Players from both sides line up for a minute's silence to mark the passing of Bob Woolmer

Less is more: The move to create an elite league benefited the national team, but many talented players were left high and dry

© Getty Images


Shrinking South Africa

A domestic revamp over ten years ago was the catalyst for South Africa's rise to the top. But the costs are significant and still unclear

Firdose Moonda  |  

Summer 2002: The morning of South Africa's first-class competition final
 Easterns, the home team, arrived in their dressing room to find each player had been sent a single-stemmed red rose, the same as the flower on their team logo. Their wives and girlfriends thought the gesture would serve as motivation for what they knew was going to be a tough game.

Although Easterns were a battle-hardened unit, sculpted by Ray Jennings, they were still David to Western Province's Goliath. The Easterns XI included the likes of little-known Andre Seymore and Gareth Flusk, while Western Province would field what could be mistaken for an international side: Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, Ashwell Prince, Neil Johnson, Claude Henderson and Charl Willoughby.

After two days, Easterns, who scored 238 in their first innings, were up against it. Western Province looked set to build a big first-innings lead, but Andrew Hall's six wickets helped keep the big boys in check and their advantage was restricted to 71. That's when Easterns sprang their real surprise.

Seymore and Zander de Bruyn led the second-innings resistance, scoring centuries in their total of 472. Their bowlers followed up ruthlessly; Hall took five more and Easterns bowled Western Province out for 128 to be crowned champions for the first time.

It would be the only time. Easterns would never play in a first-class final again. There would be no more symbolic red roses. Two seasons later, they merged with Northerns - the team they beat to qualify for the final against Western Province - to form the Titans franchise.

Summer 2003: Going the Australian way
 In the summer of 2003, the South African board decided to streamline the game into six franchises. The provincial teams would remain but they would now compete in an amateur, second-tier competition, while the franchise competition would be the platform for the cream of the country's talent.

Kimberley, the home of Griqualand West, the team that missed the first season of franchise cricket due to a legal wrangle

Kimberley, the home of Griqualand West, the team that missed the first season of franchise cricket due to a legal wrangle © Getty Images

"It was a little weird because we had such a big rivalry with Northerns," Geoffrey Toyana, who played for Easterns in that final, said. "But we had heard for a couple of seasons before that there was going to be an amalgamation of teams, so we knew it was unavoidable.

"A lot of guys still had a few years left on their contracts and even though they were going to receive some kind of package, they wanted to keep playing cricket. Some of them actually threatened to take Easterns to court. I was offered a contract with the new franchise but the deal I had at Easterns was better than what I was being given from the Titans. Lots of players were lost in the system.

"The biggest dilemma was who would be the coach of the new team. Easterns had Jennings and Northerns had Dave Nosworthy, both good coaches. Eventually they decided to go with Nosworthy and Ray was left to coach at Easterns. So it wasn't just players who missed out. Administrators also did. Everything was changing."

Easterns was not the only provincial team affected by the overhaul of South Africa's domestic cricket structure a decade ago. All 11 were.

The new model was based on Australia's, born out of the humiliation suffered in the 2001-02 home and away series at the hands of Steve Waugh's men. Marketed as the "Clash of Kings", the six Tests were a no-contest. Australia won five and the gulf between the teams caused so much consternation in South Africa, the only solution seemed to be to try and ape the conquerors.

South African cricket had, after all, made a habit of copying a lot of what Australia did. When Australia introduced numbers on players' kits to mark their debuts, South Africa did the same. When Australia added a thin green stripe along the pants line and collar of their Test whites, South Africa did the same.

The restructure made financial sense too, as the then United Cricket Board vice-president Rob Kurz explained to the Daily News in September 2003. "The revenue generated by way of gate money and sponsorship has not been covering the domestic professional product. Professional cricket's losses for this year are R17 million [US$1.19 million at the 2004 exchange rate], with the figure projected for next year increasing to the upper R20 millions."

He also emphasised the cricketing logic. "The step up from our provincial cricket to international cricket is too big. So while the financial aspect is a major factor that prompted our initial re-evaluation two years ago, it has been strongly reinforced by the need to improve our domestic professional cricket."

