Titans won the One-Day Cup, but is the domestic game healthy? Photo: BackpagePix
JOHANNESBURG - Last summer, when the game bobbed along in a sea of anguish in the wake of the national team’s poor results in India, against England and in the World T20 tournament, the outlook as far as domestic cricket was concerned was that it was in a poor state.

“There are concerns around the depth and the strength of first-class cricket,” said Proteas coach Russell Domingo, following the Test in Durban against the English.

So, with the national side having been successful, and having done so for large parts of the season without star names like Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers, does that mean the domestic game is now suddenly good again?

Not at all. In fact, it could be argued that the chasm is even greater than it was last season. The quality of cricket on display at domestic level has been for the most part decidedly average. That’s not to say there haven’t been exciting matches, or some high quality periods of play in the different competitions.

The T20 challenge final, while certainly not the most attractive of matches, was a thrilling spectacle - a “dogfight” as Titans coach Mark Boucher described it.

In the Sunfoil Series, there was some intriguing passages of play that highlighted the mental capacity of some players to absorb pressure.

Look, no one is saying that domestic cricket should at the same standard as international play - that’s impossible - but the gap in South Africa is particularly big and in speaking to players who’ve played county cricket in England for instance, that gap is bigger here than it is in that country.

One reason for that is the number of quality players sitting on the sidelines.

South Africa is able to produce very good players thanks to the strong school system and increasingly through Cricket SA’s development initiatives, but with just six franchises there aren’t enough spots available for everyone to play.

Ironically, expanding the franchise system may actually improve the quality of play, because more players would get an opportunity.

Then there is the matter of coaching. This season in particular, the impact of former internationals has been profound. The local game will be all the better for Boucher, Nicky Bojé (Knights) and Ashwell Prince (Cape Cobras) directing their intellectual capital towards young players in this country.

“It’s unbelievable, you try and ‘sponge’ off them as much as you can,” Aiden Markram said about his interaction with Boucher this season.

At the Knights, Bojé has created a strong team culture, which may sound like a lot of “pie in the sky” but when allied to individual goal setting, can start to make sense for a young player.

Prince had briefly brought stability to the Cobras, and there is no doubt that some of the younger players like Jason Smith and Zubayr Hamza will benefit from his expertise.

For all the success he had in his maiden season as a senior professional coach, Boucher admitted after his side won the Momentum One-Day Cup that he still has plenty to learn. “I’m a work in progress, I’m learning as I go along.”

Marrying the need for trophy success with the demands of Cricket SA’s transformation targets has proved challenging for all the coaches. Malibongwe Maketa had to leave Andrew Birch out of his starting team for the T20 Challenge Final - a move that hurt his side. That Cameron Delport hasn’t started more for the Dolphins in the limited overs competitions isn’t right.

And with a number of players coming through the system, CSA need to address the need for providing more playing opportunities for them and the likes of Birch, Delport, David Wiese and Shaun von Berg - those last two had to sit out the Momentum Final.

There is a recommendation from a review of the domestic structure conducted during the season that a seventh franchise be established. “With the (financial) plans we have put in place we do have plans of increasing the number of franchise teams that we have,” Thabang Moroe, CSA’s vice president told Parliament’s portfolio committee on sport and recreation recently.

“We’re not sure what the right number will be, but we are looking to increase the number of teams so that we increase the number of support staff, managerial staff, administrators, women in cricket and black African.”

There are, of course, financial challenges for CSA in doing so - at the same presentation to the portfolio committee it was revealed that CSA would announce a loss of over R200-million for the last year ostensibly owing to the incoming tour last season being Sri Lanka, which is not as lucrative a product as tours by England, India and Australia.

Cricket SA will make up that loss this coming season, when two of those teams are set to tour here.

In addition CSA is establishing a T20 competition to rival the likes of the IPL and Big Bash.

Shrinking the gap with international cricket will be an intriguing feature of South African cricket over the next decade.

Sunday Independent