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South Africa’s Proteas embark on their England tour with two main goals: to restore the team’s tattered reputation and to provide their compatriots back home with a moment of fleeting joy.
This is a line we will use again. No sports team follows a linear progression, but few oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous like the Proteas. Any triumph is short-lived and only causes more anxiety. The summit of the mountain is nothing more than a halt before the perilous descent.
None of this is new. Watching South African cricket hit a corner is like watching a dog run in circles before settling down for a nap. There have been so many evolutions, so many new beginnings, that one can assume the marketing team dug into the broom closet and revamped a pre-existing identity.
Where to start with this one? One could reasonably begin with the arrival of the Dutch colonial administrator, Jan van Riebeeck, on the shores of what is now Cape Town in 1652. This is not meant to be facetious. If history is just a series of falling dominoes, then all of South Africa’s triumphs and lamentations can be attributed to the sudden violent interaction between the white settlers and the indigenous population.
Push on a domino and 369 years later, Quinton de Kock, his country’s most naturally gifted hitter of his generation, refuses to follow a team mandate to bend the knee in a 2021 T20 World Cup game in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
From an early age, De Kock resented authority. And with a mixed-race mother-in-law, he answered questions about his commitment to racial harmony. Still, it was an unstable touchpoint for fans who viewed a team presenting a disunited front at an important time.
De Kock made himself unavailable for the next game but apologized for any infraction caused. He explained that his decision was based on libertarianism, not ignorance, and that after a conversation with his captain, Temba Bavuma, he changed his mind. But those close to the team have expressed their displeasure with the brutality of Cricket South Africa. Two months later, he retired from Test cricket.
It would be easy to lay the blame squarely on CSA’s door. The organization had lost all confidence and credibility under its former chief executive, Thabang Moroe, who oversaw a litany of reputation-damaging mistakes, including the loss of the team’s title sponsor, Standard Bank, after a 22-year relationship.
Respected administrator Jacques Faul was tasked with stabilizing the stumbling ship. Graeme Smith was appointed director of cricket with Mark Boucher as head coach. Jacques Kallis joins as a temporary consultant. It all made sense for cricket.
But the optics were poor as a team that claimed to embody a racially transformed society was now led by white men. Additionally, Boucher had eliminated Enoch Nkwe who was serving on an interim basis after Ottis Gibson was sacked.
Simmering tensions surfaced last year during social justice and nation-building hearings that exposed underlying racial schisms. The most stunning revelation came from Paul Adams. The former spinner recounted an incident where he was called ‘brown shit’ during a fines meeting in a bastardized version of Boney M Brown’s song Girl in the Ring. Boucher admitted to having participated in this public humiliation.
No other former player followed Boucher’s example. For that, he deserves some credit. But acknowledging a crime doesn’t absolve you of guilt and there are plenty in South Africa who think their cricket team has the wrong person behind the wheel.
During the hearings, Nkwe resigned as Boucher’s deputy, citing “concerns about the culture and functioning” of the team’s environment. This, along with Adams’ testimony, encouraged the ASC to open a formal accusation of racism against the coach. Neither Adams nor Nkwe were ready to speak, and the CSA “unreservedly” withdrew their case. In another twist, Nkwe has since replaced Smith as director of cricket, assuming a position of authority above Boucher.
Most teams would be reluctant to perform under such a cloud. Not this one. Tide Fighting is the hallmark of a band named after a flower that regenerates after seasonal forest fires. Moreover, they will support each other quietly to dampen England’s new found optimism.
Recent Test Series victories in the West Indies and at home to India are a sign that the red ball team has stumbled upon a winning identity. Put together by the outspoken Dean Elgar, the batting lineup is more than the sum of its parts. Bavuma’s elbow injury leaves a hole, but Keegan Petersen at No. 3 has been a revelation.
The bowling unit claims to be the best in the world. Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje unleash lightning strikes, Marco Jansen delivers a dizzyingly high left arm swing and the presence of Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer means this Proteas attack is more varied than any previous iteration. Top-notch hitter Rassie van der Dussen has previously challenged England’s hitters to replicate their Bazball brouhaha against them.
The white ball team is also developing well, although David Miller’s addiction to fireworks in the middle order is a concern. It’s also been a big summer for wrist-turner Tabraiz Shamsi who thinks he’s worthy of a contract with the Indian Premier League.
Winning has a way of sweetening discord. National insecurities can be assuaged by wickets and sixes. And as the Proteas embark on a landmark multi-format tour of England, they will have two main goals in mind.