The country's geography would complicate the issue. While Australia's domestic cricket comprised teams from the six states that constituted the country, South Africa had nine geographical provinces but - because of the way the population was distributed - 11 provincial cricket unions. Some provinces, like Gauteng and Western Cape, had more than one cricket union (three and two respectively) because they were heavily populated; some like the Northern Cape, with sparse population, had no cricket union. Reducing the number of teams was not as simple as forming six mergers but required strategic partnerships that would create pairings along three lines: location, commercial viability and compatibility.

The new domestic model was based on Australia's, born out of the humiliation suffered in the 2001-02 home and away series at the hands of Steve Waugh's men

In the Western Cape, Western Province and Boland formed the Cobras; in the Eastern Cape, Eastern Province and Border formed the Warriors. Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Durban-based team that became the Dolphins, was the only one allowed to continue solo. This was mostly because there was no obvious choice of partner but also because the province covered a large area. It helped that their president, Kurz, was one of the driving forces behind the restructure.

Inland, the scenario was more cluttered. Six provincial unions existed in fairly small areas and there was confusion over how they would organise themselves without the big boys in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein swallowing up the others.

"There were logical mergers elsewhere in the country but with us it was pretty difficult," Jacques Faul, who was the CEO of North West at the time, said. "We met with everybody concerned to consider all of the possible mergers. We even considered joining up with Free State or Griquas, who were pretty far away from us. Easterns were talking to Gauteng, we were talking to Northerns and it was quite tense.

"It made more sense for us to go with Gauteng and for Easterns to go with Northerns. We just decided we would fit better like that. But we definitely had our fears. We were worried we would just disappear in the new union because we were the minority shareholder."

Griquas were also nervous. They were left with only Free State as a partner but did not want their marriage arranged that way. Griquas wanted equal share of the franchise and for the headquarters to be in Kimberley, not Bloemfontein, and they were willing to go to court to fight for it.

Wendell Bossenger, one of the country's finest wicketkeepers, failed to bag a contract despite having the numbers to back his case

Wendell Bossenger, one of the country's finest wicketkeepers, failed to bag a contract despite having the numbers to back his case © PA Photos

The legal proceedings meant that Griquas were left out in the cold for the first season of franchise cricket. The court interdict was ultimately dismissed and Griquas agreed to merge with Free State the following season but their initial objection cost some players dearly.

Winter 2003: The geographical fallout
 Franchising South Africa's domestic game would ultimately have its biggest effects on cricketers. The number of contracted players decreased from 240 to 140: 100 players would lose out.

The administrators decided to centralise the system of job-cutting because they thought it would not be fair to allow each province to trim their squads as they pleased. That would mean losing potentially worthy cricketers. For example, what if a player at Northerns was not good enough for Titans but Dolphins decided they wanted to contract him?

"We decided we would pick a pool of 140 players who would be available to be contracted by the new franchises and we would arrive at this group collectively," said Tony Irish, the CEO of the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA) and now the head of FICA. "Cricket South Africa supplied the people they wanted to help choose the pool and we at SACA had some of our people involved. The goal was that we would decide on the best 140 players in the country and those people would get contracted."

The system was not only designed for finding new players but for strengthening those like Vernon Philander who struggled when picked in the national team

Faul was part of the CSA delegation and said he believed it was a fair way of retaining players. "The top guys survived and for the rest there was no place to hide." For the likes of Toyana, it was an anxious few weeks. "Guys were very nervous because a lot of them thought if they had a bad season the year before, it would be the end for them. I was pretty lucky because I had a good season but I kept thinking of what would have happened if I hadn't," he said. The 2003-04 season was Toyana's most profitable to that point. He scored 558 runs, with four fifties, averaging nearly 40 and made the final 140.

But North West's Graham Grace missed out, despite being the fourth-highest run scorer in 2003-04, with 647 runs, two hundreds and four fifties at nearly 50. As did Wendell Bossenger, the man widely regarded at the time as the country's best wicketkeeper. Irish said he thought Bossenger was the "only player who deserved to get a contract but didn't".

