SA20 - A glimmer of light amid South Africa's gloom

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The SA20 won't bring back South Africa's No. 1 ranking, but it might help their supporters feel better about how far their team have fallen since. Photo Credit - SA20
The SA20 won't bring back South Africa's No. 1 ranking, but it might help their supporters feel better about how far their team have fallen since. Photo Credit - SA20 © Cricbuzz (with inputs from agencies)

Pele used to tell a story about how, aboard the bus taking the Brazil squad to the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City to take on Italy in the 1970 World Cup final, he felt an unwelcome wave of emotion rising. He was, at 29, the oldest member in a team who were about to try and win the most important match in all of sport for the third time. The last thing he needed to show his fellow players was tears.

So he pretended to drop something. While his head was under the seat searching for what he said he had lost, Pele let it all out quietly. When he returned to view, he offered the same beaming face the world loved.

Graeme Smith was never aboard a bus to a World Cup final, but he knows how Pele felt. "We've got a fantastic team working day and night to deliver where we are today," Smith said at a press conference in Cape Town on Saturday. "You get a bit emotional when you see it come to life."

Smith couldn't very well chuck a pen under the table and duck downward to have a quick, relieving cry. There was no room for that. He was sat shoulder to shoulder with, to his right, Rashid Khan, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock. To Smith's left were Wayne Parnell, David Miller and Aiden Markram.

The vibrant kit the players wore contrasted smartly with Smith's dark shirt and jacket, and looked at once familiar and fresh. Those six cricketers will captain teams in the SA20, which starts at Newlands on Tuesday. Each franchise is IPL-owned, which is reflected in their playing gear. The buck for making a success of the venture stops with Smith, the league's commissioner. Maybe referring to the tournament in anodyne fashion as a "cricket product" helped him reel in his feelings about having shepherded it this far.

It won't have been easy. At an organisational level, the efficiency and work ethic of the Indian way of doing things will have run headlong into South Africa's plodding sluggishness. The South Africans will have been taken aback by the Indians' brusqueness. Stories of the IPL outfits making what are considered sweeping and unreasonable demands, and of not communicating what, when, where and why they want to happen, aren't difficult to find.

Some of the local organisers say they feel as if the only question they are permitted to ask is how far they are required to bend over backwards to satisfy their new, albeit temporary, masters. Others readily agree when asked if they feel they are being colonised. For instance, it has been decreed that a single agency will provide photographs from the matches. That means some of South Africa's finest snappers of sport, many of whom have been capturing images of the game for decades for publications around the country, will be shut out of working at the tournament for their regular employers. That's not unusual in the IPL, but it is not the South African way of doing things. Maybe it's just part of the trade-off for what Indian expertise will mean for cricket here.

"It's incredible, the experience that comes into our game now," Smith said. "Not only the interacting with players - the professionalism is going to come from the franchises, who are among the most experienced in the world. They bring huge credibility on and off the field; in coaching, medical, training. The professionalism that comes with the way that they run their teams, all of that is now coming into South African cricket. It's an amazing day."

Du Plessis, who played 100 games for Chennai Super Kings from April 2012 to October 2021 and will lead Joburg Super Kings, concurred: "In terms of fast-tracking people's cricket brains, there's no better opportunity for the young South African guys to rub shoulders with people like [Joburg Super Kings coaches] Stephen Fleming and Eric Simons. They're up there with the best in the game. I've seen first-hand how good they are as a management group, how good the franchise is. It's a pleasure to play for a team like that. You feel that you can go out there and do your best."

Du Plessis should know what he's talking about, having played 265 T20s for 17 non-international teams in seven countries. As should Miller, who has 18 clients on his books and has turned out in 295 such matches, also in seven countries. What would make South Africa's attempt at joining the T20 circus a success?

"The weather in South Africa is always good and the time zones are great," Miller said. "Overseas players love to be here because it's cheap in pounds and dollars. It's a great place to play cricket. I'm hopeful that it's going to be a successful first year, and that a lot more traction around the world will lock in and want to be a part of it."

Saturday's presser was meant as a celebration, and observed as such. When Miller was asked a question after Parnell, the left-arm bowler refused teasingly to pass the microphone to Miller, who rolled his eyes gently and fetched another mic from Markram. Juvenile? Yes. Out of place? No. With South Africa six wickets down and 326 behind going into the last day of a series they had lost before it reached Sydney - which followed a disastrous T20 World Cup and shocking defeats in a Test series in England - all reasons to be cheerful were to be embraced.

The famously fashion-conscious Du Plessis was asked what it was like to wear the biggest shirt he had surely ever pulled over his gym-sculpted torso. "You've got large, medium, small and mannequin size - that's my size," he replied with good grace and a smile.

Rashid had left the Big Bash League early to take his place at the table teetering with talent. He explained that he had come "straight from there to here; I've had half-an-hour in the room to change". Asked how he, as captain of Mumbai Indians Cape Town, planned to satisfy a public who had become accustomed to the achievements of the Stormers, the local rugby union team, he looked bewildered. "Who are the Stormers," he mouthed. Du Plessis replied, mischief dancing in his eyes: "A ballerina."

A bottle of water and a small bag of jelly beans had been placed on the table in front of each of the seven seats. All seven left the sweets behind when they left. All of the jelly babies in the bag where De Kock had sat had been squashed flat, like unwanted cake at a wedding.

Considering the SA20 is expected to turn a profit of around USD16.2-million in its first year, that CSA declared losses of USD11.65-million in November, and that South Africa are in a mess of rare proportions on the field, there's no mystery why the tournament is being welcomed like a rich bride into an impoverished family. But making this a good marriage had other elements, as Du Plessis said: "As South Africans we need this competition for the game to grow. There's no doubt that adding world-class players like Rashid Khan will benefit the game. Our whole professional system is going to learn a lot about what needs to be done to improve standards in our country. Local players will gain so much from this.

"From the fans' perspective, cricket is such a followed game in this country. But it's about getting people back to watch the game again. People will feel like it's a dark time right now, but we know with sport that can change so quickly. Hopefully this competition will make people optimistic about the future of South African cricket."

Appropriately a titter went up when the trophy-maker, Thomas Lyte, explained in a video that the inside of the handsome SA20 cup gleaming on a plinth to the side of the room had been made of "gold gilt, so [the players] can drink from it".

Another scene from the video showed Smith in his whites at Lord's on August 20, 2012. He held aloft a different trophy - the bejewelled lollipop that served as the ICC Test mace, which the South Africans had freshly annexed from England. There's no drinking from that, but doubtless a fair few beers went down in other ways that day.

The SA20 won't bring back South Africa's No. 1 ranking, but it might help their supporters feel better about how far their team have fallen since. Or at least give them something else to think about. If it doesn't they could always pretend to drop something and shed their tears unseen.




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