Graeme Smith’s successor has a tough task ahead and should focus on four key areas, writes RYAN VREDE.
Smith’s contract as CSA director of cricket (DOC) expired at the end of March and was marked by equal measures of success and shortcomings in key areas.
The Test team improved after an incredibly poor start under his watch, most recently beating India and drawing with Test world champions New Zealand.
However, under Smith’s watch, the Proteas didn’t make it out of their group at the 2021 T20 World Cup, lost ODI matches to Ireland and Bangladesh, and utterly failed in managing the response to the Black Lives Matter movement, evidenced by their disjointed posture on kneeling.
Smith opted not to reapply for the position, which pocketed him R450,000 a month. Applications for the position closed on 4 April, with CSA now sifting through the list of candidates.
The incoming DOC is faced with an extremely broad scope of responsibilities, including overseeing the management and strategic development of the Proteas, Proteas Women, South Africa A, the National Academy, varsity cricket, U19 cricket, schools cricket, mini-cricket, high-performance pathways, cricket pathways, Future Tours planning, the convenor of selectors, coaching pathways and match officials pathways.
In addition to this, the successful candidate will also be tasked with managing transformation in the aforementioned categories. This would be an enormous challenge as a dedicated task, let alone as part of a wide-ranging job spec.
I’m concerned about the workload associated with the job, which is arguably the most important in South African cricket. I don’t see how any one individual can successfully manage this load. It appears to be a job for a collective body, that collaborates to ensure goals are met. I also question CSA’s apparent preference for a former professional player. The job requires a depth of skill set, experience and competency that is more in line with someone who comes from and has extensive experience in the corporate sector.
However, to lament this now is futile. The next DOC will be a cricket man first and foremost and, while there are many dimensions of the job he will have to excel in, these are the key areas I believe he has to invest in to rebuild South African cricket.
1. Intense focus on grassroots cricket
A primary goal of any DOC must be to build the strongest possible talent pool. At present, this is not the case, owing largely to the utter underinvestment in grassroots cricket, particularly in historically poor townships around the country.
There is still a significant appetite for the game in these communities, which are laden with raw talent. Developing those players into potential professionals demands the incoming DOC invests heavily in this facet of the game.
At present, the net is catching a painfully small percentage of talented players. Only those lucky enough to be spotted by traditional cricket schools enjoy the opportunity to develop their game. Luck should never be a development strategy.
The incoming DOC must understand the critical importance of community clubs and schools in a broader cricket development plan and equip those parties with everything they need to maximise their potential.
Implemented correctly, such a plan will, in time, significantly diminish the need for racial quotas. If Sipho in Soweto is getting an equal opportunity as Simon in Sandton, the only selection criteria should be performance.
2. Capitalise on the momentum in women’s cricket
The Proteas Women took us all on a wonderful ride at the recent World Cup. The support showed that there is an appetite for women’s cricket in South Africa and the incoming DOC must use this to his advantage in developing this dimension of our game.
The Proteas Women are the second-ranked ODI team in the world, which is surprising given the gulf in investment between the women’s and men’s games. The incoming DOC needs to address this and put comprehensive plans and structures in place to build women’s cricket in South Africa.
This should start with plans that incentivise clubs, schools and universities to field women’s cricket teams, and for elite performance standards to be in place at provincial levels. Women’s cricket is largely semi-professional in South Africa, with many players juggling studies or full-time jobs while playing. This can’t continue if South Africa is to consistently be among the top sides in the world.
The Proteas Women have shown that elite talent exists in South Africa. Having the vision and plan to ensure that talent is nurtured and progresses through the system is essential.
3. Develop a deep pool of elite coaches
I’ve been concerned about the quality of coaching in South Africa across all levels for some time.
In the professional structures, preference is given to ex-professionals, many of whom build long careers despite their teams’ chronic mediocrity.
The notion that a good player will make a good coach is nonsense, and the quicker we move away from an overreliance on former pros the better.
The incoming DOC must establish a plan to grow a deep pool of coaches across all levels. Having a deep talent pool means nothing if there is a shortage of highly competent coaches to develop the technical and mental aspects of their game that allows that talent to soar consistently.
CSA’s current coaching pathways are desperately dated and don’t prepare coaches adequately, especially those who want to build careers at elite levels.
My suggestion would be for the incoming DOC to appoint their director of national coaching, who then builds a team under them to exponentially lift the standard of coaching nationwide and across all levels. This team will establish a national coaching strategy and silo that approach to meet the needs of amateur and professional coaches.
These amateur and professional coaches should have easy access to platforms that educate them in coaching modern methods and provide support in helping them solve problems.
The bar must be set high for those coaches who apply for jobs with junior and senior provincial and national teams. Playing experience at elite levels of the game must be a nice-to-have, as opposed to the determining factor it currently appears to be.
Better coaches produce better players. Growing the pool of the former must therefore be an intense focus for the incoming DOC.
4. Develop a comprehensive plan aimed specifically at developing elite black African batsmen
I’ve written extensively about this subject, including as recently as early March, when I observed that not once in the past 11 four-day seasons have there been more than three black African batsmen in the top 20. And for six of those 11 campaigns, there have been zero or one in the top 20.
It is disturbing that Temba Bavuma has been the only black African batsman since readmission to establish himself in any of the game’s three formats. It speaks to a lack of understanding of the complexities that go into developing an elite batsman. I wrote about these complexities just over a year ago, and it seems absurd to me that CSA still doesn’t have a tailored and comprehensive plan to address this situation.
The incoming DOC must make this a priority. Hoping that the next Bavuma emerges is a strategy destined to fail. The DOC needs to train his focus and figure out how to arrest the trend. That may require a strategy solely focused on developing black African batsmen, which in turn would rely heavily on the efficacy of the aforementioned grassroots and coaching structures.
PS. For the people: Greater transparency to the media and public
At the end of Smith’s tenure, I asked on Twitter whether he’d succeeded or failed. The majority of respondents didn’t know how success or failure was defined in this context because so few have access to the standard against which that would be measured.
Even now, the process of appointing Smith’s successor is pretty secretive. If history is a guide, the incoming DOC won’t be required to disclose a comprehensive vision or plan to the media, who are the public’s primary source of information.
Yet, CSA has a mandate to serve the public, which makes it imperative that the public can measure the performance of the person who has the most important job in South African cricket.
This must change. The game belongs to the people, and CSA must serve the people.