Bossenger was from Griquas, the provincial team that refused to be part of the system at first, and their reluctance was partly why Bossenger was overlooked. Other teams had their own wicketkeepers so they could not find space for him despite his reputation. He was left to play amateur cricket at Griquas. "I was hugely disappointed because I felt like I deserved a chance," Bossenger said. "It hit me very hard for about three or four months. I was unemployed even though I was continually told I was good enough."

Bossenger had "made a few investments" and so was able to get by. He decided to "give it one more hard year and try to get back in and get a contract". He had an outstanding season in the summer that followed. He only played five matches - which were all the fixtures the team had - scored 377 runs at an average of 53.85, took 22 catches and made two stumpings. He was the sixth-best batsman and best wicketkeeper in the amateur three-day competition, which Griquas won.

Since the restructure, Cape Cobras have won the first-class competition four times

Since the restructure, Cape Cobras have won the first-class competition four times © Getty Images

When they merged with Free State that winter, Griquas' players could be considered for the franchise but Bossenger "got the same answers". He realised his "dream of playing at a level where I could be considered for South Africa" was evaporating and that he would "have to toughen up and learn a few things about life".

He accepted a role as player-coach at Griquas, which meant he would earn the salary he needed to at least stay in cricket. He also went on to average over 40 for three more seasons. "I was just on the wrong end of an equation," he said. "Once the contracts were dealt out at franchise level, it was difficult for someone on the outside to fight back and earn one. I was just locked on the outside."

History would cruelly repeat itself. After coaching at Griquas for a few seasons, Bossenger worked as an assistant to the South African A side till as recently as the 2013-14 season, hoping to progress his career. But he was only made a "small offer" by CSA to continue as coach and decided he needed to pursue other avenues. He now works for Opel Sports as part of their golfing department and maintains he "still loves the game".

2004-2010: A boon for some, bane for others
 Bossenger was a standout casualty and he believes there were others, some of whom we will never know about. "If you're a young kid growing up and you only see six teams, you know there is limited opportunity and that may mean you don't pursue cricket as a career," he explained.

In the mid-2000s, left-arm medium-pacer Neil Wagner found it tough to break into a Titans team that included the Morkel brothers, Dale Steyn, Andre Nel, Ethy Mbhalati and Alfonso Thomas. After two seasons in the amateur side, he relocated to New Zealand, where, having served the qualification period to become eligible for his adopted country, he was selected immediately.

The participation of players of colour became even smaller after the franchise system was introduced

Administrators believed the benefits of franchise cricket would outweigh its costs. The franchise set-up produced cricketers who could step onto the international stage without needing long adjustment phases. Although South Africa lost the home and away Test series to Australia in 2005-06, as well as a series in Sri Lanka in 2006, they would soon begin a remarkable run that saw them win in Pakistan, draw in India, and beat both England and Australia away for the first time since readmission. Administrators like Faul credited those successes with the "good health of the domestic game".

Success stories were plentiful. When players like AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy debuted, they fit in quickly and made telling contributions early. The system was not only designed for finding new players but also for strengthening the skills of those like Vernon Philander who struggled when picked in the national team.

Philander debuted for South Africa as a limited-overs player in 2007. The only impression he made was on the outfield at Kingsmead, when he dropped Robin Uthappa in a must-win T20. He went back to the franchise system and improved so much that when recalled to the Test team in 2011, he had an average of 13, the lowest among all bowlers who had taken more than 250 wickets in first-class cricket worldwide. Neil McKenzie earned a recall to the Test team after a four-year absence, Jacques Rudolph after five years, and Alviro Petersen after a series of shorter absences - all three through runs in the first-class competition.

But lower down the chain, at the amateur levels, the restructuring was hurting players, especially because they were not paid. Unless your family could support you financially, you needed another job.

