Time to take the selection blinkers off

If South Africa’s end of year Test series against India was in that country rather than in South Africa, would the world’s most consistently performing spinner in domestic cricket for the last three years be considered for selection? Almost certainly not. 

If the Proteas were due to tour Australia or England at the end of the year, would the player of the series on SA’s last tour down under and one of the most consistent fast bowlers in the world be considered for selection? No. 

Simon Harmer and Kyle Abbott are deemed to have left South African cricket, switched off the lights and closed the door behind them when they accepted  Kolpak contracts to play for Essex and Hampshire respectively four years ago. For the first three of those years they claimed 212 and 182 wickets respectively as Essex won two Championships and Hampshire the 50-over tournament.

This year, so far, Harmer is the leading wicket-taker with 34 in six matches and Abbott is in sixth place with 26. Last week Harmer had first innings figures of 9-80 and a match haul of 12-202 while Abbott collected 11-85 as both counties won despite lashings of rain and many hours of play lost. 

The point is not to argue the individual merits of their cases for a return to international cricket. It is utterly puerile to label them as ‘traitors’ who ‘turned their backs’ on their country. If anything, the Proteas turned their backs on Harmer. Abbott made the sort of decision any right-minded business and family man would do when offered four years of job security in a business as precarious as fast-bowling – and playing for South Africa. 

The general point is the preciousness with which South African cricket has regarded national honours for the last quarter of a century. It is, indeed, an honour and a privilege to represent your country but that does not mean that every cricketer with the opportunity to do so should be happy and willing, or even prepared, to forego all else for that privilege.

For over a decade the West Indies Cricket Board clung steadfastly to the principle of ‘loyalty’. It was even more absurd than CSA’s antiquated insistence on ‘country before individual’ given the Caribbean region’s cluster of different countries. Eventually, after decades of decline, the WICB accepted that a winning team was far better than a losing one, in prestige and finance, than a losing one – whomever it comprised. 

As many as 15 of the Caribbean’s best cricketers had been unavailable for selection because they refused to play in the domestic competitions for as little as $500 per game when they could be earning up to 20 times that amount in T20 leagues around the world. When the WICB chose to select their best players rather than only  those who weren’t good enough for IPL contracts, they won two of the last three T20 World Cups. 

The nadir of CSA’s fixation on ‘loyalty’ resulted in the premature international retirement of AB de Villiers. One day, that story will be told properly. If nobody else does it, I will. But that’s for another day.

Right now and for the years ahead, it will be critical for the revival of South African cricket to cast off the blinkers which have kept selection policy on a straight, narrow and probably well-intentioned course for so long. While the national team was the ultimate aspiration for most local players, it was feasible to keep them on a contractual leash. That is emphatically no longer the case. 

Chris Morris is not only financially secure for his life, but for his children’s and probably theirs, too. Ask him whether he wants to play in the T20 World Cup for South Africa and he will answer emphatically ‘yes’. Whether he wants to be bound to a tedious, irrelevant, outdated contract which stipulates his availability for a three-match ODI series against the Netherlands in December, the answer is ‘no’. 

As with de Villiers, Morris is highly wary of public reaction. Unlike the West Indians, South Africans can’t just front up and admit: “I love my country and I am passionate about winning World Cups, I will do anything to bring a smile to my countrymen’s faces. Except commit myself to a 12-month contract which means I must tour Ireland and Sri Lanka and have to turn down other offers which…” you get the picture.   

If CSA finally get their act together, they must cast the selection net wide and be open to a different catch from that in their own waters. Has anybody even noticed what good cricket Wayne Parnell is playing at the moment? He was the most exciting 20-year-old I have ever seen, just above Jacques Kallis. He is only 31. He is also playing county cricket, for Northamptonshire. 

South Africa still has a remarkable production line of young cricketers. It has always been, and always will be, a net-exporter of talent. But when they fly the coup, it does not have to be forever. Our sons and daughters, after all, are always welcome home, even if it is just for Sunday lunch. Or to help us win a World Cup or an important series.     

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