The ultimate freelancer

A couple of days before the IPL final I made contact with Faf du Plessis in Dubai where the Chennai Super Kings were awaiting news of their opponents in the final. He was in good spirits, understandably, not primarily because he’d enjoyed an outstanding campaign but because he was sharing his hotel room with his wife Imari and their two young children.

Apart from a chat about CSK, his prolific partnership with Ruturaj Gaikwad and whether he was regarded as ‘old’, I wanted to know why his ‘desperate desire’ to play for South Africa in this year’s T20 World Cup – and possibly even next year’s one – had come to nothing.

He retired from Test and ODI cricket nine months ago and said at the time that he was not just ‘available’ to play T20 Internationals for the Proteas, but ‘desperate’ to. So there was enough time to work something out, you would have thought.

Other freelance contenders for Proteas selection had been discarded. Chris Morris had been anything but ‘desperate’ to play. A yawning disinterest would be closer to the mark and, before anybody accuses me of adversely judging him, let me say he had very sound, logical reasons for not wishing to get involved with CSA as it was a year ago. He is financially secure for life, as are any future children. Why put yourself through the ordeal of working for a delinquent organisation?

Imran Tahir is 41-years-old but age is just a number. There’s no doubt that he is still playing wonderful T20 cricket and may well continue to do so for more years to come. But his successor, Tabraiz Shamsi, is the number one ranked T20I bowler in the world. Neither contribute with the bat or are likely to pull off a match-changing catch or run out. But they are both wonderful wrist-spinners. Was there room for both in a national squad? No.

The AB de Villiers saga had been lurching and stumbling, on and off, for over two years. CSA, most South Africans and, indeed, de Villiers himself had grown tired of it. A few optimists and romantics hoped that the great man would get another chance to assuage the pain and anguish of 2015, it was never going to happen.

But du Plessis was different. Sure there were plenty of legitimate reasons not to entertain his inclusion, but there were more compelling reasons to do so. Mostly the fact that he has been getting better as a T20 batsman, both consistently and innovatively, the deeper he moved into his 30s.

Apart from his runs and ability to ‘read’ a game, there was his experience of global events and knowledge of team dynamics, on and off the field. Those who say he would have ‘undermined’ new captain Temba Bavuma, obviously subconsciously, have little idea of how elite team dynamics work. Bavuma was never likely to feel threatened by the presence of a popular, respected former captain in the team. If he was he should never have been appointed and he would be the first to say so.

Much effort was made by the new CSA and du Plessis to find a way of keeping him sufficiently involved in the national team while he pursued his new, freelance career to make Proteas selection possible and appropriate. But it didn’t work out which is a concern on two counts – first that du Plessis is not at this World Cup and second that a ‘road map’ for freelancers has yet to be plotted for the future.

For balance and fairness I also spoke to CSA Director of Cricket, Graeme Smith, and the effort from both him and du Plessis was obvious. They both wanted to make it happen. And I could understand, frustratingly, why a resolution could not be reached. Du Plessis had commitments to the PSL, CPL, Hundred and IPL. CSA needed a sufficient, meaningful time with the Proteas. Du Plessis was prepared to drop some of those commitments but, reasonably, required some compensation – and was prepared to take a loss.

The problem for Smith and CSA was the lack of a precedent. Without a national contract, du Plessis was out in the cold and the South African sporting view has always been ‘make your bed and lie in it.’ Springbok rugby adopted the strategy and it collapsed. Rassie Erasmus reversed it with overseas players and won a World Cup. The West Indies reversed a similar policy and won two T20 World Cups.

South Africa’s best cricketers, young and seasoned, will be drawn more and more to the T20 domestic leagues. South Africa produce more top level cricketers than any other nation, always have done. Although India are now finally catching up, as they should with a population of 1.4 billion people.

Somehow, soon, we need to accept the right of our cricketers to maximise their earning potential elsewhere yet retain their skills and passion for the national cause. It can’t be that hard.

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