International cricket is unique in the world of sport in that the players in a team cannot easily be supplanted by equivalent replacements. The growth and development of a player to first earn a spot in the side, and then to retain it through successful performances, and perseverance through failures, makes it hard to replace an established player that may be lost due to injury, prolonged poor form or retirement.
And thus, it makes it many orders of magnitude harder when a core group of players leave a Test team around the same time; it stretches the bank of reserves and severely tests the domestic set up that is to be the pipeline of talent feeding the national team.
The retirements of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Morne Morkel and JP Duminy from all forms of international cricket in the space of 16 months, and the recent announcement of Dale Steyn walking away from Tests, brings down the curtains on an era of South African cricketing excellence that originated with the installation of Graeme Smith as captain after the debacle that was the 2003 World Cup.
Even the greatest players are bound by the laws of nature, even if their exploits on the field sometimes appear to defy it. It is the natural order, and as Robert Frost so eloquently wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.”
And so, all good things must come to an end and nothing great will last forever. That isn’t just applicable to a golden generation of South African cricketers. An era of dominance that began under Mark Taylor, transitioning through Steve Waugh to Ricky Ponting ended when Australia lost two of their - and arguably the world’s - greatest bowlers Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath at the end of the 2006-07 Ashes rout of England. In addition, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn walked away from the game in that series. The balance of power in Tests had shifted from Australia to South Africa when a fourth-innings chase of 414 was accomplished with consummate ease at the WACA in 2008.
India would lose a golden generation of cricketers of their own within a space of 24 months; Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag left the international game in the 2012-13 period, and they would further lose Zaheer Khan soon after. A team that ascended to the top of the Test rankings was left with gaping holes that needed to be filled.
Australia would ride on the backs of Ponting and Michael Clarke, and the brilliant, when fit, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson to maintain a semblance of respectability. It is telling that they lost home Ashes in 2010-11 and have not won the Ashes series in England since 2001. Yet, they have been able to rebuild their side which includes the best batsman of this generation Steve Smith and a battery of very good fast bowlers, backed by the ever consistent Nathan Lyon, that can compete consistently and even took home some hardware.
India have found another generation of great batsmen led by their captain Virat Kohli, an ace spinner, and a good group of pacers. They have won a Test series in Australia for the first time in their history, are at the top of the rankings or thereabouts consistently, and their A team appears to have players knocking on the doors of the senior side.
But where do South Africa go from here? Their side is now anchored by Faf du Plessis, the great Kagiso Rabada, promising Aiden Markram and the sparkling Quinton de Kock. Vernon Philander is at the tail end of his Test career at 34 years of age; some of the promising fast bowlers, including Duanne Olivier, Kyle Abbott and Marchant de Lange, have bolted to play in England through the Kolpak rule. Batters like Stiaan van Zyl and Rilee Rossouw have done the same.
After the disastrous 2019 World Cup, their long-time coach Ottis Gibson and his staff have been sacked; there is a restructuring of the team’s management approved by Cricket South Africa pattern on Football teams with the formation of two new posts: Director of Cricket and Team Manager; there is word that CSA would be naming an interim captain for their upcoming tour to India which indicates du Plessis’ reign as the leader is coming to an end in one or more of the formats. More significantly where are they going to find the players to fill the massive shoes of South African all-time greats?
The initially much-maligned “quota system” is the straw that South Africa have to clutch on to. Even Kevin Pietersen who left South Africa displeased with the system to represent England has come around in his thinking in the benefits of that far-reaching affirmative action. He said so in the first episode aired on SKY of the documentary, “Kevin Pietersen: Story of a Genius”.
“You can’t be what you cannot see” is a mantra that has been used around the world to provide opportunities and increase representation of communities that have been historically underprivileged for multitude of reasons - all terrible. Historically, cricket in South Africa had been in the hands of a group that constituted less than 10% of the nation.
In the new South Africa with progressive ideas of increasing participation in the populations that were denied cricketing opportunities, especially Black Africans (nearly 80% of the population), there is hope that diamonds like Makhaya Ntini and Rabada will not just be isolated revelations. The future of South African cricket is very much dependent on CSA continuing to provide facilities and opportunities to their majority population.
But it will be a long road back for South Africa. While Australia and India were lucky not to be faced with the harsh realities of South Africa’s history, their feeder system delivered the players of quality for them to once again return to the top.
For South Africa, the loss of players through retirements and Kolpak, the restructuring and uncertainties around their board, and the long gestation period for a flock of high-quality non-white players to come through would all mean their cricket is going to get worse before it can get better. It will be painful for their faithfuls in the short term but if they rebuild the right way, it will be a structure that can last for a long time, and return South African cricket to where they have been for so long: at the top.