example is fast bowler Morne Morkel, who ESPNcricinfo has learned was ready to retire from limited-overs cricket after being left out of the 2016 World T20 squad. He was close to signing a deal with English county Glamorgan but was convinced to stay on and taken to the Caribbean for the triangular series, in which he played only two out of six games. Morkel also helped broker a deal at the county for Dale Steyn, who South Africa's selectors said would be rested for the West Indies tour but then gave him an NOC to play in the NatWest t20 Blast.

Both Morkel and Steyn are understood to be interested in playing Cricket Australia's Big Bash League, which will coincide with South Africa's home series against Sri Lanka at the end of the year. AB de Villiers has already turned down a BBL offer, but another former national player will not be surprised if the pace pair does not.

"I don't blame Morne Morkel for thinking that way. He has been messed around. It is very strange how the senior seamers have been treated. I don't think they have been managed well," the player said. "The same thing with Dale Steyn. No-one had the gumption to say that he has had a tough 18 months in white-ball cricket so he is being dropped for the West Indies series and is going to England to find form; instead they said they are resting him. It's no secret Dale is not the happiest camper out there at the moment."

Morkel and Steyn are not alone. Several younger franchise players are looking at the UK as a destination to further their careers and the player said he would encourage them to go, citing the several variables in South African cricket and the lack of opportunity as reasons. England's first-class competition comprises 18 counties; South Africa's has only six franchise teams.

South Africa's system was modeled on Australia's domestic structure to ensure strong competition, but it is being seen as too small to provide opportunities for everyone who deserves one. There has been talk of expanding to an eight-team structure to ensure more players can participate, to give selectors more options, and to create more jobs for coaches.

That may mean the likes of Lance Klusener, whose contract was not renewed by Dolphins, Makhaya Ntini, who is coaching in Zimbabwe, and Walter stay in the system. "Rob wants to coach an international team and sitting at the Titans for another three years might not get him there," a source close to Walter said. "He knows that Geoffrey Toyana is probably the next national coach and deservedly so, so moving might give Rob the opportunity to coach much sooner."

Toyana is on the verge of signing a three-year extension with the Lions but several sources revealed he may be elevated to the South African job sooner than expected as pressure mounts on the incumbent Russell Domingo. The source was of the opinion, however, that South Africa needed a foreign coach - "someone who can shake things up and challenge the guys" - to help fulfill the potential of a group that has tended to underachieve on the global stage, but said an outsider would not be able to handle the politics in South African cricket.

So the focus returns to South Africa's transformation policy, which is seen as a cause of what is being termed "white flight". One former player believes it is not so much the policy but the lack of clarity surrounding its implementation that is causing player unhappiness.

"If you are good enough, you will play for South Africa no matter what colour your skin and we know that," the player, who is white, said. "But CSA need to be open and honest about transformation and then you will have fewer players leaving. The players just want to know: these are the rules and this is what we have to do. That's all. They keep saying there is no quota, there are only targets, and that is a lie.

"At the same time we have to stop saying every time someone of colour gets a position that they are only there because of their colour. We have very deserving people."

Not everyone believes the exodus of personnel is a reason to panic, though, and some see it as an effect of the globalisation of sport. "If an engineer leaves to work in Dubai we read less into it than when a sportsperson leaves," a senior administrator said. "We need to be careful of reading too much into it. The bottom line is that the rand has slipped and guys can make money elsewhere."