South African cricket would like its players to make a collective New Year’s resolution for 2017: we will stay.
At a time when the declining Rand and the threat of Brexit is luring cricketers to the county circuit, the declining Rand and the promise of fame is luring them to T20 leagues around the world and the declining Rand and lack of opportunity in professional cricket’s six-franchise system make other jobs more attractive, there remains a compelling reason to keep at it. Kyle Abbott explains:
“When Faf [du Plessis] welcomed Theunis de Bruyn into the squad he said, ‘This is where you are going to be playing your cricket and it doesn’t get any better than this’, and he is absolutely right. We are enjoying our cricket at the moment because we’ve got that attitude of this is the place we want to play, this is the place we want to perform and this is the place we want to really be tested.”
Those words may have been nothing but empty patriotism if they had come from anyone else. But coming from Abbott, who gained a reputation as the best No.12 in world cricket because of the irregularity at which he plays, they have some effect.
Just a week ago, Abbott spoke about the difficulties of having to prove himself four years after making his Test debut and he could not be blamed for feeling snubbed. Abbott was first picked in the Test squad for the February-March 2013 series against Pakistan after topping the first-class wickets charts that season and made his debut in place of an injured Jacques Kallis. He took 7 for 29 in the first innings and finished with nine scalps in the match but had to wait over a year for his second Test, nine months for a third and another 11 for a fourth.
It’s understandable that Abbott could not force his way into an attack that included Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander but it still seems staggering that a man who performed well every time he was called on has played only ten Tests.
He should be able to add a few more to that because a more permanent chance has come in the absence of Steyn and Morkel, and Abbott is taking it. “Being out of the side and sitting on the sidelines for so long and now getting the opportunity and doing well, is a great feeling. It’s a long period of time of hard work that is starting to pay off and now I am getting opportunity at this level to showcase my skills,” Abbott said.
It seems Abbott may finally be allowing himself to think of enjoying a longer run in the side. “The team is in a great space and so am I, and it’s exciting to see what’s going to come. There’s only around 90 of us or so that have played so I count myself incredibly lucky to have done it.”
Since readmission, South Africa have capped 93 Test players (328 all told) and the case of the 91st is similar to Abbott’s.
Stephen Cook was selected to open the batting at the age of 33, a decade-and-a-half after making his first-class debut and seven seasons after being among the top ten run-scorers in the domestic competition. Cook was also blocked by incumbents who were too good to dislodge. He could not break into a Test opening pair that for a decade included his former schoolmate Graeme Smith and then rotated between several players from Neil McKenzie to Alviro Petersen.
When Petersen retired, Stiaan van Zyl was the most prolific run-scorer in the domestic game and even though he was not an opener, he was rewarded for form. It took several failings from van Zyl for Cook to finally get his chance and when he did, it was even better than he imagined. “It’s everything I expected and so much more. It was even better than I thought it might be. You look back and say, ‘Thank goodness I persevered and kept going because some rewards have come’,” he said.
During Cook’s long wait, he never considered a county career or even a Kolpak deal (his wife’s British passport may have helped in that regard), neither did he pursue a legal career, although he completed his law degree. He was bloody-minded in his ambition to play for South Africa, even when it looked like the chance had gone. “For me it was easier perhaps because I am more naturally inclined to persevere and keep going,” Cook said.
When asked if he could encourage young players to do the same, Cook had no hesitation in endorsing the path he chose. “It certainly would be my message. It’s an absolute honour and a really fantastic thing to play for your country. To give up on that in my opinion would be silly. There are a lot of guys who persevere for years and don’t get the rewards. That would easily be me. I appreciate the difficulties that the other guys go through but for me it turned good.”
The difficulties Cook speaks about are caused by a combination of factors that have seen limited opportunity for players to carve out careers in South African cricket. With only around 90 contracts on offer (each franchise contracts in the region of 15 players), there is more of a supply of cricketers than there is demand for their services and many seek work elsewhere in the cricket world. Of those, the likes of Colin Ingram and Rory Kleinveldt, whose international careers are over, don’t attract much attention but the recent spate of Kolpak signings, which has seen three Test players – van Zyl, Simon Harmer and Hardus Viljoen – who were capped in the last two years and signed away their international careers, has caused some consternation.
Is a talent drain looming? More specifically, with transformation targets high on the agenda, is a white talent drain looming? Abbott and Cook are proof that that does not have to be the case. They are both white and have showed that the door can be broken down. Sure, there are now limited doors to break down but they are proof that any excellence of any colour will still be rewarded.
When it is, Cook has some advice for those who progress to the highest level. “Even though I knew it would be difficult, I didn’t just realise how difficult it could be. It opened my eyes to how hard things can become and how unrelenting it can be. You’ve got to be really disciplined and on the button because if you let your concentration slip for one second, it’s gone. I think about that innings in Hobart I wasn’t quite as switched on right after tea and before I knew it, I was out. In domestic cricket, you maybe get some time to settle in.”
Even for a domestic veteran like Cook, the step up is considerable and now that he has made it, the challenge is to keep climbing. Du Plessis has already set him some goals for the new year. “Cookie’s challenge is to come into Tests two and three and score another hundred,” du Plessis said. “For the guys who are playing well, that’s always a big thing for me.”
Abbott is playing just as well and he will be expected to keep taking wickets as South Africa enter what could be one of their busiest years. They are due to play at least 12 matches – two against Sri Lanka, three in New Zealand, four in England, two against Bangladesh and at least a Boxing Day Test against an unconfirmed opponent – before continuing into 2018 with four home Tests against each of India and Australia. There is so much to play for; South Africa just needs the players to think so too.