The semi-professional structure is useful for U-19 stars like Yaseen Valli

The semi-professional structure is useful for U-19 stars like Yaseen Valli © Getty Images

Toyana, who went to coach at Easterns after he finished playing, saw the difficulties of trying to make an amateur game work first-hand. "The biggest challenge was finding the time to practise," he said. "Sometimes we would have two sessions, one during the day and one in the early evenings for the guys who had to come from work. It made it very difficult because most of the time I did not have a full team to coach and sometimes you would have guys who just wouldn't come back because it was too difficult.

"We were struggling with young players of colour then because they were the ones who needed to go and work a little more."

Many South Africans of colour, particularly blacks, did not go to schools where cricket was played. They were introduced to the game through clubs, which were plentiful, but whose facilities did not match their enthusiasm. Many of them lived outside the privileged areas, where all but one of South Africa's provincial grounds, Boland, was based.

To get to practice, they had to spend money on transport, money they were not earning through cricket, and time that they could have used more productively. "People did not always understand the difficulties, particularly with black African players at the time," Toyana said.

The numbers were instructive. The percentage of white players in the amateur competition grew from 44.49% in 2004-05 to 47.19% in 2010-11. Over the same period, the percentage of coloured players dropped from 25.11% to 24.72%, and black African players from 22.03% to 19.60%. The differences may not appear significant, but given that players of colour were largely under-represented in South Africa's domestic teams in the first place, it was important to note that their participation diminished further after the franchise system was introduced.

Gauteng is a striking example of a province where promising black cricketers have been lost to the domestic restructuring. Johnson Mafa, a fast bowler from Soweto, toiled for more than a decade in the provincial set-up but was never awarded a franchise contract. He continued playing in the hope that would one day change and because he had no alternative options for work (as he was uneducated, he struggled to find work in other fields). His occasional match fee when picked for Gauteng earned him the little he survived on. These days he is part of the administrative structure of the franchise, which has gone through radical change after accusations of racial bias.

Enoch Nkwe was the first black African to score a century in first-class cricket in the integrated era but a spate of injuries cut short his career. He found himself out of contract after hamstring and hand injuries and quit the game for a few years before returning as a coach. Dumisa Makalima was thought to be a bigger talent than Makhaya Ntini at one stage, identified by Greg Hayes, the man who spotted Ntini.Makalima eventually ended up without a contract too.

Toyana played with or against all three, watching their dreams fade. "They were all talented but were let down by a system that, in a lot of ways, did not understand them. The truth is that those guys could have become something special, but just like any player they needed nurturing and that was not there."

Those are only some names, from one region. Similar tales exist around the country and it was apparent young black players, in particular, were falling through the crack between amateur and professional cricket, because eventually CSA was compelled to look for a way to keep them in the system.

2011-12: A semi-professional dawn
 In the winter of 2011, after South Africa had crashed out of another World Cup, CSA CEO Gerald Majola announced plans to invest in the amateur game. CSA decided to pour R8 million (approximately $1 million at the time) into revamping the second tier into a semi-professional league.

Lack of opportunities at the top level forced Neil Wagner to move to New Zealand. Here, he bowls against the country of his birth in a Test

Lack of opportunities at the top level forced Neil Wagner to move to New Zealand. Here, he bowls against the country of his birth in a Test © Getty Images

The money was made available to contract seven cricketers in each provincial side. Players would earn approximately R5000 ($600) a month. While that amount was too small to be called a salary it was enough of a stipend to provide an incentive, especially to younger players.

Toyana saw the difference almost immediately. "We knew there was a gap between Under-19 and professional cricket and that was where players were being lost. When the semi-professional set-up was introduced, that changed. Across the board, guys of all races could stay on and give themselves a little bit more of a chance."

That season, CSA also created an additional franchise - Impi - out of the best semi-professional cricketers, to play in the 20-over competition. The idea was to give players who excelled in T20 a chance to get picked by a franchise, and also an opportunity to qualify for the Champions League T20 and showcase their talent on a global stage.

Theoretically, Impi was a good idea. Practically, it flopped. The composite nature of the team meant that they did not have enough of an opportunity to become a cohesive unit. They lost ten of their 12 matches (and two were rained out).

