Do not adjust your television set, cricket-minded South Africans. Clearly, that isn’t the unbridled razzmatazz of the SA20 you see before you, nor the hope that rose during South Africa’s men’s ODI against England, nor the tide of pride and passion that swept the country during the women’s T20 World Cup.
What will be on your screens from Tuesday might look lacklustre and seem slow in comparison to the carnival of cricket that has kept the country tuned in this summer. But it is big cricket nonetheless. Sort of.
South Africa’s Test series against West Indies that starts in Centurion on Tuesday amounts to two dead rubbers – there are WTC points on offer, but both teams are out of the running for the final – that will be the only Tests the home side will play until December. If there is any reason to care, it’s that the South Africans have a new captain in Temba Bavuma and a new coach, Shukri Conrad. A lower key start to their tenures is difficult to imagine.
But, considering South Africa’s Test team suffered a 2-0 hiding in Australia in December and January, which followed a 2-1 crash in England in July and August, staying under the radar for now may be no bad thing.
“We didn’t meet those challenges, but the guys are still here and they still want to man up,” Temba Bavuma told reporters in Centurion on Monday. But he balked at having what happened in Australia described as traumatic: “No-one died. We got a good beating. There were lessons. The thing is not to hold onto that baggage for too long. At some point you’ve got to move on from it.
“We’d like to start with a clean slate, and go out there and play the way we’d like to play. You’re going to hear me say that a lot.”
South Africa’s squad includes Aiden Markram, who was dropped for the Australia series, Keegan Petersen, who returns from a hamstring injury, and the uncapped Tony de Zorzi and Gerald Coetzee. Sarel Erwee, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne and Lungi Ngidi have been dropped. Mark Boucher left as coach in November and Dean Elgar’s sacking as captain was announced on February 17. Had anything else changed?
“It’s different in the sense that the language has been different,” Bavuma said. “Players are challenging each other in terms of how they want to do things. That hasn’t necessarily come in because there was a problem or it wasn’t being done in the past. It’s just part of a fresh start, and how we would like to measure up as players.”
Bavuma’s opponents in his first series as Test captain have been central to his career from a young age: “West Indies was the team I supported growing up. That was the team I always saw at home on the TV, and my uncles supported them. Making my captaincy debut against them, I guess that’s just another part of the Temba story.”
But that Windies side, with its swagger and success, is a long way from the modern version. They still have the swagger. The success, not so much. They last won a Test in South Africa in December 2007, and last year their runrate of 2.71 was the worst in the game.
Or, as Bavuma, the epitome of politeness, said: “They play old-fashioned cricket. Their batters grind it out, their bowlers are looking to hit their areas outside the off-stump. They’ve got guys who can stand up to the challenge and they are well led by [Kraigg] Brathwaite.”
Not that the South Africans have much reason to feel superior. Their runrate in 2022, a creaky 2.95, was second from bottom. Unsurprisingly, revitalised England led the way with 4.36. India, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka were the only other teams to score more than three runs an over.
South Africa’s men’s teams need to buck up. They have always been CSA’s priority because they are the chief generators of revenue for the game in this country. That is unlikely to change soon because cricket’s primary audience remains men, who prefer watching men play. But the women’s team boldly went where the men have never tread by reaching Sunday’s T20 World Cup final at Newlands. They lost to Australia, but not in the catastrophic fashion that almost always befalls the men when they have to perform under pressure.
Still, Bavuma could appreciate the women’s feat: “That was massive, not just for us but for the nation. All the guys watched the final and the semifinal, and supported them. We look for areas to draw energy and inspiration from, and it’s been big what the women’s team have been able to achieve with limited resources.”
The begged questions were not asked: why don’t the men put their lion’s share of funding and attention from CSA to use as well as the women do with their smaller share, and how is it fair that they should enjoy more of those resources when the women are more successful?