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Where does South African domestic cricket stand?

The 2015-16 domestic season produced a few promising players, but the lack of stars was a downer

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Titans won the T20 competition, captained by Albie Morkel (left), and the first-class tournament  •  Gallo Images

Titans won the T20 competition, captained by Albie Morkel (left), and the first-class tournament  •  Gallo Images

South Africa's international season took the shape of a downward spiral in which they were dethroned from the top of the Test pile and suffered another early exit at a major tournament. As they seek to rebuild, the spotlight will turn to the domestic system, which probably has the lowest profile amongst those of the top teams.
To outsiders, South Africa's set-up is something of a mystery. It is double-tiered, with six franchises competing in what is effectively an A section and 13 semi-professional provincial teams competing in a B section. Both tiers have first-class status and both play in List A and T20 competitions.
Even in the top tier, most fixtures take place completely under the radar. The first-class matches are not televised and, despite free entry, play out to empty stadiums. The one-day cup often coincides with the international season and so holds no glamour. The T20 tournament cannot count itself among the world's top leagues of its kind either: national players are seldom available, and the weak rand has made signing big names a difficulty.
Still, South Africa's domestic structure was always thought to be sound, but now that the national team needs reinforcements, concerns have sprouted. Several former players have suggested standards have dropped but is that really the case or merely a reaction to the changing climate?
For the first time in South African cricket history, the transformation targets required that more than half of each franchise and provincial team needed to be non-white, with six players of colour, of whom at least three needed to be black African.
We take a look at the state of the game, with inputs from the two coaches whose teams claimed cups this season. Rob Walter's Titans won the first-class and T20 competitions while Geoffrey Toyana's Lions were the one-day champions.
The increased requirements were only revealed late last March, when most teams had finalised their contract lists. In the 2014-15 season, teams each needed five players of colour, of whom three needed to be black Africans. But in March 2015, after the contracts for 2015-16 were done, that requirement was upped to six players of colour, including three black Africans - and most teams didn't have that number of black Africans on their books. A loan system allowed franchises with a surplus of talent to spread it around, but even Lions, who have led the way in transformation terms, struggled.
Kagiso Rabada's national commitments rendered him completely unavailable; Aaron Phangiso and Temba Bavuma also spent time away with South African squads; Thami Tsolekile and Lonwabo Tsotsobe were unavailable for personal reasons; and Eddie Leie was injured, once during warm-ups. Lions ran out of reserves and Toyana contemplated a comeback to playing before they were given permission not to meet the target on that occasion.
That was a comical example of what can happen when things backfire, but overall the new targets affected team balance. "It's just about your resources and how you can work with them. We need more players of colour in different positions," says Toyana. "That is part of the process. To grow players of colour in all aspects of the game."
"Growing black African cricketers should be a priority and should take precedence over most things," says Walter. "It's a challenge but we need to fall in love with the challenge. If we resist it, we will not be in a position to coach properly."
Most franchises found themselves with enough black African bowlers but not batsmen, although there were a few. Two names worth remembering are Cobras' Omphile Ramela and Dolphins' Khaya Zondo, who also made history by becoming the first black African captains of franchise teams. Ramela finished in the top ten on the first-class run-scorers' list as well.
"It's been great to see guys coming through and taking opportunities. That's something that wasn't there before," says Toyana.
Among those who took their chances this season were Malusi Siboto, a medium-pacer who was the top wicket-taker in the one-day cup, Junior Dala, who was fourth, Tshepo Moreki (fifth) and Sisanda Magala (sixth).
Magala was also second on the wicket-takers' list in the T20 competition. "He is the most improved player in the system," Toyana says of him.
Competitive edge
The first-class championship was only decided on the final day with Titans, Lions and Knights all in the running. In this summer's Sunfoil Series, five of the 30 matches were decided by an innings and more, and two by ten wickets. A further seven matches were won by margins of more than 50 runs and five by more than six wickets.
While that may not sound appealing, it does not compare badly with Australia's Sheffield Shield, where four of the 29 matches were won by an innings and more. There were no matches decided by ten wickets but two by nine wickets. A further eight had margins of more than 50 runs.
"I found there was some inconsistency in performances," says Walter. "There were not a lot of hard-fought victories, teams were either winning well or losing badly."
In the shorter formats too, South Africa is comparable to Australia. The Momentum One-Day Cup saw ten matches won with more than two overs to spare and five by margins of less than 20 runs. Australia's Matador Cup had five of 24 matches won with more than two overs to spare and three by a margin of less than 20 runs.
Of the 32 matches in the Ram Slam T20 Challenge, seven were decided by fewer than ten runs and one was tied. Australia's Big Bash League had three out of 35 games decided by less than ten runs.
While this cannot stand as an indicator of quality, it does suggest that South Africa's franchises are at least as competitive against each other as Australia's state teams are against each other.
Exit of experience
South African cricket has lost some of their stalwarts, with the retirements of Neil McKenzie and Justin Kemp this summer, and the absence of Jacques Rudolph. However, neither Walter nor Toyana was overly concerned. Both made the point that the unavailability of national players affects them more, and in some ways, it amounts to the same thing.
"I don't think it's a concern because we still have players like Stephen Cook and Dean Elgar, so we've actually got a balance between experience and youth," says Toyana.
Players with international experience - whatever their age - can transfer the knowledge of making the step up to those who aim to emulate them, even if that happens purely by observation. However, South Africa's domestic cricketers are deprived of the chance to rub shoulders with the best.
AB de Villiers has not played a first-class game for his South African franchise, Titans, since March 2009. He last played a List A game for them in December 2012, and a T20 in September 2013. In contrast, Steven Smith played a first-class game for his state team in October last year. Dale Steyn has also not played a first-class game for Titans for nearly seven years. He last turned out for them in List A cricket in December 2012 and in T20s in 2010. James Anderson was playing for his county in September last year.
Those are the extremes. However, this season, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada also did not play franchise first-class matches. Among South Africa's other big names, Hashim Amla played one first-class match, JP Duminy two and one List A game, Faf du Plessis played one List A game, and Imran Tahir played two first-class, one one-day cup match and one T20 game.
The younger internationals are seen a little more: Dean Elgar turned out in six first-class matches for Titans and six one-day cup games, Bavuma played five first-class matches and nine one-day cup games, and Quinton de Kock played in 11 T20 matches as well as one first-class and List A game each.
"It's a fine line because although you can never replace experience, the senior guys should all be performing," says Walter. "Rather, I'd say we need to be wary of younger guys being put in ahead of their time."
Next season, CSA intends to ensure national players are available for the T20 tournament in the hope of increasing its profile, but they may want to ensure they play in other competitions too.
The highlights
Titans opening batsman Heino Kuhn became only the sixth player to score 1000 first-class runs in a season of franchise cricket. His temperament makes him an ideal candidate for Test cricket, though there isn't a vacancy in the top two at the moment.
Walter believes his age is no barrier to a possible call-up. "If Heino's name isn't mentioned every time they pick a Test team, something is wrong. We get caught up in saying guys are too old, but at 32 he still has at least three years of top-quality cricket. How many years do you need to not be too old? It's also good to know that if something should happen to Dean Elgar or Stephen Cook, Heino is ready to play."
Lions quick Hardus Viljoen topped the first-class wicket charts with 47 wickets in a season where he also made his Test debut. Although he will struggle to force his way into a packed South African pace pack, Toyana has not discounted using him in other formats either. "I would like to see him being given more opportunities."
Other names worth watching out for are Titans' chinaman bowler Tabraiz Shamsi, who was third on the wicket-takers' list, and Theunis de Bruyn, who will move from Titans to captain Knights next season.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent