On the face of it, the South African domestic game is about to enter a bright, shiny new world full of promise and prosperity.

Eleven provinces will squeeze into six professional franchises, and the rest of South Africa's first-class cricket will become strictly amateur. There will be job losses, of course, and the cricket landscape will lose a few familiar country houses and gain several new skyscrapers. Traditions will be trodden on and the stench of marketing will assault many nostrils.

But it will all be for the greater good: a leaner, meaner, stronger provincial system feeding the national team, and a plug in the drain down which too much of the game's money is lost. So, Gauteng (formerly Transvaal) and North West (Western Transvaal) will join forces and try to convince us to call them the Highveld Lions. Northerns (Northern Transvaal) and Easterns (Eastern Transvaal) will cosy up as Northern Gauteng, Western Province and Boland will form Western Cape, and Eastern Cape will comprise Border and Eastern Province. KwaZulu-Natal will remain the same.

The 11 provinces will survive in a 16-team amateur competition that will be given first-class status. Millions of rands will be saved, and the plan is that one day South Africa may finally win a series against Australia. Jolly good, and warm up the dancing girls. Not so fast.

Only five of the six franchises have been decided. The sixth, Central has descended into a battle for the future of South African cricket. On the one side there is Free State and on the other Griqualand West.

While the other provinces, besides stand-alone KwaZulu-Natal, found enough common ground to merge and so secure a franchise, Free State and Griquas did not. They submitted rival bids for Central, and Free State won. Which means, at the moment, that top-flight cricket will disappear from Kimberley in Griqualand West next season.

Griquas will soon lose senior batsman Martyn Gidley, who is returning to live in England, and coach Mickey Arthur to the Eastern Cape franchise, and they are set to haemorrhage several more of their better players. Unsurprisingly, Griquas are in earnest consultation with their lawyers with a view to legal action.

Another site of this complex struggle could be between the two state's respective sponsors. Free State are sponsored by tyre company Goodyear, while diamond barons De Beers pay Griquas' bills. "How many tyres do you think De Beers have bought from Goodyear over the years?" asked a source close to the Griquas. "Well, no longer."

And that's not the end of the bad news. Planning for South Africa's new, improved structures would seem to be woefully behind schedule. The franchisees were named as recently as February 1, and as yet no fixture list has been published for next season.

It was left to the South African Cricketers' Association to come up with the key proposals and agreements that hope to ensure a smooth transition and a successful restructuring effort.

The 16-team amateur competition is, in the words of one administrator, "likely to be a mess". Not the least of the problems is that it creates two tiers of first-class cricket. But it is the simple mathematics of this mess in the making that provides for the most startling reading. This season, the 11 provinces will contest 111 matches, limited overs and first-class combined.

Next summer, with 70 to 80 cricketers having lost their jobs, 22 teams will shoulder the burden of approximately 218 matches.

"You are dealing with separate amateur and professional competitions, and the UCB will look after amateur cricket," said board chief executive Gerald Majola. "We understand what we are doing, and we're comfortable that we will be able to fund it."

This article was first published in the April 2004 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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