With Covid-19 putting the world on hold, including cricket, it is a time to reflect on the past and plan for a time after the virus. I have reflected on fifty years of South African cricket that I have watched and followed, starting with the series against Bill Lawry’s Australians in January 1970 in South Africa.
South Africa (then the Springboks) easily won the Test series 4-0 to win only their second Test series against Australia in eighty years. This was a very strong South African team with three geniuses in Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and Mike Procter. The team also had other greats like Eddie Barlow, Trevor Goddard and Peter Pollock. The one player that little is known about is Lee Irvine. He played in all four Tests, averaging 50.42 and scoring a Test hundred batting at number 5. This was his only series. In normal circumstances he would also have been a great; he was at least as good as Greg Chappell.
This team, led by Ali Bacher, is probably second only to the great West Indies team of the 1980’s as the best ever Test team. The only other team in the history of Test cricket that can be compared with them is the Australian team of 1948 lead by Don Bradman, called “The Invincibles”. It is a great tragedy that this South African never played again; the cricketing world was sadly denied.
During the decade of the 1970’s, with South African cricket banned due to politics, the focus was on the three-day first-class competition, called the Currie Cup. The Currie Cup had all the international players from the Australian series participating, as well as a new, exciting generation of players like Clive Rice, Vincent van der Bijl and Peter Kirsten, to name but a few. Currie Cup matches were like Test matches, especially the Transvaal and Western Province matches, and enjoyed great support. It was also the first time that a limited overs competition was played in the form of the Datsun Shield. The 1970’s was special decade for South African cricket because of all the outstanding players on show and will be remembered as the “Currie Cup Decade.”
The decade of the 1980’s saw the introduction of day/night cricket in what became the Benson & Hedges Series played under floodlights. B&H cricket first struggled to establish itself with the conservative cricket public and was cynically called pyjama cricket. But once it was established, it became very popular. All matches attracted massive crowds and grew a new generation of supporters for South African cricket. It also saw the expansion of new provinces like Northern Transvaal and Orange Free State with their strong Afrikaner support base. The 1980’s was a great decade for the growth and expansion of South African cricket, especially into the Afrikaans community, and will be remembered as the Benson & Hedges decade.
The decade of the 1990’s saw South Africa readmitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council and the return of international cricket. During this decade the Proteas, as the national team was named, became one of the best teams in world cricket under the strong leadership of Kepler Wessels and Hansie Cronje. The Proteas won the inaugural Champions Trophy in 1998 and were competitive in all three Cricket World Cups. In fact, they were unlucky not to win the 1999 CWC in England. There was a great passion and following for cricket in the country during this decade; it rightly belongs to international cricket.
The 2000’s saw the revolution of cricket with T20 cricket and the first World T20 tournament to South Africa in 2006. It also saw the start of the Indian Premier League in 2008, which has become one of the richest sporting tournaments in the world. The IPL enabled many players to become dollar millionaires. It was also the start of India dominating world cricket commercially. The decade saw the most changes in world cricket commercially because of India and rich ICC events, and could be deemed as the professionalism of cricket in the true sense.
The decade of the 2010’s has not delivered anything new or spectacular, but the game has become more entangled with commercialism, politics and match fixing. It certainly has not been a decade to remember.