South African cricket was in turmoil again yesterday because of racial issues in selection. The surprising resignation of Mickey Arthur, among the most successful international coaches of modern times, once more brought to the fore the delicate matter of merit balanced with quotas in the national team.
Arthur left the job he has filled with distinction for nearly five years only four days before his team leaves for an important tour of India. Suggestions in South Africa that his going was prompted by a split with the side's captain, Graeme Smith, can be discounted. Had Smith not displayed such pre-eminent form against England recently he too might have been out of a job.
As in any such close, almost claustrophobic relationship, Arthur and Smith have had their differences, but together they have also forged a vibrant team. Their final outing together ended in an innings and 74-run defeat of England at the Wanderers little more than a week ago. Although the series was drawn 1-1, they seemed to be going places again.
Arthur appears to have been persuaded to walk because he has been worn down by the requirements of selection policy. Although 18 years have passed since South Africa re-entered the international fold, transformation has never been fully effected.
The coach who helped to engineer seminal away Test series wins in both Australia and England has been under constant scrutiny bordering on instruction to ensure South Africa's team is racially mixed. In some ways, this has been easy to achieve lately with several of the batting stars being non-white.
But it also became a tenet of government policy, and by extension of Cricket South Africa, that the team should include not only non-white faces but also players of a discernibly black African extraction. The unwritten agreement that there be at least one black player in the team was easily met when fast bowler Makhaya Ntini was in his pomp.
Ntini's demise, however, has been swift and definite. He played his 100th Test match in the first match of the recent series against England and, on strict merit, should not have made it to his 101st. Although he was rightly omitted afterwards Arthur probably suspected he was on borrowed time.
Flanked by his longtime ally Smith and Gerald Majola, the chief executive of CSA (but not, perhaps tellingly, the assertive board president, Dr Mtutuzeli Nyoka), Arthur will deliver his reasons for departing today in his home town of East London. Arthur and Smith have done their utmost to meet the demands while also arguing that they must field a team capable of winning.
After almost two decades of unity it might be asked why there are not more black players? You can talk about cultural differences and football being the sport of black South Africa, but it is not a wholly satisfactory explanation.
Arguments about players such as Twenty20 specialist Loots Bosman and fast bowler Lanwabo Tsotsobe – both fringe candidates at best – were becoming worse and not better. There was an insistence that room be found for them and the debate became less easy to resist if South Africa lost.
It is known that to drop Ntini all but formal permission was required from the government. When his chosen replacement, Friedel de Wet, subsequently broke down it began to look ominous for Arthur. Smith, who has his own enemies, rebuffed them yet again with his sterling performances.
Smith now has to build a relationship with a new coach, starting with the temporary incumbent for the India tour, the academy head Corrie van Zyl. Gary Kirsten, who has impressed as India's coach, must be in the frame. The former England coach, Duncan Fletcher, who lives in Cape Town and has recently been a batting consultant to South Africa, is unlikely, at the age of 61, to want to undergo again the travel involved in international coaching.
Arthur, barring a position at home, will probably want to coach only in England or Australia. Any county would be foolish not to consider such a well-rounded, reasonable and qualified man, who did remarkably to survive for half a decade in an impossible role.
Fourth Test referrals
Lloyd to investigate
The former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd and Scottish barrister Brent Lockie are to conduct an International Cricket Council investigation into the application of the umpire review system during this month's fourth Test between England and South Africa. The ECB lodged a formal complaint after admitting misgivings over the system's use. Umpire Daryl Harper was criticised for some referred decisions, notably a not out in favour of Graeme Smith when replays indicated a noise as the ball passed the bat.
The trailblazers: Ntini and beyond
The 32-year-old fast bowler's career has been laced with controversy. In 1999 the country's first black Test cricketer was charged and convicted of rape, however, after maintaining his innocence Ntini was acquitted on appeal. On the field, Ntini played his 100th Test at Centurion during the recent series against England in December 2009, claiming his 389th and 390th international Test wickets.
The medium-pace swing bowler made an immediate impact in his first season for Eastern Province, taking 16 wickets at 17.75 in the 2004-05 season. After his 2006 move to the Chevrolet Warriors, three five-wicket hauls and his first ten-for in a match were followed by 49 wickets at 23.59 the next year earned the 25-year-old a call-up to the 2008-09 tour of Australia. In his ODI debut, he bagged four for 50 from nine overs.
The batsman has struggled to hold down a regular place since his ODI debut against New Zealand in 2009, despite a world record-breaking twenty20 partnership of 170 with Graeme Smith in the series against England in November 2009, in which he hit a massive 94 from just 44 deliveries.