South Africa’s first-class structure is as impressive as any around the world, while the seamless transition from Sunfoil Series exposure to international cricket and the excellent condition of the domestic pitches contribute to the healthy state of the game, said three domestic skippers who were probed about the status quo.
Stephen Cook, captain of the bizhub Highveld Lions, Werner Coetsee, skipper of the Knights, and Robin Peterson, who briefly wore the captain’s armband for the Cape Cobras last season, praised the current system.
Peterson, who boasts 17 years of first-class experience as well as 115 games for South Africa in all three formats, said the current four-day competition is much more competitive than a couple of seasons ago when it was a two-horse race between the Cape Cobras and The Unlimited Titans.
“Currently we boast four strong teams in the Cobras, the Titans, the Lions and, off late, the Dolphins,” he said.
South Africa is the number-1 ranked test team in the world, but how do Cricket South Africa (CSA) ensure the domestic first-class system remains vibrant and strong?
Corrie van Zyl, general manager (cricket) of CSA, said the national body has developed a mechanism to assess the Sunfoil Series trends over the past few years.
According to the 2014/2015-trend (information provided by Andrew Samson, official statistician of CSA), 20 percent of the 30 Sunfoil Series matches yielded a win in the session after tea on the fourth and final day.
There were a total of 51 centuries, six more than in the 2013/2014-season, while only 10 percent of the matches were concluded within three days, compared to 44.44 percent in 2012/2013.
Cook said the strength versus strength competition in first-class cricket in South Africa is one of the reasons why players were able to step up to international cricket and make an impact almost immediately.
Examples of this trend are Marchant de Lange, who nipped out 7-81 on test debut, Kyle Abbott, who captured 7-29 in his maiden match for South Africa, and Kagiso Rabada, who accounted for six batsmen including a hat-trick in his first one-day international.
South Africa introduced at least four debutants the past 13 months. Stiaan van Zyl managed a century on test debut, while Simon Harmer took 7-153 in his maiden game for the country and Dane Piedt captured 8-152 in his first match representing the Proteas.
Bavuma looked at ease in his first four tests and was comfortably the Proteas’ best batsman in the first test against Bangladesh.
Cook said South Africa’s first-class system compares favourably to others around the world. In fact, if the Lions would face off against Western Australia in a first-class system, or the Cape Cobras clash with Yorkshire, they would be very competitive.
The pitches are also excellent and secured a fair contest between bat and ball last season, Cook added.
“I believe our first-class structures are as good as any around the world, and the gap between first-class cricket and international cricket is not that wide. We need to keep it this strong and not dilute it.”
A CASE OF PERCEPTION
Coetsee said an impressive aspect of the first-class system was that Van Zyl, Dean Elgar and Rilee Rossouw were able to make such impacts in international cricket after spending extensive periods in the domestic first-class system.
“Dean made two ducks in his first test, but settled quickly subsequently.”
“The quality of cricket will always be a case of perception and not based on facts or measurements of the quality of the competition,” said Van Zyl.
“Therefore, CSA has measured a few areas to observe the trends in the Sunfoil Series so that we can monitor what occurs.
“One of those is how many games were concluded in the final session of a four-day game. These statistics point to good trends in the first-class system,” Van Zyl said.
“I think it was very important that we measure ourselves against international competition like the Champions League, South Africa A, SA under-19 and the national academy.
“We critically assess every aspect of our pipeline and how every programme can be adapted to consistently produce players of quality,” the CSA general manager explained.
“The retention of players is critically important and that’s why the provincial academy is such an important initiative that we started last year.”
South Africa A romped to a ‘test' series wins at home and away against Australia A in 2013 and 2014. The same team drew a series against India A in 2013, but lost their recent series against the same foe in India after failing to capitalise on a dominant first first few days of the first unofficial test at Wayanad.
Pro-active planning and management of players are pivotal to retain South Africa’s premier players for test cricket, said Van Zyl. “We must ensure that the national team has the best coaching structures and support system,” he said.
However, Boeta Dippenaar, a former South African player, bemoaned the “astronomical gap” between first-class cricket and international cricket in South Africa.
He said one of the factors which contributed to this state of affairs is that many international stars don’t feature at domestic level. It is a global phenomenon, and not an exclusively South African trend.
Jacques Kallis didn’t play domestic four-day cricket in the last five years of his career. Due to the absence of such players in the four-day game, local players don’t have a role model that they can look up to guide them.
Ask players like Kallis who mentored them, and they will point to Desmond Haynes, or in the case of Allan Donald, he will speak about Franklyn Stephenson. He said the lack of former international players who are involved at domestic level, is a worrying trend.
“Our first-class system is not too bad. We have four strong teams competing for the Sunfoil Series honours – the Cape Cobras, the Titans, the Lions and the Dolphins off late,” said Peterson.
“I don’t think any first-class system in the world completely prepares you for test cricket. The standard of the batting, the bowling, the media hype around the game…it is a completely diferent ball game.
“Our system has been producing a couple of good young players like Stiaan van Zyl, Dane Piedt, Eddie Leie, Rabada and Reeza Hendricks. It is nice to see. Actually the system could produce a lot more, but with four competitive teams in the mix, we will get there eventually,” Peterson said.
A FAILING SYSTEM DOWN UNDER
Recently, Ian Chappell, a former Australian captain, fulminated against the Sheffield Shield series in Australia following Australia’s fourth consecutive Ashes series defeat in England (from 2005 to 2015).
He said the fact so many of Australia’s new test batsmen in recent years were older, was evidence of a failing system Down Under.
Australia's major failures in recent years have come when the ball has moved, either in spinning conditions or against seam and swing.
Chappell said during his playing days, batsmen were exposed to enough variety in conditions during Sheffield Shield cricket that they had confidence in their techniques when asked to tour countries such as England or India, which he believes does not happen now.
"Young players are going to be playing with an IPL contract in mind," Chappell said. "If I can show that I'm a terrific hitter of the ball and I can score at eight an over, that could get me a big IPL contract. So the question you've got to ask yourself is, are they developing techniques that make it easier to play in that manner, to score at eight and ten runs an over and be terrific hitters,” he said.