That T20 leagues are starting to overshadow the international game was writ large in CSA’s decision to complicate South Africa’s qualification for the 2023 men’s World Cup by scrapping an ODI series in Australia in January. It was more important, CSA said, that their marquee players were available for the T20 franchise competition planned for the same month. Essentially, CSA did not say, big cricket is about profit. Not patriotism.

Nostalgists for the game cricket used to be and apologists for what it has become won’t want to hear this. To them, cricket at its best involves so-called national teams playing in series and tournaments comprised of small wars minus the shooting. They really should wake up and smell the marketing mumbo jumbo. Closer to the truth is that cricket that people pay to watch has always and always will exist solely because it makes money.

Right now, the popular theory is that cricket’s conduit to riches runs through franchise T20 tournaments. Whether that is indeed the case is by no means certain – the IPL makes serious money, the other entities in the market not so much. But people who want to make money from cricket are keen to spend it on getting ever more T20 competitions up and running. They are less enthusiastic about bilateral cricket, which can only suffer because it is supported by the same funding. That funding is finite: the amount of money coming into the game itself doesn’t grow because there’s more cricket. Instead, it’s moved to where the money’s owners want it to be. Increasingly, that’s away from relative relics like the international arena.

When the reverse was still true, CSA was comparatively rich. Now they are desperate. In September 2017, they had cash reserves of around USD 740 million. In their 2020-21 annual report they recorded “cash and investment reserves” of USD 32.3-million. That’s just 4.36% of what they had four years previously. A dangerously delinquent administration – which has since, mercifully and necessarily, been jettisoned – presided over chronic and compound governance and financial catastrophes that have made CSA almost 23 times poorer, in cash terms, than they were not long ago.

They are not trying to get rich by adding another T20 tournament to the already cluttered calendar: it will lose money for at least the first four years. Instead, they are fighting to remain a going concern. At stake is the survival of the game as an industry in South Africa, which is kept afloat by the rights revenue earned on incoming tours by India and by ICC distributions and prize money. If pulling the plug on an ODI series in Australia underpins CSA’s plan to stay in business, it isn’t difficult to understand why that’s a plug worth pulling. Even if that puts obstacles on the team’s road to the World Cup. More obstacles than already loom, that is.

South Africa is currently 11th in the World Cup Super League standings. The top eight teams – alternatively the top seven and hosts India, who are seventh with a dozen Super League matches to go – will slip seamlessly into the tournament. The rest will scrap it out, at a qualifier in Zimbabwe in June and July 2023, for the remaining two places.

If Temba Bavuma’s team had won all three matches in Australia they would have catapulted themselves into the direct qualification zone. What were their chances? Australia is clinging to eighth place in the Super League, two points ahead of Ireland, albeit that they have played only half of their 24 Super League matches. The Australians have a patchy recent record in home ODIs, winning only four of the seven they have played there since January 2019. In their most recent series in the format in Australia, the South Africans prevailed 2-1. They will thus be relieved to be gifted 30 points by the South Africans’ forfeiture.

South Africa has eight other Super League matches on their calendar: three in India, two at home against the Netherlands, and three against England, also at home. They did themselves no favors by losing a match to Ireland in Dublin a year ago. Had they claimed those 10 points, along with the 30 they could have banked had the weather and Covid-19 not derailed their rubber against the Dutch in Centurion in November and December, they would have been in fifth place. So, as much as knees will jerk in the suits’ direction if South Africa has to endure the indignity of a qualifier, the players would have brought that fate on themselves at least partly.

Neither should it be forgotten that the team’s performance directly impacts CSA’s bottom line. At the 2019 World Cup – South Africa’s worst with only three wins from eight completed matches – they earned USD 188,500. In 2015 they made USD 600,000 just for losing their semi-final against New Zealand. ICC distributions accounted for 30% of CSA’s commercial income that year.

How much might not get to the 2023 World Cup mean, in dollars, to South African cricket? A lot. But not enough to dissuade CSA from gambling with that possibility. And not enough to make them think twice about establishing a T20 tournament in the wake of two failed attempts. As CSA chief executive Pholetsi Moseki was quoted as saying in a release on Wednesday, “As difficult as this decision has been for CSA, the long-term sustainability of our new T20 League is reliant on having all our domestic players available for this exciting new addition to the CSA calendar.”

Cricket-minded South Africans will see an element of payback in CSA’s move. It was the Australians, after all, who refused to play three Tests in South Africa in March 2021 citing an “unacceptable” Covid risk despite CSA agreeing to far stricter anti-pandemic measures than had previously. Graeme Smith, then CSA’s director of cricket, was quoted as saying in a release at the time that he was “extremely disappointed” and “frustrated” by the Aussies’ recalcitrance.

Running away to join the T20 circus won’t immunize CSA from challenges of that sort. Like the amount of money in the system, there is only so much time in the schedule. Potential match days that haven’t been allocated are hotly contested. For instance, the January window CSA wants to fill with their tournament is also coveted by the ambitious Emirates Cricket Board – who seem likely to have more money to throw at the same players CSA wants to sign up at the same time.

But the South Africans have a couple of potential aces up their sleeve. One is the fact that broadcasters SuperSport are not only already on board but are also partners in the venture, not to mention significantly more trusted to get things done than CSA. The other is that, as CSA are full members of the ICC – unlike the Emiratis – they should be able to count on some heavyweight support.

Or so they would like to think. Remember, this is about profit. Not patriotism.

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