The independent voice of cricket

New Zealand v South Africa 2023/24

CSA have misstepped by not having Bavuma and Rabada play in the New Zealand Tests

A South Africa batter evades a short ball in his side's heavy defeat in the first Test against New Zealand
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

After victory by 281 runs in the first Test, New Zealand stand on the brink of something they have never before achieved: a Test series win over South Africa.

And yet, the scale of what would be a historic achievement has been lessened by the decision of Cricket South Africa to prioritise the SA20 over the World Test Championship. The Proteas XI at Mount Maunganui included six debutants, among them captain Neil Brand, while the rest of the side had just 37 Test caps between them. New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, who made two centuries in the game, had 96 by himself.

CSA’s decision to field a weakened side is sad, but understandable, with the board’s finances perilous and international cricket no longer guaranteeing the revenue it once did. Both seasons of SA20 have been vibrant, thrilling, and well attended. In a crowded landscape, it has established itself as a leading contender to be the best T20 competition after the Indian Premier League. CSA may well feel their decision has been vindicated.

However, it’s hard not to feel that a compromise could have been reached, and that there could, with a bit of flexibility, have been a way for South Africa to field a far stronger team for at least some of the New Zealand series without significantly denting the SA20.

First, let’s consider those who played little to no part in the SA20, but, because they were contracted, couldn’t be selected for the New Zealand Tests. In particular, Temba Bavuma and Sarel Erwee stand out. The pair have one appearance at SA20 2024 between them. In a post-Dean Elgar world, Bavuma is South Africa’s most experienced Test batter; and while Erwee didn’t feature in South Africa’s last series against India, last featuring in a Test at the start of 2023, he has fond memories of touring New Zealand: he made his sole Test century there in 2022, helping level a series in which, like this one, the Proteas had lost the opener heavily.

The lack of game time for both was predictable, and while CSA might protest that any concession in favour of Test cricket would have been to SA20’s detriment, it’s not true to say they have completely spurned international cricket in favour of the short stuff. Except in the case of Kwena Maphaka, it was the Under-19 World Cup, where he was named Player of the Tournament, that he was allowed to participate in, despite signing for Paarl Royals.

And then there are those who didn’t make it to the latter stages. The SA20 is a generous competition, with four out of six teams qualifying for the playoffs. But that still leaves two teams, Paarl Royals and Pretoria Capitals, who were eliminated by Sunday, February 4, during the first Test match, and with more than a week to go until the second. With some flexibility, Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Verreynne or Ryan Rickelton could all have been flown over to bolster the stocks. Why was it possible for Will Jacks to be playing in the Bangladesh Premier League days after getting knocked out of the SA20, but not for South Africa’s players to head over to New Zealand?

Would this have been unfair on those players selected for the tour in the first place? If anything, the opposite is the case. Head coach Shukri Conrad was honest about his players being exposed to “harsh realities that Test cricket” and realising “how far away they still are”. He also spoke about how it is easier to make your bow in an XI featuring other experienced players.

It would also hardly have been without precedent. The ECB have been flexible in allowing their participants at the Women’s Premier League to join their tour of New Zealand partway through, and there was hardly uproar when Joe Root stuck around for the first ODI against Ireland before flying to the World Cup at the end of last summer.

With a bit of creativity, South Africa could have fielded a far stronger side in the second Test, and given themselves a shot at maintaining a proud record over New Zealand and boosted their not-unrealistic chances at a World Test Championship final. Instead, Test cricket has been diminished, and for very little gain.

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