Money talks – Understanding why South Africa are willing to burn a Test series for the SA20
It has seemed inevitable for a long time, but we may finally have the ‘nail in the coffin’ moment for Test cricket outside the major nations.
It seems a country once boasting the most destructive and formidable Test side has been reduced to rubble, paving the way for a domestic rebranding that will undoubtedly hamper the seriousness of red ball cricket across the globe.
After a topsy-turvy Test series against a formidable Indian outfit that ended one win apiece, cricket was shocked to see the South African men’s side, the Proteas, announce a ‘new-look’ Test squad to take on New Zealand with only two out of the 14-man contingent who played against India flying to the Island nation.
All South African regulars were deemed unavailable due to the new rebranding of the domestic Twenty20 league, SA20, the Proteas announced a squad with eight potential debutants in line to take the field in Mount Manganui, including a new captain and an entirely new bowling attack.
Neil Brand, a stylish left-handed opening bat, will lead the proteas in his first ever Test match. Despite boasting an average of a tick over 39 in 51 matches for the Titans, a provincial team based in Centurion, it is hardly a choice that would bring much confidence to a South African cricket fan.
Apart from a gritty 104 batting for South Africa A against West Indies A, Brand’s first class average from November to the time he was selected stood at a measly 22.5. Not exactly form that international teams usually adhere to.
Further, Duanne Olivier, who played 15 times between 2017 and 2022, leads the way in Test caps, followed by Keegan Petersen on 12. The Proteas’ experience is paper thin to say the least, and travelling to take on recent World Test Championship winners in their own backyard, in conditions not usually encountered playing in South Africa, does not bode well for the side.
Despite not playing any Test matches since December 2023 (a tied series with minnows Bangladesh), New Zealand look to name a full-strength squad against South Africa although they will sweat on the fitness of world number one batsman Kane Williamson, who withdrew from the second T20 against Pakistan mid-innings with a hamstring strain.
A stark difference of quality in sides is an understatement. However, what is rather telling about the state of cricket in both countries is the emphasis they place on their domestic T20 league. The Kiwi and South African leagues are both currently in full swing, but the international level, regardless of format, takes priority well above the domestic competitions in New Zealand.
Once the T20 series wraps up against Pakistan, New Zealand will name their squad to take on South Africa, and is likely to feature the usual suspects: Tim Southee, Devon Conway, Glenn Phillips and Daryl Mitchell to name a few.
So just how disrespectful are South Africa being by naming an effective third-string side to face the former world champions? Or is it just a pure product of the financial state the Proteas placed themselves in?
Travelling back to 2020, it’s easy to see how Cricket South Africa arrived at financial disarray. Firstly, they sacked CEO Thabang Moroe with immediate effect after he ‘committed acts of serious misconduct’ following an independent investigation with the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC).
This, combined with the country’s GDP declining for four consecutive quarters, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, spelt financial ruin for Cricket South Africa. As a result, the South African sports minister had to officially intervene in the operations of Cricket South Africa in what was described as its “greatest crisis since the end of apartheid.”
This was further compounded by extensive reputational damage off the back of a then lucrative sponsorship deal with Sahara Computers, who were found to be instigators of political corruption and bribery in South Africa by the US treasury department.
Major sponsors Momentum and Standard Bank gradually cut ties with Cricket South Africa throughout 2021, hanging Cricket South Africa out to financially dissipate and accumulate even more losses on top of an eye-watering $654 million rand (about $34 million USD) losses over a 4-year period.
The players, with their careers in serious doubt, seemed to be fed up, releasing a statement saying government intervention in the sport would have ‘dire consequences’. It seemed Cricket South Africa were holding out for a lifeline to rescue them. I present to you: SA20.
Going full circle, the SA20 was a product off the back of the failed Mzani Super League (MSL) which was intended to compete with the domestic giants of India’s IPL and Australia’s Big Bash League. It ultimately failed in 2019, whilst accumulating a $100 million rand loss due to poor broadcasting deals.
Now, all six SA20 teams are owned by IPL franchises and there’s a whopping $70 million rand prize pool, seven times that of the MSL. The SA20 have also secured a broadcast deal that will show games live in India as well as South Africa, to bring in much needed revenue to the market.
However, this lucrative deal comes at a price for the red ball format. Players are now contracted by Cricket South Africa to prioritise the SA20, regardless of international tours or tournaments. Cricket South Africa claims to have tried to move the series to an alternative date, but New Zealand were unwilling to budge, and rightly so if true.
All current occupants of the full-strength Test side are participating in this tournament and if your contract was on the chopping block if you didn’t, I think we would all go as well. However, it will eventually place South Africa in the Test match abyss along with the West Indies and Sri Lanka, who have lost the passion and the desire to play long-form cricket like generations before.
To rescue the organisation from financial ruin, Cricket South Africa have sold its soul to the devil of white ball cricket, following in the footsteps of the billionaire IPL franchises who hold Cricket South Africa in a financial chokehold.
Although lucrative, the outlook is seriously disappointing for a purist cricket fan and perhaps many of the former Test greats South Africa have produced. Apart from Graeme Smith, of course, who despite stating in his role of Director of Cricket that the “domestic product is weak for the long form” has now miraculously taken the job as commissioner of the SA20 league. Yikes.
So, does money talk? I rather think so.