The ‘C team’ sent to play the Black Caps in a two-test series is a sign of the strange times international cricket is in. But while it may look a mismatch on paper, rookie captain Neil Brand promises his side won’t go down without a fight.
A scheduling “balls-up” is how South African cricket coach Shukri Conrad described it; a “fiasco” screamed a prominent columnist; a “defining moment in the death of test cricket” according to Australian legend Steve Waugh. Before even a single ball has thudded into the Bay Oval pitch, negative descriptors of varying severity have piled at the feet of this South African team, as outrage that its big-name players have had to skip the tour in order to play in their country’s T20 competition, the Betway SA20, has rippled through the cricket world.
“Massive pride,” counters stand-in captain Neil Brand, speaking to The Spinoff a couple of days before his test debut – a pride undiminished, he says, by the circumstances of the team’s selection. “Every time you wear that Proteas shirt, it comes with a certain responsibility and a certain amount of pressure. So we know that, and we are definitely going to try our best to compete with the Black Caps for as long as possible.”
It’s an answer that hints at the scale of the challenge for Brand’s team. “A mismatch” is how South African sportswriter Daniel Gallan describes the prospect of the series, during which vital World Test Championship (WTC) points are on offer. “It’s not this David versus Goliath contest, but it’s obviously not that far off.”
Strange, in the context of these two teams, for the Black Caps to be identified with that Biblical heavyweight; New Zealand has never won a test series against the South Africans in its 17 previous attempts. But these are strange times for international cricket, with domestic T20 franchise leagues making increasingly vociferous demands on the calendar’s finite resources – and in the instance of this tour siphoning the cream of South African talent into the SA20 and away from what would under normal circumstances be a marquee series, at least from a New Zealand perspective. Only seven of the 14 members of the touring squad have played test cricket before; the most experienced, Duanne Olivier, played the last of his 15 tests nearly two years ago.
Gallan provides some context. Cricket South Africa (CSA), he says, has long been plagued by what he calls “maladministration” – former CEO Thabang Moroe was fired for “serious misconduct” in 2020 – and then Covid and its complications intervened to further diminish the organisation’s finances. CSA was “broke”, and into this breach flowed money from the Indian Premier League, whose franchise owners proposed the basic tenets of the SA20. The catch, Gallan says, was that the teams would be owned by Indian franchises, they’d be named after Indian franchises, and – crucially – that South Africa’s centrally contracted players would be available to compete.
The New Zealand tour had been scheduled, according CSA, before the window for the SA20 had been determined. When it became clear there would be a clash, New Zealand Cricket resisted overtures to move the series – not least because of the impending inbound Australian tour that follows and the looming presence of this year’s IPL, beginning in March, which would’ve then taken players from both teams out of the equation. The result of it all is what Gallan terms “a C team”: no Kagiso Rabada, Aiden Markram, Marco Jansen, Anrich Nortje or Keshav Maharaj, to name a few. “If I were a Kiwi cricket fan I’d feel quite pissed off,” Gallan says. “I’d probably feel disrespected even.”
It represents perhaps the most egregious example yet of an economic reality that most test-playing nations have to grapple with: test cricket almost always runs at a loss, and without T20 broadcast riches to fill that deficit, the longest form of cricket would be in serious trouble, especially outside of the so-called Big Three of England, Australia and India. (The latter of which, on the back of the IPL and the enormous broadcast revenue its huge domestic market provides, is becoming more and more The Big One.) As former New Zealand coach Mike Hesson, who later became the director of cricket for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, has previously said to me: “Test cricket would not survive and would not be alive now, outside of the major nations, if T20 didn’t exist to be able to generate the revenue to promote Test cricket.” In Gallan’s words, the SA20 is “keeping the lights on” for cricket in South Africa, a point also made by Brand: “At the end of the day, the SA20 is something that cricket desperately needs to survive.”
Within the team, he says, little has been said of the hand wringing that has occurred outside it. His squad is in “a great space” after two weeks in the country. Much of the team played together under Brand’s captaincy in the recent South Africa A versus West Indies A series – won 2-1 by the Africans – and Brand says the players are building on the culture that core had already established. For Brand, the messaging to his team has just been to “do what you’ve been doing, play the way you’ve been playing. It has to be good enough now.” It sufficed against West Indies A – and many of those West Indian players would go on to star in the recent test series against Australia, in which a West Indies team similarly denuded by leading players’ T20 commitments was able to topple the Australian WTC champions at a ground, the Gabba, that has traditionally been one of its strongholds. It was a result virtually no one saw coming.
Gallan expects this South African team to be galvanised by the outside noise and notes that some of these players will “walk out there maybe feeling like these are the only two tests they’ll ever play for their country. There’ll be no shortage of pride and desire.” But the true challenge, he says, will come when the pressure mounts: when confidence corrodes in the face of a fluent Kane Williamson century, say, or under a barrage of Kyle Jamieson bouncers, and the mind becomes fertile ground for doubts to bloom. Thoughts that ‘Oh shit, we are a C team, we don’t belong here’ might become too persistent to fend away.
But as Gallan says this is a group of tough, professional cricketers; and as the West Indies recently proved, it’s not only in the Bible that the little guy can triumph. Win the toss, take a couple of quick wickets, then who knows? And Brand is very conscious of the unblemished record he is defending. “We’d be very disappointed if we don’t keep it that way. Put it that way. And we’re doing everything that we can to keep that record intact.”