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Luke Alfred

The juju is bad for South Africa

The last few months have been a steep comedown. What has gone wrong?

Luke Alfred
Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock walk out to bat, South Africa v Sri Lanka, World T20 2016, Group 1, Delhi, March 28, 2016

The Amla-de Kock run-out was an example of the kind of indecision plaguing South African cricket at the moment  •  Getty Images

In one grim season, South African cricket has transformed itself from being a healthy citizen of the world to an outpatient with a dicky heart. With stents, pacemakers and blood-thinning medication, the man in pyjamas has been stabilised, but there was nearly a corpse in the back of the ambulance. Obituaries could have appeared on three or four occasions. They might yet still.
The worst moment - the heart-stopper, one might say - was a few weeks ago against West Indies in Nagpur. Quinton de Kock cut the ball to point and set off on a run, ball-watching; watching him, Hashim Amla started on the run, and when de Kock stopped, he followed suit. The mutual hesitation lasted only an instant but it seemed like a moment we'd been living in for years. The nation was momentarily united and we were all thinking: "We've been here before - it's not a good place to be."
Run-outs always have something smoky and pathological about them. They're like dropped catches, except they take place in a different part of the game. As a rule, happy teams don't drop catches; as a rule, confident, at-ease batsmen don't get run out. One doesn't need to gaze too hard into the microscope to realise that forensically all the anguish of a lost summer was condensed into one passage of indecision.
Why? Because this had been a season of not knowing whether to risk playing Dale Steyn in the first Test against England; of not knowing whether Amla was the best Test captain and who would replace him. The selectors didn't know who was South Africa's best wicketkeeper. Who was the best fourth bowler, the best side? Indecision curled about the team's cricket like mist. No wonder the haunting continued in the World T20 with a run-out that set a pattern for an entire game.
The one group in all of this that has largely escaped censure has been the players themselves - and the senior players among them. Charl Langeveldt, the national bowling coach, has come in for criticism because clearly he has been incapable of passing on his death-bowling savvy as a limited-overs specialist to South Africa's bowlers.
What cricket needs is some creative therapy. And recognition that life at the top is way too cosy for the incumbents, whether they wear green shirts or green ties
A franchise coach with a growing reputation told me last week that he felt that the two World T20 finalists, England and West indies, had the most supple attacks in the competition. "With cross-seam deliveries and cutters and change-ups - look at someone like Dwayne Bravo - they had the two best attacks. England improved considerably since they were here. Just look at someone like David Willey and his variations."
Another group that has generally escaped the finger is the CSA board. Haroon Lorgat presides over a system that has become less and less legitimate as the season has progressed. It is this board, after all, that was seduced by Gary Kirsten's recommendations to make Russell Domingo his successor. Andrew Hudson's retirement as national selection convenor after the debacle in New Zealand on the eve of the World Cup semi-final last year has meant the elevation of Linda Zondi to the post. He is by all accounts a decent man, though no heavyweight.
But back to the players. Increasingly South Africa's stellar cricketers ply their trade in a rarefied realm, which makes them difficult to manage and only nominally accountable. Titans, out of SuperSport Park, duly wrapped up the Sunfoil Series last weekend, but did so without seven players in the IPL, some of them superstars in their own right, like AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. In the wake of the side bombing out of the World T20, many in South Africa have reasonably asked why putting on a green jersey automatically reduces otherwise special players to quivering wrecks.
Such players always have another spree, another gig, another engagement. They can't be persuaded to stay at home because CSA doesn't have the money to do so, and this in turn means that the normal rules of employer-employee relationships don't apply. If you were cynical you would suggest that players like de Villiers and du Plessis have manipulated the situation to their best advantage. Joe Root (against South Africa) and Virat Kohli (against Australia) won matches for their teams in the World T20. By contrast, de Villiers and du Plessis were nowhere in the high-stakes games when contributions from them were vital.
CSA has attempted to address this and more by forming a task team to look into the underperformance of all national teams. There is much to unpack but the most important aspect of South African cricket worthy of examination is intangible and difficult to get to grips with. In major international competitions the Proteas' are clearly bewitched, the de Kock and Amla run-out being just one of several examples over the years of players' being spellbound. The juju is bad and there's mounting evidence that it gets worse with every passing tournament.
Dawn Mokhobo, Francois Pienaar, Adam Bacher and Ross Tucker have been entrusted with getting to the bottom of the stink but these are practical people with establishment credentials. What cricket needs is some creative therapy. And recognition that life at the top is way too cosy for the incumbents, whether they wear green shirts or green ties.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg