South Africa have won nine of their last 10 T20Is, including two whitewashes in their last two series, and will head into the T20 World Cup as one of the most successful T20I teams in 2021. Does it make them one of the favourites to win the tournament? Absolutely not. On the contrary, South Africa’s chances at the ICC event are slim largely due to their own doing.
There are two sides to South Africa choosing to sit out the ‘free agents’ in Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir and Chris Morris. The obvious reason that warrants their omission is that they weren’t part of the team building up towards the T20 World Cup. On the other side, there’s the question of where the power of T20 cricket lies in the modern world – in franchise cricket or international bilateral series? The rather obvious answer is T20 leagues around the globe – outside of the T20 World Cup – act as the summit for superstar players from across the world.
The former is a valid reason to not pick a player. You do not want to disturb team dynamics by forcing changes to the setup at the last moment. It’s the reason Tamim Iqbal chose to sit out the tournament as he wasn’t a part of the build up towards it.
Why did South Africa not pick the ‘free agents’?
“When you’re working with free agents, you have to come together that works for both the team and the free agents, they’re obviously attracted to various leagues nd then the squad has its own requirements on how they build towards a World Cup,” Graeme Smith, the CSA Director of Cricket said after the squad was named. Adding to the statement, Smith claimed that with “Faf in particular”, the management “struggled to find the balance that worked for both parties”.
A fair explanation indeed, but let’s hear the other side too. Tahir, who has been a mainstay in South Africa’s T20I sides over the past decade, alleged that he had barely been communicated with.
“Last year Graeme Smith spoke to me and said I want you to play in the World Cup, which was in Australia. I said obviously I am available and excited and honoured because you give me respect. I am ready,” Tahir told IOL Sport.
“I am working hard and you can see my performances in all these leagues. He said that’s why he wants me. He also said he was going to speak to a few other guys like AB [de Villiers] and Faf [du Plessis]. They put me on the Proteas group and everything, but then nobody contacted me. After a few months I texted Smith and Boucher and nobody replied to me. Since Boucher has become coach he has not contacted me once to tell me what his plans are. It’s really sad man. I served the country for 10 years, I think I deserve a little more respect than these guys thinking I’m worthless.”
It’s odd that South Africa head into a T20 World Cup in conditions conducive to spin bowling and chose to ignore the man who changed the spin culture in the country. There are cricketing reasons behind Tahir’s exclusion with Tabraiz Shamsi’s rise and the frontline fast bowlers, like Tahir and Shamsi, being pure bowlers with minimal batting capabilities. It was always going to be hard to squeeze Tahir into the XI.
Did South Africa plan to exclude Faf du Plessis all along?
What’s bizarre is that South Africa seem to have planned this all along. Take Chris Morris’ case for instance. Smith stated that Morris was unavailable for international cricket: “Chris [Morris] made himself unavailable. Most of our engagements with Chris [came] through his agent and has said that he is unavailable for international cricket.”
Morris has refuted those claims, citing a “massive breakdown in communication”. According to IOL Sport, Morris revealed that breakdown began after the all-rounder remained unavailable for the one-off 3TC game that South Africa played within their group last year.
Different rules, different people, different ways
Faf du Plessis is arguably the biggest omission of them all. The former Proteas skipper retired from Test cricket earlier this year and underlined the T20 World Cup as one of his primary goals for the immediate future.
“My focus is shifting to this format and I want to play as much of it as possible around the world so that I can be the best player I can possibly be,” du Plessis said at the time of his Test retirement.
He has lived up to his words too. In 2021, du Plessis has 673 runs at an average of 39.59 and a strike-rate of 141.7 in all T20s. Two days after the T20 World Cup squad was named, du Plessis, battling cramps, reeled off a spectacular 54-ball 84 for St Lucia Kings in the Caribbean Premier League. He had already recorded a hundred earlier in the tournament.
Even excluding his past as a player and skipper in the national side, du Plessis’ current form demands a berth in the T20 World Cup squad. But it seems like South Africa weren’t interested in him as much as they were keen to bring back his former teammate and close friend, AB de Villiers.
With the retired de Villiers, there have reportedly been multiple conversations over the past year with head coach Mark Boucher and de Villiers himself stating multiple times in public that conversations were on for a comeback. It never materialised as de Villiers announced in May that he had retired from international duty for good.
What’s certain from the cases of Tahir and Morris is that South Africa were never too eager to bring back the free agents. Before the West Indies tour earlier this year, Smith hinted at a return to the T20 squads for the free agents, but it never happened.
“We have seen the success the West Indies has had in bringing back free agents,” Smith said at the time. “But there are many factors involved, including team dynamics. Our focus has always been on trying to get our best squad together for an extensive time.”
In hot pursuit of de Villiers and his aura, South Africa appear to have forgotten about their other star, the one that was there through thick and thin. With Smith himself citing the West Indies model as an example, it is odd that three of their biggest T20 legends weren’t afforded an exemption despite their obvious impact.
It’s ironic that these absentees are all current or former players of the Chennai Super Kings franchise, one of the most successful T20 teams ever put together. Part of CSK’s philosophy, almost to the point of parody, is to trust experience. South Africa have gone so far the other way, it’s almost as if they don’t want to win this.