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Can de Kock's retirement breathe new life into CSA-players' relations?

CSA needs to radically confront their relationship with the players. If that happens, the next generation will have de Kock to thank

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Luckily there's only a few more hours for anything else to go wrong in South African cricket in 2021.
It's been the third annus horribilis in succession after the disaster that was the 2019 World Cup, the administrative chaos that followed in 2020, the band-aid which has been ripped off the racial wounds in 2021, the results that just don't get consistently better and the people who continue to walk away.
The latest is Quinton de Kock, who has ended a Test career that was only 54 matches old and could easily have gone on to 100. de Kock is South Africa's only widely accepted world-class batter; the one whom oppositions may actually be a little afraid of and his absence in the line-up takes away any x-factor South Africa may have had.
His decision, he said, is largely a family one. His wife, Sasha, is due to give birth to their first child in the coming days and the couple plans on expanding their family quickly. That de Kock, who can often come across as robotic and emotionless, wants to dedicate his time to raising his kids should be applauded.
South Africa is a country of the fatherless. In a study conducted in 2018 by Statistics South Africa, it was revealed that twice as many children in this country live with only their mothers than those who live with their fathers. de Kock does not want to add to those numbers, and the nature of cricket these days, with long tours in bio-secure environments, means that if he continues as an all-format player, he will spend a lot of time away from home. In 2021, he estimates he spent six-and-a-half months abroad and several more weeks in restricted environments at home.
That de Kock has the resources to make this admirable choice comes down to the privilege of being a professional sportsperson. Outside observers may think he took his talent for granted, especially because of the carefree way he played, but de Kock insists that was never the case.
"It's not a decision I made overnight," he said. "I really thought about it. It's obviously a big decision because it's the ultimate format of the game. I didn't take this decision lightly. It was quite a tough one but I am doing what my heart is telling me is best."
Although he only officially announced his Test retirement to his team-mates after the Boxing Day Test, de Kock had conversations with some of them individually in recent weeks. He remains "fully committed" to white-ball cricket but we don't know if CSA is equally unwavering in their determination to use de Kock going forward. On numbers and reputation, they should be, but we've seen this go wrong too many times before.
In February, Faf du Plessis stepped down from Test cricket with a view to playing in the 2021 and 2022 T20 World Cups but he was not considered. ESPNcricinfo has learnt that while du Plessis remains available, he could not meet CSA's demands to play in every T20 series in the lead-up to the World Cup unless they compensated him for loss of earnings in T20 leagues. You won't be surprised to hear that CSA, with its Rands and dwindling coffers, could not match the Dollars du Plessis was pocketing elsewhere. And that's just one example.
Imran Tahir retired at the end of the 2019 World Cup and wanted to continue playing T20I cricket but he hasn't been considered. AB de Villiers' offer to come out of retirement and play at the World Cup was declined as well.
CSA had its reasons for both decisions and some of those made sense. Tabraiz Shamsi had been Tahir's understudy for several years and has gone on to become the No.1 T20I bowler in the world while de Villiers had walked away of his own volition, refused to play in ODI matches in the build-up and then wanted in at the last minute, which would have denied someone else, who had been playing, their chance. Think of this what you like, they are policy decisions which CSA has made and are sticking to.
There is a discussion to be had about whether CSA should join the modern world and consider single-format contracts like England or how to make room for T20 freelancers like West Indies, and de Kock's Test retirement may prompt that process. But for that to happen, the administrators need to do something they don't always do well: communicate.
The de Villiers issue was kept under wraps before being broken on this website while both du Plessis and Tahir claimed to have been ghosted by the new administration. CSA continues to hide behind unanswered questions until pushed to the point of embarrassment.
As recently as the Boxing Day Test, the reasons for Duanne Olivier's omission from the XI were kept hidden until a leak pushed them into revealing that he was struggling with the after effects of Covid-19. The only argument that could be made for withholding that information was the fear of unnecessarily raising alarm in the Indian camp but, considering Olivier, like everyone else, tested negative before entering the bubble, that's a generous explanation. It's more plausible that CSA undervalues the goodwill that comes with transparency and the results are plain for all to see.
Sponsors have stayed away, even for the biggest series of the summer. The vast majority of companies advertising in the stadium during the Test against India are Indian. South African corporates are spending their money elsewhere as they struggle to trust the suits at CSA. And they are not the only ones.
Player satisfaction in the people who run the game is also low. The new board, who took office in June, has had frosty relations since they mandated a collective taking of the knee at the T20 World Cup. de Kock was front and centre of that saga and later explained his reason for refusing to follow instructions and subsequently sitting out the match against West Indies was because of the manner in which the board communicated their directive.
Again, there's nuance to this because it's not as though the board happened on a topic that hadn't been discussed for more than a year before. It's also not as though their request was outlandish, especially in a country with a history of racial discrimination. No-one, not even de Kock, should have needed it spelt out to them why making the worldwide accepted gesture in support of anti-racism was expected and essential for a South African. But de Kock was the only one who stood "a man in his own shoes," as Temba Bavuma said, and defied his employers. It was a message which ultimately showed CSA that de Kock does not need them, and he won't be the only one.
In the current set-up, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, David Miller, Aiden Markram, Lungi Ngidi, Heinrich Klaasen and Shamsi have all previously attracted IPL deals. Nortje is the only one who has been retained but at least some of the rest will be picked up in the auction and the money they make there is significantly bigger than their CSA contracts. That's why Chris Morris has made himself unavailable for South Africa. He makes his money at the IPL. And leagues are not the only option. Wiaan Mulder and Olivier have current overseas player agreements with the English counties and Dean Elgar and Keshav Maharaj have had contracts in the past. The cricket economy is much bigger and richer than CSA can match and they don't seem to understand the impact that will have on the talent pool.
Perhaps they wouldn't have to if supply of quality cricketers was bottomless but South African domestic cricket is a shrinking product. The top-tier first-class competition has been reduced to seven matches a season and the Mzansi Super League is a thing of the past. Eventually, the well will run dry.
Right now, South Africa have Kyle Verreynne, who has averaged over 50 in the last two seasons and is tidy with the gloves, to take over from de Kock. They don't have the resources to replace all the names mentioned above, which is why all the reasons de Kock cited for stepping away should be acknowledged and acted on. Bubble-life is unsustainable and though CSA can do nothing about the pandemic, they will have to find a way to play regularly without compromising players' mental health. Most importantly, CSA needs to radically confront their relationship with the players and act in ways that are understanding, empathetic and inclusive. If that happens, the next generation will have de Kock to thank.
As for the man himself, what do the next few weeks hold? "I'm not too sure. I don't know whether to be excited or nervous. It's quite a big thing for me. When I was 19 or 20, I didn't think I'd ever have kids, and at this moment, I've got one on the way. I really want to be there for the baby as she grows up. I really want to be part of her childhood. So I guess I'm quite nervous. But I'll do what Quinny does and just take it as it comes."
And that may be the best way to sign off from 2021.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent