South Africa women - on the brink of an implosion or the cusp of a change?

After a period of good results, things have started to unravel quickly. A strong domestic system is only the first step towards redressing the issue

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
For now, the system is running in a way that does not create a pipeline  •  Getty Images

For now, the system is running in a way that does not create a pipeline  •  Getty Images

The South Africa women's team has gone from being a beacon through the Covid-19 pandemic and CSA's administrative chaos, to standing on the brink of an implosion. All in less than six months. They have only lost two white-ball series in England, but the manner in which they have lost, as well as the sense of instability after the loss of some senior players, means they enter the Commonwealth Games desperate to turn things around.
It has felt like an especially quick unravelling, one that started shortly after they lost the semi-final of the World Cup. It came on the back of their most successful period - before the England tour, they had not lost a bilateral white-ball series since January 2020 and had reached two major semi-finals.
So what's gone wrong?
Much of it has to do with the nature of women's cricket in South Africa. It was only eight years ago, after all, that the women's game turned professional. In a short time, South Africa managed to punch above their weight to help grow the game - but perhaps not as much as we thought. At national level, the set-up has been dominated by the same group of players and administrators for most of the last decade. That is excellent in terms of consistency, and it has paid off handsomely with several players earning superstar status. But it does not create healthy competition and the lack of depth has only been hidden away.
Several players have touched on this, citing the lack of a strong domestic system for women. CSA runs women's provincial one-day and T20 competitions, but the structure is part of the semi-professional arm of the organisation, which means it is not flush with money. Apart from the 15 national contracts, CSA also has ten players on high-performance deals, and there is the provision for each of the top six provincial sides to contract six players. The aim is to have a fully professional domestic system by 2023-24.
For now, though, the system is running in a way that does not create a pipeline. That means once the current group of players move on, there will be something of a vacuum. It is already apparent in the wide gulf between the current internationals and the tier below them; the likes of Lara Goodall or Tumi Sekhukhune, for example, cannot be expected to put out performances similar to that of Lizelle Lee or Shabnim Ismail. Some of that is down to experience and some of it because there remains only a small pool of players to choose from.
Lee's recent and abrupt retirement seems to have provided a window into broader issues affecting the team. The news came as a shock to everyone, including her own team-mates, and it has since emerged that she called it quits after failing a fitness test, which could have led to her being dropped from the side as well as missing out on franchise cricket. CSA hoped to prevent Lee from stepping away but when it realised that wouldn't happen, it chose to keep the reasons for her retirement private. Her decision feels like a prelude, too, as CSA is concerned that she could be the first of many to go.
In October, Hilton Moreeng will have been the national women's coach for ten years, a long time for one person to be in charge. A team needs fresh ideas and faces and Moreeng's vast experience could see him deployed into an overseeing role
Mignon du Preez has already chosen to play only T20Is and, after being appointed as a consultant for Fairbreak, is likely to announce her international retirement after the T20 World Cup. Ismail is 33 and though she has said she wants to play till 40 and beyond, a calf injury kept her out of the Test against England and a back problem out of the last T20I. Between those, she wasn't operating with the same effectiveness she is known for.
Trisha Chetty is 34 and has lost ground to Sinalo Jafta. Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk have affirmed their commitment to the national team, but Kapp has struggled with her health and had to leave the England tour for personal reasons. Van Niekerk has not played for the team since last September and is yet to return to action after breaking her ankle in January. Initially, she was due to be out for three months. That has turned into eight.
In van Niekerk's absence, South Africa have occasionally appeared rudderless. Sune Luus is a capable replacement when things are going well, but her own dip in form and the finger injury which has prevented her from contributing as a bowler have taken their toll. If all these players step away, the core of the team will be gone.
On the field, in reactions to defeat or even missed chances, the team has occasionally operated as if under the weight of the knowledge of an impending transition. Across the breadth of South African cricket officialdom, words like "immature" have been bandied about to describe the set-up. While there may be an inbuilt misogyny to observations like that, with the women's game often described as emotional or reactive, it could also hint at an underlying lack of readiness around the women's game for the environment of elite sport. They are not used to being asked tough questions, and even less used to having their change-room environment in the spotlight.
That's quite the opposite to the men's situation, where everything from the songs they sing at fines meetings to the language they use in press conferences is dissected. While the South African men have stressed that they are in a good place now, historical disharmony was unpacked at the recent Social Justice and Nation Building hearings. The same commission only had testimony from one former women's player and that did not feature in the final report. The many complexities of the women's team are often left unaddressed.
As is the fact that the women's team contains at least one - possibly more - romantic relationship within it. That adds a new layer to team dynamics. Cricket has only just started to talk about sexuality and CSA, which has only just got a grip on race-related issues, has shown it is some distance away from dealing with the issue. CSA is not the only institution coming to terms with it and other teams face similar realities. But those who have managed to elevate themselves to an elite level (Australia, England, New Zealand) are talking about them. Perhaps that is the kind of evolution South Africa needs to strive for.
At least the new director of cricket Enoch Nkwe has the women's team high on his agenda and will be seeking answers from them as early as this week. He will be in the United Kingdom, where both the men's and women's national teams are playing, and aims to survey the scope of his work and, potentially, the extent of the problem.
One of the earliest decisions Nkwe will have to make is putting in a succession plan for Hilton Moreeng. In October, Moreeng will have been the national women's coach for ten years, a long time for one person to be in charge. His contract runs until April 2023 and, even if South Africa win the home T20 World Cup, it's difficult to imagine he will stay on. A team needs fresh ideas and faces and Moreeng's vast experience could see him deployed into an overseeing role, especially if CSA is serious about improving domestic structures.
That means Moreeng will likely bow out having taken South Africa to four major tournament semi-finals but, unless things change dramatically in the next week, without achieving one of his big goals: a major trophy. And it hurts.
"There's so many things we came so close to winning," Moreeng said after South Africa's T20I series defeat to England. "We had opportunities: 2017 was one of those and if you look at the T20 in Australia, it was a difference of either way - a boundary - for the sides to be in the final. So yes it's one of those.
"Even the last World Cup, it's one of those missed chances. We played well throughout the World Cup and when it mattered it just didn't happen on the day. Everyone is feeling it because they worked extremely hard against all odds to be where they are to put the Momentum Proteas on the map to be able to compete with some of the top cricketing teams in the world."
Over the last decade, they have done that and they can be proud. But it's time for a second iteration of professionalism in the women's game, an up-levelling, if you will. The Commonwealth Games could be the catalyst for that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent