The scuppering of the proposed Southern Premier League competition almost four years ago could be behind South Africa's struggles in Twenty20 cricket. Administrators and players alike identified the absence of a high-profile tournament as being one of the reasons South Africa lags behind in the shortest format, following their defeat to Pakistan on Sunday. Not only did the loss cost them the series in embarrassing fashion as they were bowled out for their lowest total, but it brought South Africa's T20 tactics into question.
The answers may lie in the lack of development in the country's 20-over game caused by the aborted tournament. Before T20 leagues began mushrooming, the boards of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were in talks to start a Super Rugby-style 20-over competition, combining the clout of their three domestic markets.
The plan failed for three reasons, the biggest being the IPL. None of the boards wanted to compete with the Indian tournament but all of them needed Indian players for it to be successful, which the BCCI does not allow. There was also the issue of finding a window and managing the massive logistics involved in playing across three countries with wide time differences.
Instead, South Africa settled for a share in the Champions League T20. Australia did the same but also went ahead with the Big Bash (which later became the Big Bash League), while New Zealand remained as they were. All three continued to supply players for the IPL, with South Africa contributing the third-most (after India and Australia). They all also continued to try and entice foreign heavyweights to play in their tournaments, with Australia having the most success and South Africa the most frustration.
As a result, the South African domestic T20 event is largely low profile, with few big names. "The rand as a currency is not great so what we can offer these guys is not much compared to what they would get elsewhere," Jacques Faul, the former CSA acting CEO, said.
While that may not seem crucial at face value, it has had some effect. Faf du Plessis, South Africa's T20 captain, said the knowledge transfer from internationals to local players aids development and cited Mike Hussey as having an influence on his career rise through their involvement at Chennai Super Kings. Since last year's IPL, du Plessis' stocks have risen considerably. Similarly, the Lions CEO, Cassim Docrat, praised the impact Sohail Tanvir and Dirk Nannes had on their young bowlers such as Chris Morris and Hardus Viljoen.
In the current Ram Slam tournament, there are six overseas players: Tanvir, Samit Patel, Azhar Mahmood, Owais Shah, Ravi Bopara and Scott Styris. The most popular name on the radar was Chris Gayle, who signed for the Dolphins last season for a fee that was thought to be R1 million (US$111,111), but never arrived because of injury.
Other marquee T20 players are often too expensive or otherwise occupied and so cannot participate. Indications are that South Africa will soon come up with greater amounts of cash to entice them, in the aftermath of the bonus scandal.
"We are going to make some decisions that people will question but it is because we are planning for the World T20 next year"
Faf du Plessis
That is not the only thing being looked at to revitalise the domestic tournament. Marc Jury, CSA's commercial manager, said the upcoming winter will be used to "repackage" the event. "We accept that South Africa has lost ground domestically because other countries have started creating unique content for their T20 competition and ours is something very similar to the 50-over game," he said.
From a marketing perspective, CSA will look at "moving away from too many midweek games" and may even consider introducing double and triple-headers. "We need to bring the carnival atmosphere back in," Jury said.
Stadium attendances have improved over the last season, primarily because of the lure of seeing the No. 1 Test side in the world and also because CSA has taken the game to smaller centres such as Paarl, East London and Potchefstroom. With that in mind, there is a strong chance people could be lured back to live cricket.
The other aspect that will convince them is quality. South Africa's woeful display against Pakistan was an extreme example, especially as it equalled their biggest loss in the format, but it illustrated why some stay away. The unsettled nature of the squad, a batting order that still succumbs under pressure and resting of their best players are other reasons.
But du Plessis explained South Africa have a vision for the future. "We are going to make some decisions that people will question but it is because we are planning for the World T20 next year," he said. "There is no point we use all our more experienced players in the lead-up if they are not going to play for us then. We are trying a few things."
To some, it may seem as though the experiment has never stopped. T20 remains the least successful version of the game for South Africa. They have lost 37.5% of matches, compared with 34% in ODIs and 33% in Tests, and are currently ranked sixth. Although their win percentage is fractionally higher than any other team, they have never won a knockout match in four editions of the World Twenty20 and lost all of their Super Eight games in Sri Lanka last year.
As the search for major tournament silverware continues, South Africa's main source of their concern comes from the domestic set-up, which has been so effective in dishing up ready-made Test players but seems unable to do the same in the shorter versions. Unless they can move on from their shattered SPL dreams quickly, the pipeline will continue to leak instead of flow smoothly.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent