The future arrived at a quarter to three on a miserable Tuesday afternoon in January. It was ushered live on Sky Sports Cricket by Mark Nicholas. He was at Newlands where Paarl Royals were playing the Mumbai Indians Cape Town in the first game of the new SA20. According to the league commissioner, Graeme Smith, they dropped the ‘T’ from ‘T20’ deliberately. There are a lot of these leagues out there now and, Smith said, the South Africans hoped this would help theirs stand out from the crowd. Another starts in the UAE on Friday when the Dubai Capitals play the Abu Dhabi Knight Riders in the opening game of the ILT20.
Indian Premier League teams have invested heavily in both competitions. They own all six of the South African sides and three of the UAE’s. Think of the new competitions like the offshoots from the CSI TV series. This was IPL: South Africa. You knew, too, because they had Table Mountain in the background.
Otherwise the match soon settled down into the daily rhythm of 20-over cricket. Rashid Khan was there, of course, just as he had been for last year’s IPL, Hundred, Caribbean Premier League, Abu Dhabi T10 and this year’s Big Bash, where his team, the Adelaide Strikers, are still trying to qualify for the playoffs. So were Sam Curran and Jos Buttler and David Miller and Eoin Morgan. The same players, in similar sorts of kits, playing the same sort of game. In the T20 era, it’s always time for the toss somewhere or other. More often than not it is followed by one or other of the usual suspects belting a four off another.
This particular game was distinguished by two things: it was Jofra Archer’s comeback match, although he bowled as if he had never really been away anyway; and the batting of two South Africans, Ryan Rickelton and Dewald Brevis, in the second innings. Rickelton is 26 and has played a handful of international matches, while Brevis is 19 and has not played a first-class game. He spent last year in the Indian and Caribbean Premier Leagues, but neither of them has had all that much global exposure just yet. They put on 90 together, brilliantly, and for those few overs the competition actually had a little local flavor to it.
So here was the best of South Africa’s batting. Anyone watching their Test team play had been wondering where it had got to. In another timeline, Brevis and Rickelton would have been in Tasmania this week, getting ready to play the first of three one-day games against Australia. But the South African board pulled out of that series so that its players would be available for this tournament.
It’s a gamble. The team are 11th in the World Cup Super League standings right now (don’t bother trying to keep up with the details of this competition, the ICC, which only launched it in 2020, is scrapping it next year) and if they don’ t make it into the top eight they will have to win through another qualifying event to make it to the 50-over World Cup in the autumn.
This is the shift. It isn’t the dropped ‘T’ that makes the SA20 different, or the tweaks to the playing conditions which mean the captains can change their teams after the toss (neither bothered), or the innovations in the coverage, which left Nicholas with the impossible job of trying to comment on the opening overs from an armchair somewhere square of the wicket. It’s that South Africa have put the SA20 at the front and center of the game, ahead of Test, one-day and domestic cricket.
South African cricket has gone past the tipping point. Their men’s team only have 28 Tests scheduled in the next four-year cycle (India have 38, Australia 40 and England 43) because the board have pretty much given up scheduling three-Test series. The franchise sides that competed in first-class cricket for the past 17 years have been scrapped, replaced by 15 provincial teams split into two divisions, who will play their fixtures in the margins of the season. Dean Elgar and the dwindling band of Test match specialists who just got beaten so badly in Australia are not scheduled to play another first-class game until 12 February.
The board didn’t have a lot of choice. It has been losing so much money, for so long, that something drastic had to be done. South Africa are the third-oldest Test nation, playing the game for more than 130 years, and their domestic competition, the Currie Cup, was once one of the strongest in the world. But the game became unsustainable. From now on, everything in South African cricket will be geared around whether they can make a success of the SA20. No one in there even seems to be pretending anything else. There is, at least, a certain honesty to it.
The game is changing in ways that’s going to cause problems for everyone. England found that a handful of their young players turned down the opportunity to go on a development tour with the Lions side to Sri Lanka this winter because they had deals in South Africa and the UAE. South Africa have decided to try and get ahead of it.
The hope is that the revenue generated by the SA20 will pay for the revival of their first class cricket, and so, in time, the Test team will improve too. If, that is, they are still playing that format of the sport by the time they’re ready.