The 2015-16 summer was South Africa’s worst since readmission in 1992. Out of eight Tests, the Proteas lost five, won one (which was a dead rubber) and drew two (one of which rained out). In little over two months they plummeted from No. 1 to 6 in the ICC rankings.
To make matters worse, on either side of these Tests the South African ‘A’ team had disastrous tours of India (August 2015) and Australia (August 2016), as well as an underwhelming series against Zimbabwe (July 2016). On these tours the ‘A’ team (supposedly South Africa’s second best) played a total of six unofficial “Tests”. They lost three, drew two and only won one against (the mighty) Zimbabwe.
The Test team is selected on performance in first-class cricket. First-class cricket the world over is contested under the radar. But this season in South Africa it will have an increased focus because it is expected to produce the players that will help the Proteas return to the pinnacle of Test cricket.
South Africa will play nine Tests in three countries in the next six months before an early winter break that leads into a four-Test tour of England. The 2016/17 Sunfoil Series is the only arena the players expected to do this job can come from. Each franchise plays ten matches and the Series is split into two rounds – five fixtures per franchise in October-November and five more in January-February.
The Cobras have been South Africa’s most successful franchise and the biggest producer of international players. But 2015/16 was the first time in eight seasons they didn’t win anything. It is no co-incidence that the slide coincided with a massive dressing-room split over the coach, Paul Adams. The anti-Adams camp (which includes the majority of the Cobras’ international players) voiced concerns about Adams’s ability to coach at the end of last season. The Cobras board eventually decided last month that Adams will keep his job and the aggrieved players have now taken the case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. This saga has to be dealt with swiftly; otherwise it could do serious long-term damage to South African cricket.
At South Africa’s second most successful franchise, the Titans, all eyes will initially be on the return to fitness of Dean Elgar and Morne Morkel. Elgar should be ready for the Australia tour but Morkel will have to wait until the second week of Sunfoil Series fixtures to prove he is fit enough for Test cricket.
The other interesting development at the Titans is the appointment of former Proteas wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, on a two-year deal as head coach. Boucher might be a legendary player but he has virtually no coaching experience.
Boucher is part of an influx of former international players into domestic cricket, something that was considered missing before. Boucher has vouched to involve some of his former teammates, including Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini. The Cobras appointed Ashwell Prince as batting coach and Nicky Boje is the Knights’ head coach.
The Knights last won a shared limited-overs cup in 2010-11. However, they have made some very good acquisitions in the off-season in Robin Peterson, David Miller and Marchant de Lange, as well as a potential Protea in new captain Theunis de Bruyn. Watch out for the Knights this season…
The Warriors is the least successful team in franchise history. Their last trophy came in the 2009-10 season, when current Proteas coach, Russell Domingo, was in charge. They have struggled ever since and one cannot see how this will change, even with Proteas fast bowler Kyle Abbott joining them.
Similar sentiments apply to the Dolphins, which have been marginally more successful than the Warriors. Grant Morgan is their new coach. He enjoyed unprecedented success with the Cinderella province Kwa-Zulu Natal Inland and will have to repeat that at a higher level. The Dolphins have some very experienced players to count on (the likes of Morne van Wyk, Daryn Smith and Imraan Khan) but it must be a worrying sign for South African cricket that the region hasn’t produced a potential world-class player for some time now.
The Lions have in recent seasons become an assembly line for new Proteas players: Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma, Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Aaron Phangiso, Hardus Viljoen and Dwaine Pretorius. The trend could continue with rising stars, like allrounder Wiaan Mulder, also coming through. Under coach Geoffrey Toyana, the Lions have been the most successful franchise in South Africa the last two seasons. They are looking strong again; as the saying goes, success breeds success.
All round, domestic cricket looks to be in marginally better shape than last season. But it’s probably going to take more than one season to get the Proteas into the top three on the ICC Test rankings.