In contrast to the dark clouds that hung over South African cricket towards the end of last year, it has been a good summer. Respected people have been appointed to positions of influence and interesting things have happened, all of which bode well. Sure, results on the field have not been as hoped, but the mitigating factors are relevant and patience is required to heal wounds and regenerate confidence.
Money remains a problem. The previous administration wasted it and, allegedly, worse. The sponsors lost faith. Some fine players retired after long and distinguished service, while a raft of good cricketers had already moved, via Kolpak and other qualifications, to new pastures. We were told by sage figures that the cupboard was bare, and it was even suggested that little could now be done to save South African cricket. Even the cerebral get it wrong sometimes.
The end of the home international season came in a blaze of stunning one-day performances against the Australians. There is a complex here and it's hanging around the Aussies in a manner hitherto unseen. South Africa have now won 11 of the last 12 ODIs between the countries, and this time they fairly thumped Aaron Finch's team - including Warner, Smith, Starc, Hazelwood and Cummins, by the way - 3-0 in places perhaps you don't know, such as Paarl and Potchefstroom. You might not know some of the names responsible either - Jon-Jon Smuts, Kyle Verreynne, Lutho Sipamla and Daryn Dupavillion.
This is so gratifying for the folks in charge, like manna. One of them, the CEO, Jacques Faul, is from "Potch" and proud of it. He has every right to be for it is a splendid, tight-knit university town with an excellent and attractive cricket ground, good practice facilities and a pavilion that someone has taken care of.
Faul was appointed on a temporary basis when the board and all levels of executive governance were under siege three months back. He is a big man in stature - it's the braai and the meat, has to be - but even bigger of heart and mind. I'll wager he is not temporary for much longer, just like the first guy he appointed to fix the cricket, Graeme Smith. It's enough to see them walk into a room, but the physical presence belies the skills they are bringing to the table. These are smart men, with serious ambition built on their unwavering love of the land that bore them.
If I was an investor I wouldn't hesitate because South African cricket is a stock worth watching, and, long term, it might both surprise and reward. Of course, if the team is dusted up in the three one-day games they have rushed off to play in India, these words might appear flimsy, but big-picture wise, the result of this three-match series is irrelevant. It's about the money.*
Right now every move is based on bridge-building and income. Debts, both moral and financial, are high but the goodwill only needs encouragement. Faul and Smith have more chance of accessing goodwill than most, which is well proven by Faul's finesse in resolving lingering issues with the South African players' association, which has thankfully now withdrawn its high-court application in the breach-of-contract dispute that set the players against the previous administration. The relationship between boards of control and their players is tricky everywhere in the world. This is a commercial age, everyone wants a piece of the pie, and it is the players who are pulled hither and thither to achieve it - witness the South Africans in India this week and the Australians starting two white-ball series at home against New Zealand on Friday. Madness, frankly, but in South Africa's case right now, needs must.
Hiring Smith was a masterstroke, and in turn, Smith hired Mark Boucher to look after the team alongside the quietly dependable Enoch Nkwe. Boucher's specialist coaches - Jacques Kallis, Charl Langeveldt and Justin Ontong - have the sort of pedigree the players trust, so the team and its management are as one. Stability comes from good leadership. Rassie Erasmus, the Springbok rugby coach, inherited a broken system. He went about identifying latent talent and creating depth by exposing young players to international rugby. Competition for places lifted standards. The situation with cricket is not dissimilar.
Faul has renewed deals with sponsors, and if rumour is correct, will soon announce another major corporate supporter into the family he is creating at Cricket South Africa. A by-product of his graft these past months is a kinder media, which has changed the narrative from aggressive suspicion and accusation to sympathetic appraisal and more generally positive reporting.
Ideally the first-class structure would consist of eight teams. The big six, based in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein. East London has a long history of cricket played by black Africans and Cape Coloureds; North West Province has Potchefstroom with its fine facilities; while Boland has provided many a gifted player over many a year. Two of these three can complete the set. More teams than eight spreads the quality of cricketers too thinly; fewer deny opportunity to South Africa's large and diverse population.
Understandably, talk of transformation is never far from the lips of cricket administrators, journalists, players and fans, but transformation is a process to achieve the goal of normalisation. Faul and Smith would surely plead for patience and flexibility in the ongoing fight to remain competitive. There is no hidden agenda in either of these men - another good reason for their appointments - only a realistic perspective on the common good. Smith conclusively proved his empathetic qualities during his 109 Tests as captain of South Africa: there can be no doubting his special ability to integrate, unite and inspire.
There is plenty of talent around the country, some of it out in the open, a lot of it hidden. Families and their children need access to sporting facilities**, for example - and the long journey to see more cricket played in the streets and in schools must be at the top of the to-do list. This is less a development issue than one of participation, for the gospel has to be spread, the culture understood, and opportunity to feel and hear the sound of bat and ball provided to as many young people as is physically possible. CSA is interested in the Chance to Shine programmes, which are bringing cricket back into schools in England. Without charitable funding these are relatively expensive, but for the right investor they would provide the opportunity to change lives and thereby create a legacy that has long been missing from South African cricket.
The strange and in many ways most fascinating aspect of the three consecutive wins against Australia over the past ten days was the lack of any contribution with bat from Quinton de Kock. He was at sea against Mitchell Starc in the first two games and then nicked an honest ball from Josh Hazelwood in the third. I say fascinating not because de Kock failed but because the others stood up. The value of fresh blood, eh. Heinrich Klassen was Man of the Series for his three innings, each of which had a different flavour and match-winning substance. He may be a Test match batsman next.
From afar, de Kock looks a good choice as captain because he has the players' respect. Until the team crosses the white line - or steps over the sponsors' foam triangle these days - de Kock leaves the words and deeds to Boucher, who has plenty to offer. After that, the lads know who is in charge and the captain is not shy of reminding them. Like most wicketkeepers he sees the game through detailed eyes and instinctively relates to the angles and lines of both attack and defence. This is a massive plus and illustrated itself clearly in the Australia games.
He is not comfortable with the media stuff but there is a charm in both his reluctance and honesty. The only worry is the workload: specifically the mental strain of batting, keeping and captaining in the spotlight of modern sport. The mind plays tricks and the traffic within it might not truly clear for the freewheeling rides that have long been his trademark. The concern is that his batting will lose its relationship with instinct, and therefore that he will come back to the pack. Pray not, for the best of "Quinny" is the best of anyone out there, and some.
He is uncompromising in his own review of the summer. The Tests against England were a massive disappointment after the promising start; the T20s promising at times, calamitous at others. Only at the end did the ship find a steady course. He has no time for excuses and no reference to sentiment. He wants to win and anything less is failure. Such high standards are worth pursuing. He need only to look at Faul and Smith for a reminder.
14:30:06 GMT, March 11, 2020:
*The article erroneously said originally that the upcoming India-South Africa one-day series was arranged at the last minute
**The article said there is only one cricket club in Soweto, which is not correct