Putting more money into semi-professional cricket created more opportunity for the people it was meant to serve: the players. There was slight but discernible evidence in the numbers and demographics. The percentage of black African players in the amateur competition increased to 24.77% in 2013-14, from 19.60% in 2010-11. The percentage increase for coloured players in the same period was far less, but an increase nonetheless.

Winter 2014: A rethink
 Shortly after the 2013-14 season, word out of CSA was that major changes would take place to revamp the semi-professional competition and address the racial imbalance at all levels. The latter made headlines because it came after the country's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, stressed the urgency of transformation. Mbalula threatened to ban teams from competing internationally if at least 50% of their composition was not players of colour. The minister later retracted but the signs that change was still needed were clear.

Few players want to be involved in the semi-professional level beyond what is necessary. One first-class cricketer admitted he sees it as a "waste of time"

South African rugby announced a stricter quota for their competitions over 2013-14 and cricket soon followed suit. The six franchises were ordered to each field five players of colour, one more than in previous seasons but with the additional criterion that at least two of those had to be black African. Semi-professional teams would have to go one better - six players of colour with three black Africans. That inched South African cricket closer to domestic teams that had 50-50 representation, the ultimate aim for what the national team ought to look like.

Running a double-tiered domestic structure for ten years was also a costly exercise. At the start of the 2008-09 season, the financially troubled South African Airways stopped sponsoring provincial teams. For the past six seasons the amateur competition has not had corporate backing.

Although CSA financial statements reflect amateur sponsorship has increased, that does not benefit the provincial competition directly. They are monies that come in for, among other things, women's cricket and age-group competitions such as the Under-19 week. At the same time, expenses for amateur cricket have grown.

"At some unions you have to pay to rent the field, you pay for four scorers, umpires, balls, food and ground staff," said one official, who asked not to be named. "Because the matches take place on days which also include weekends, you have to pay overtime."

To save on those costs, provincial games were often moved to club grounds, where the quality of facilities on offer was poorer. An experienced cricketer at one of the provinces recalled playing a match at the Union Club in Port Elizabeth, where persistent rain and inadequate cover left the bowlers' footholes flooded. The same cricketer spoke of another match at a club in Cape Town, where the team arrived at the ground to find the pitch still being rolled.

Bossenger noted the cricket at semi-professional level was much weaker than the competition he had known before the franchise system formed. "I just found that statistically and technically the players at semi-professional level are not up for it. There is too much of a gap." And he expects that gap to widen when purse strings tighten further.

Over the 2013-14 summer, after the series against India was curtailed to two Tests and three ODIs, CSA lost out on potential earnings of over R300 million ($26.73 million).

The effects were seen within weeks. CSA cut the national player contract list for the 2014-15 season from 20-plus to 17. It also began trimming travelling parties for ICC events.

Geoffrey Toyana, now Lions' coach, was among the lucky 140 to bag a franchise contract

Geoffrey Toyana, now Lions' coach, was among the lucky 140 to bag a franchise contract © Lions Cricket

And in June, CSA confirmed that provinces would no longer play a round-robin first-class competition among each other. They would instead be organised into smaller pools to reduce travel, accommodation and match-day expenses.

An administrator justified the change of format and reduction in matches by saying it didn't make sense that provincial teams were playing more first-class matches than franchises (13 to 10). This administrator regards the semi-professional competition as secondary to South Africa's pipeline because "most of the players are picked up at age-group level", identified in schools and fast-tracked into the national set-up.

For Toyana and others it is necessary that the second tier has as rigorous a schedule as possible precisely because it provides players identified at schools. "The more games we have, the better. It's critical the semi-professional structure remains in place because you need a place for cricketers like [2014 U-19 World Cup winners] Yaseen Valli and Aiden Markram to play," Toyana said. "It is also nice for the more established guys to go down to semi-professional level and play with them when there is time."

The problem is few players want to be involved in the semi-professional level beyond what is necessary. One first-class cricketer admitted he sees that level of cricket as a "waste of time because it does not mean anything".

That is because there isn't much to play for, both financially and in terms of identity. The days of red roses and pride are over. For all its increased professionalism, South African cricket has to question what the long-term costs will be.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent