Victor Mpitsang and his panel of selectors missed the opportunity to be bold on Friday.
In a sense the decision to make Quinton de Kock the Test captain is understandable. For the last couple of years the Proteas Test unit has been in flux.
The delay in appointing a Director of Cricket didn’t help, the mess around Ottis Gibson’s contract extension and then whatever it was Thabang Moroe thought he was building as a structure around the team (remember the ‘ Team Director’).
Then came last summer’s upheaval at administrative level, which filtered into the dressing room. And all anyone wanted at the time was stability. It seems, that is still the case.
Which is a pity. Cricket SA’S primary asset remains the men’s national team, and to get that team to be successful, requires some daring decision-making.
Making De Kock the Test captain for the summer is just putting the South African team in a holding pattern. De Kock won’t be the Test captain for the next few years. He’s already got the limited overs captaincy and that position in itself carries enormous responsibility given the trio of global tournaments happening in the next two and half years.
There was an opportunity for Mpitsang and Co. to make a permanent decision during their deliberations about the Test side over the last few weeks, but they chose caution. That’s a very, very South African trait, especially in cricket.
One of the rare occasions a bold step was taken regarding the men’s national side, it led to Graeme Smith being appointed captain in 2003. There were hurdles to overcome and plenty of angst along the way, but ultimately that – courageous call – worked out well for South African cricket.
Those in charge at the time recognised ‘something’ in Smith, and backed him through thick and thin. That kind of thinking hasn’t been applied now.
De Kock’s had a reasonable start to his tenure as limited overs captain, but the T20 series defeat to England would have dented his confidence. He looked at times like he could have done with a bit of help. Asking him to be the Test team’s captain adds to an already enormous burden.
Besides all the work he will need to do with the limited overs sides, he’s also the team’s best batsman and the wicket-keeper. He’ll continue to don the gloves for the Test side according to Mpitsang, although the selection convenor did leave the door open for some flexibility in that regard. “He should be the ‘keeper, I see Kyle Verrynne as the spare ‘keeper, but we may see how things are closer to the time.”
There are several question marks about some of the other primary candidates to do the job permanently. But there were several questions about Smith too.
Why not Aiden Markram? Why not Temba Bavuma? While Bavuma was not assured a starting spot last season because of form, given how much time there’s been between Tests and the lesser Test match load in the next few years for South Africa, why not give him the backing now?
Is there nothing in his make up that indicates he’d be inspired by captaincy? It certainly seemed to help him a few years ago at the Lions, when he was in charge of their Four-day series winning side. And then, driven by the desire to prove he wasn’t deserving of being pigeon-holed as a red ball only player, he led the franchise to success in the domestic T20 tournament – not just tactically, but with the bat as well.
Markram’s captaincy claims are linked to the 2014 under-19 World Cup, which the South African team he led, won. But there’s also his own journey as a professional player; he was the young star, seemed to fulfill those initial predictions in the last great period for the Test team, the home summer of 2017/18 against India and Australia.
He failed to build on that terrific start, amidst struggles against spin in the sub-continent against two of the great spinners of the modern era, Rangana Herath and Ravi Ashwin.
He’s been extremely tough and honest in conducting self-analysis, which makes him a better person and player, a lot like Smith actually did following the 2007 World Cup.
The arguments against both are strong – neither is assured of a starting spot presently, being the most obvious. But why not assure them of a starting spot? That should build confidence, ease some of the stress, while knowing that because Test cricket isn’t a major priority for the next few years, they too could grow as a captain.
South Africa’s Test side is one that is in transition. There’s a lot of inexperience and a lot of instability. The entire top six has question marks about it, while there’s also debates about the best place for De Kock to bat.
He is now carrying a huge load, something Smith, in his position as Director of Cricket and Boucher as the head coach, earlier this year stressed needed to be managed. Now, that load has become bigger.
And with it, an opportunity may have been missed.