Lack of domestic depth leads South Africa into uncertain times

We weren't even close to where we needed to be - du Plessis (1:45)

The South Africa captain says they let themselves down (1:45)

The good news, or rather the mildly comforting news, is that it has been this bad for South African cricket before.

They have lost Test series, of course, and they have even lost three in a short period of time, as is the case now, not so long ago. In 2004, after drawing in New Zealand, South Africa lost to Sri Lanka, India and England. In 2005 and 2006, they lost back-to-back series against Australia, beat New Zealand but lost to Sri Lanka.

The bad news is that even when it looked really bad for South Africa then, there was always hope they would come good. Between 2004 and 2006, Graeme Smith was a youngish captain, still discovering his leadership style while the administration was trying to find the right fit in a coaching capacity.

Though South Africa's results may not have reflected it, they had world-class quality in their ranks with stalwart players like Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Herschelle Gibbs still in good nick, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher establishing what would become dominance and talent bubbling in the background. Their up and coming players included Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel.

Now, it's different. Faf du Plessis is not young and has been captaining for three years, as long as Smith towards the end of that poor run. His most experienced team-mates only have as much experience as he does, like Vernon Philander and Dean Elgar, and while there are at least two names - Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada - who are likely to form the senior core in years to come, there aren't many exciting players lurking at the level below. Aiden Markram and Lungi Ngidi already have questions over form and fitness and while there's peripheral interest in the likes of Sinethemba Qeshile and Janneman Malan, South Africa's structures seem to be eroding underneath them. That's where we must look to dissect the significance of the series loss in India.

On the face of it, it's problematic enough that South Africa have lost three of their last four Test series which includes home and away defeats to Sri Lanka. The nature of these losses only underlines the weakness they are perceived to have against the turning ball, in spin-friendly conditions and in the production of their own tweakers. It should lead to questions over whether their annual spin camp is worth the money they spend on it, especially as Cricket South Africa (CSA) navigates increasingly tough financial times.


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Dig a little deeper and there are broader issues these series should highlight. The obvious one is the depth in South African cricket, which, for a country with a schools system that pumps out professional sportspeople at the rate India produces engineers, is scarily lacking. But why? The low-hanging fruit for this exercise are the varieties you already know: there's been a Kolpak-exodus and a push towards transformation, which has forced franchise teams to be made up in a certain way (a minimum of three players of colour and three black African players need to be in each XI). There has also been the rise of T20 leagues, which has removed players from the system as they chase money abroad.

Combined, it could be argued, these three things have stripped South Africa's domestic scene of a level of experience that could ensure there is an organic learning process. It has meant the likes of de Villiers, even when he was still a nationally-contracted player, hardly ever played for the Titans, that a player such as Andrew Birch, an experienced seamer at the Warriors, sometimes can't fit into the XI and it has taken someone like David Miller, who retired from first-class cricket at the start of last summer, away from the domestic scene. This is not an argument in favour of de Villiers or Birch or Miller, all white, keeping out talented, young players of colour; it is an argument that retaining them to some degree could raise the overall standard of the franchise game.

South Africa's four-day competition is unloved, unattended and goes by largely unnoticed but it is where Test cricketers are produced. The first round of this season's fixtures took place this week, with several problems. What has in the past been a premier fixture between the Johannesburg-based Lions and Cape Town's Cobras was played at the Lions' second-tier home ground in Potchefstroom, where 39 wickets fell in two days. CSA is yet to comment on whether the conditions raised any concerns. This is one example; scroll back through the recent summers and you will find plenty of others. There have been matches finishing inside three days, underprepared pitches, and a general disregard for the standard of the game at that level. The national team is now reaping what has been sowed.

When du Plessis laments the loss of experience, he is on one hand talking about what any team would go through if they faced a slew of retirements, but on the other of the unreadiness of franchise players to make the step up. By way of comparison, when du Plessis debuted, he scored a century. It took Theunis de Bruyn 11 innings to do the same and the way he is batting now, it may take many more before he reaches three figures again. Du Plessis has asked for patience but that won't solve the bigger problem: that South Africa needs a surge of young talent to bang the door down and there's nothing the current players can do about that.

Instead, they need to ensure they fix what they can at their level so that they are prepared to bring in and nurture younger players. For that, du Plessis' other request must be heard. "It's important that as a senior player group, we put in performances ourselves. Myself, Dean Elgar, Quinton de Kock. We can't expect other guys to. We need to make sure we put in the runs first and then expect the guys to chip in with us. At a time like this, it's important that your big players really take control and make sure they put in the bulk of the work."

Some would say they already have. Elgar and de Kock scored centuries in Visakhapatnam and du Plessis has two fifties to his name. They just haven't all performed together. Others would say they haven't done enough. As Mayank Agarwal and Virat Kohli showed, hundreds need to become big hundreds, especially in the first innings in the subcontinent. Du Plessis knows that and it's part of why he promoted himself to No. 4 in the second innings in Pune.

"I felt it was important for me to step up," he said. "The batting failed in the first innings and every innings we've been in a position where we are 30 or 40 or 50 for 3. I was trying to find us a better start, trying to take responsibility in making sure I step up to the plate."

For the foreseeable future he could stay there. "Possibly moving forward, for now, that is something that needs to be considered for me to bat there until we feel that there is growth, and there are games behind batsmen's names so that the experience can come back."

That will allow Temba Bavuma, who is being groomed as du Plessis' successor, not just at No. 4 but also as captain, time to gain the experience that successful Test players need. South Africa don't have the luxury of doing that for everyone. While Elgar can set an example for Markram, and Philander can guide some of the younger seamers, a batsman like de Bruyn simply has to bat at No. 3 or make room for Zubayr Hamza, leaving some of the inexperience unchecked. And so South Africa may have to get used to some level of inconsistency.

For du Plessis, and doubtless for South African fans, there is an inherent frustration in that. It means, as we have seen in the two Tests in India so far, that South Africa are not always able to compete against their opposition, something du Plessis acknowledged was the case in Pune. "You don't mind losing to a team that is better than you but this Test match we weren't even close to where we needed to be to try and compete."

So how do South Africa get closer? That's where the worse news comes in. Du Plessis doesn't really know and there was an air of resignation to his comments. "There's still fight but from a bowling, batting and fielding point view, there's a lot of questions that need answers and players need to put their hands up. A series in India is tough but it's a real character test and only you can find the answers for yourself," he said.