South Africa’s domestic structures are not up to the standard needed to produce quality international cricketers, according to captain Faf du Plessis. In the aftermath of the 3-0 drubbing in India, du Plessis said that a combination of inexperience in the domestic system, a lack of proper planning and the talent drain caused by Kolpak contributed to the current state of the national side that has lost three of their last four Test series.
“What this has unveiled is that our structures are not where they need to be,” du Plessis said. “The gap between domestic cricket and intentional cricket – there needs to be things put in place to make sure you can address that a little bit better.”
His first point of contention was that South Africa were not adequately prepared for the spate of retirements that took place in the last 18 months, including Morne Morkel, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn.
“If you look back three or four years and someone had the vision of saying that in three or four years time there will be a lot of experienced guys – if you look at the ages, a lot of 34/35/36 year-olds – who could retire, so what do you do to make sure you get yourself ready for when that time comes? And possibly we are guilty for not planning for all of these guys going at the same time,” he said. “If you look at the last year-and-a-half, we’ve lost four or five Test players and now you’ve got to replace, not only one player but four or five of your best players. In there, we could have been a little bit smarter in the planning phase and the phasing out of the great players.”
But the current level of inexperience in the squad cannot only be blamed for lack of foresight. Earlier this year, South Africa were banking on Duanne Olivier to fill the gap left by Morkel and Steyn, but he signed a Kolpak deal, just like Kyle Abbott had done two years ago. Both players, shortly before leaving, made statements committing themselves to the team and CSA was both blindsided by their decisions to leave and fruitless in its efforts to convince them otherwise.
With the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union imminent, Kolpak agreements could be in danger. Currently, Kolpak agreements ensure that citizens of countries that have signed European Union Association agreements, such as South Africa, will have the same freedom of movement as European Union citizen. If the United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union, this may no longer apply and du Plessis was hopeful that the Kolpak stream, which he once swam in himself, will stop even though he knows South Africans will continue to seek opportunity abroad.
“Brexit will be one thing that will stop the Kolpak players so that will benefit South African cricket tremendous amounts,” he said. “I don’t know if maybe they will find a loophole around it by saying we will have another overseas player that will be allowed to play in county cricket which still means that players will go and play there, just be under a different name tag. Opportunities are there for players in the domestic circuit in England. There’re a lot of South African players playing there at the moment. From a financial point of view, the pound is stronger than the Rand so that will always be a concern for us. But the less of those things there are for players to go overseas, that more cricket in South Africa will benefit.”
If there is an allowance of more overseas players in England, du Plessis also hoped South Africa would have access those players who initially showed an intention to play on the county circuit, improve and return, such as Simon Harmer. The offspinner was the leading wicket-taker last summer and is currently pursuing qualification for England. “Simon Harmer is an unbelievable spinner and it would be great for South Africa to be in a position where they could go, he has done well overseas, let’s bring him on tour with us. Post-Brexit, maybe guys will still go and play there but you can still pick them for the country,” du Plessis said. “That’s the situation where we need to get to because at the moment we don’t have the option of all the best players.”
But the best-case scenario for du Plessis would be that if the Kolpak route was closed, South Africa would be able to keep more players. “We are losing our experience in international cricket but are also losing our experience in domestic cricket,” he said. “Your top players domestically are going overseas. The guys who are left of the South African team, they go overseas, so you are missing out on a lot of your best players, a talent pool that is all of a sudden a lot smaller. That’s something that we try to identify to stop but it has been very difficult to stop.”
Equally important to retaining the talent that may go on to represent South Africa is keeping those who have recently done that, in the system. “The guys post international cricket, Hashim Amla, those guys they are not playing domestic cricket,” du Plessis said. “So you lose all of that experience which will help the young guys. To play with Hashim Amla will be the greatest learning curve you can get, playing with Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers. It’s about making sure you can bridge that gap and finding ways to do it.”
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Amla, who had retired after the World Cup, is not playing any cricket in South Africa, and is understood to be on the verge of signing a Kolpak deal. He has been a studio analyst for SuperSport during this series but will not play in the Mzansi Super League, South Africa’s franchise T20 tournament. Steyn and de Villiers are part of MSL sides, and then both players will move to the Big Bash League. However, none of them play first-class cricket. The same is true for Morkel, who lives in Australia, JP Duminy and Imran Tahir, who will play in MSL but not in other formats. All of them had retired in the last two years.
Such a significant changing of the guard, coupled with systemic problems in the structures, has left South Africa feeling like they are starting from scratch and du Plessis acknowledged they have a long way to go. As he put it, there’s no quick fix. “It’s a tough place to start, right at the beginning,” he said. “Obviously, in a perfect world you will start somewhere in the middle, change one or two players and that period takes a little bit shorter but the position we find ourselves in now with a lot of experience out of the Test team, that process will probably take a little bit longer.”