Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg
"Voluptuous panic." It's a lovely phrase. It comes from Richard Linklater's Boyhood, a film about a goofy Texan kid called Mason. He's taking down photographs of his girlfriend from his high-school art exhibition - they've just broken up, she's dating a jock - and Mason is chatting to a teacher. She uses the phrase to describe the feeling of going off to college, of leaving the familiar behind. Freedom looms but there's a dizzy edge to what beckons.
There's a kind of voluptuous panic enveloping South African cricket at the moment, scary and mildly intoxicating. The reflex - my reflex - when faced by so much change is to call up the reassuring certainties of the past. We can summon images of Jacques Kallis blunting the best attacks in the world; Graeme Smith doing his Churchill thing during fourth-innings chases. Then there was Dale Steyn, grooving the outswinger at the MCG. And Paul Harris and Neil McKenzie and the boundlessly humourless Bouch. There was Alviro Petersen, Ashwell Prince, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel. Even the ones that remain somehow seem to have left a part of themselves behind. It suddenly looks horribly different, and you feel a stab of regret. We should have celebrated them more, counted our blessings more publicly, been more generous in our praise.
Where relative continuity was once a feature of South African sides, this season the selectors seem to have stepped through the looking glass into utter weirdness. For the Centurion Test against England, they made five changes, this at the end of a sequence of eight Tests (going back to the first Test against India in Mohali), during which they used 20 players in all. Yes, injuries to players like Steyn (two Tests this summer) and Philander (one) have played their part, but there seems to be a worrying hell-or-glory bravado from selection convenor Linda Zondi and his men. They're making reactive decisions in trying to make bad decisions look good; they're pandering to the gallery and they're besotted with the holy grail of trying to find another Kallis, which surely explains the flirtations with nominal allrounders like Chris Morris (against England) and Simon Harmer (against India).
Forget the unwise experiment with Hardus Viljoen at the Wanderers; forget the peculiarity of being brave enough to drop JP Duminy for Newlands only to recall him and watch him fail twice in Monday's win in Centurion. The clanger of the summer by far involves Quinton de Kock. Leaving him out for Bangladesh might have seemed prudent at the time, in that he didn't have a good World Cup. But the tour to Bangladesh was over before it really got going and suddenly - in the interests of fairness - Dane Vilas needed to be taken to India, where he struggled, like everyone else. Then AB de Villiers was keeping wicket in the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead before de Kock returned at Newlands. He would have kept at the Wanderers, which is a good ground for him, had he not injured himself while walking his Jack Russell.
Thankfully he made runs in Centurion, and although he missed a tough stumping off Joe Root on the fourth afternoon, he must stay. So too must Kagiso Rabada, a revelation in the latter half of the England series, Temba Bavuma, Stephen Cook, Dean Elgar and Dane Piedt. Add the returning injured and the shoo-ins and you suddenly have a side.
So, through trial by fire, we have gained clarity. Perhaps Faf du Plessis (dropped for the fourth Test against England), Duminy and Morris are all better long-term bets as ODI cricketers and will be used wisely in the upcoming five-match series against England? And perhaps we've learned that there's something called "the fallacy-of-the-good-looking batsman". I'm thinking here of Stiaan van Zyl, whose easy charms appear to make him an obvious Test candidate. He started off well enough, scoring a debut Test hundred against West Indies in Centurion in December 2014, batting at six. With promotion into the unfamiliar position of opener, however, came trouble from which he never recovered. Cook has done exactly what van Zyl did 13 months ago - scoring a Test hundred on debut at Centurion - but with 11,000 first-class runs behind his name seems better equipped to ride out inevitable failures.
The selectors are not the only constituency who have issues. On the resumption of the first-class Sunfoil Series on December 27, with all six sides playing, a player strike was narrowly avoided, with the Knights (in Bloemfontein) known to be particularly vociferous in their rejection of the new CSA quotas. Black cricketers themselves are peeved, the older ones feeling patronised by being dubbed "affirmative action" players. All this suggests a yawning gap between the Cricket South Africa board and the players themselves - and a looming crisis of legitimacy.
This is surely the best way to make sense of the Gulam Bodi spot-betting scandal, a story not only of greed but disenchantment. On Monday Bodi was hung out to dry, being banned from cricket activities for 20 years - five of which were suspended. With the perpetrators still at large, does CSA go after them and in so doing court a racial unpopularity, given that those mentioned so far are black? Or does it drag its heels until the World T20, in the mistaken hope that everyone has forgotten there are half a dozen others involved? Voluptuous panic indeed.