South Africa won three matches out of nine in finishing seventh, their worst World Cup ever

AB de Villiers talks about batting in a box. The exact specifications of his box are known only by De Villiers himself, but out of the box he doesn't move. He might step forward slightly, towards the outer edge of the box, or move backwards, almost imperceptibly, towards his stumps, but the idea is to keep things simple, to empty his mind. Lance Klusener used to talk about staying on his lily. De Villiers talks about staying in his box.

Last March, after South Africa had been out-played and out-bullied by Australia in the first Test at Kingsmead, De Villiers needed to put his theory to the test. He had already tweeted during the closing stages of the Test that "the series will be one to remember", but now he needed to match words with deeds. He duly unfurled a century of such audacity at St George's Park, such artistry, that he had the scribes looking for new words to describe it.

His innings was backed up by Kagiso "KG" Rabada's 11 wickets in the match and suddenly the series was squared. Amidst the shame of Newlands, the Proteas went 2-1 up, and then clinched things at the Wanderers. De Villiers had boxed clever; KG had snarled; Aiden Markram rounded it all off with a cheeky ton in Test four. South African cricket had seldom felt as good about itself.

But as South Africa prepare for a crucial three Tests in India, the feelgood days of last autumn seem a long way away indeed. Both on and off the field since we have witnessed a period of conspicuous under-achievement. From both a governance and playing point-of-view South African cricket is at its lowest ebb since re-admission.

Six weeks later, having watched Australian cricket go into a tailspin, suffering tears, recriminations, bans and resignations, suddenly De Villiers himself was a casualty. After the 2018 IPL he abruptly called time - perhaps precipitously - on a glittering career. "Our players are vulnerable at the end of an IPL because they're exhausted," said Tony Irish, chief executive of the South African Players' Association (SACA). "After a long domestic season and the IPL, AB had fallen out of love with the sport. It should have been managed better."

Imagine if, with little over a year to go to the next World Cup, New Zealand had allowed Kane Williamson to hang up his boots? Or England stood by complicit while Joe Root walked into the sunset? Instead of managing their players' workloads, Cricket South Africa (CSA) seemed to be more intent on giving Irish's SACA the run-around, dragging their heels on the renewal of their new Memorandum of Incorporation (MoI), the commercially and legally-binding document that defined the parties' relationship for the four years between 2018 and 2022.

When they weren't contributing to a deteriorating labour relations environment, CSA was agonising on how to deal with their new T20 tournament. There was a great fallout over the postponement of the inaugural T20Global League in 2017, a situation that ultimately saw them part ways with their then chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, but by the time of De Villiers' retirement, no-one knew what kind of competition would replace it.

In the end, CSA eschewed private ownership, deeming it too risky, and went for a centrally controlled model that would see them own all six franchises and promote the new tournament accordingly. They rode out the previous owners' wrath and vacillated on whether they would enter into an equity arrangement to broadcast the new tournament - called the Mzansi Super League (MSL) - on satellite broadcaster, SuperSport. Unable to agree on terms, they turned their back on SuperSport, finally broadcast the MSL on public broadcaster the SABC, a decision that seemed ill-advised because the SABC are bankrupt. "The beauty of the T20Global was that the owners were not only bringing investment," said former Durban Qalandars owner, Sameen Rana. "They were bringing brand following. That applied to my franchise but was more the case with the big IPL franchises involved."

Won by the Jozi Stars, then coached by the recently-appointed new interim Protea team director, Enoch Nkwe, the inaugural MSL was neither an overwhelming success, nor a catastrophic failure. Crowds were middling, the television product mediocre, the much-vaunted overseas stars absent for long periods.

After announcing his international retirement six months before, De Villiers turned out for the Tshwane Spartans, but was unable to make any impression on the tournament as they finished fifth.

The frosty relationship between SACA and CSA was not helped by the MSL wage bill, with, say, a middling, non-international representing De Villiers's franchise earning an estimated R900,000 for little over a month's work. While 60-odd thousand US dollars might not seem lavish by the standards of some T20 tournaments, it felt a hefty sum in the context of an embattled, loss-making competition. Without a tournament sponsor and without any of the six competing MSL franchise attracting their own sponsor, salaries, incentives and winners' cheques were estimated to be in the region of R55-million.

Losses for the first MSL compounded the losses accrued during the T20Global League under Lorgat. Having staked all on their re-modelled tournament, CSA could only sit back and watch their debts mount.

When presenting to the ANC's Portfolio Committee on Sport last November, they estimated that they would lose R654-million in the budget cycle planned for 2018-2022. Such projected losses required an "austerity plan", with one of the plan's features being a re-structuring of the domestic game meant to save costs.

Never mind that auditors Ernst and Young had been commissioned by Lorgat to conduct a feasibility study into exactly this in 2016, and had recommended that the current six-team structure remain intact. Now the CSA board wanted to raise the number of first-class provinces by six while stripping out a tier of semi-professional cricket (featuring 15 teams) beneath it. The move would entail an estimated 70 job losses for SACA's members, so SACA were understandably keen to be included in CSA's financial thinking.

When repeated requests by SACA to explain CSA's financial position were rebuffed, SACA took the unprecedented step of taking them to the South Gauteng High Court, amidst speculation that the broadening of the first-class base was a return favour by new chief executive Thabang Moroe for lobbying that saw him replace Lorgat.

Whether these changes come to pass or not, it is difficult to see how expanding the first-class format will make any discernible impression on the Test and ODI sides. Post the series victory over Australia 18 months ago, the Proteas have contrived to lose both home and away to lowly Sri Lanka. There is no easy way to see how a bigger - and therefore weaker - tournament would address such losses for the better.

SACA's papers allege that CSA's estimation of the four-year budget shortfall of R654-million is significantly off the mark. On page 68 of their 234-page court document, for example, they say: "...the four-year deficit could amount to close to a billion rand and this could well give rise to the future financial collapse of the game in South Africa."

While CSA announced last weekend that their projected losses had been significantly curtailed, there was no clarity on how deep the austerity measures necessary to achieve this might run, and how the development of the game could be affected going forward.

SACA's submission to the High Court also detailed a campaign of divide and rule directed against Irish and his president, Omphile Ramela. Saying, via e-mail, that Irish "offers no value", and has "trampled on [CSA's] kindness enough", Moroe invited Ramela to represent SACA at meetings instead.

Ramela, however, stood firm, responding to Moroe and CSA: "We disagree strongly with your comments about Tony Irish, and point out that he has simply responded to statements which CSA has put into the media".

The papers were lodged two days ahead of the Proteas' crucial World Cup opener against England at the Oval on 30 May. With De Villiers long since gone as a feature of the ODI side, South Africa could barely muster 207 in response to England's 311 as they lost by 104 runs. So began a disastrous competition for them, amidst muddles about injuries to Lungi Ngidi and Dale Steyn, form concerns about David Miller and anxieties about Hashim Amla's eyes, not to mention the larger elephant in the room - South Africa's propensity to play cautious cricket in high-profile tournaments.

Rounding matters off was confusion about whether De Villiers had or hadn't in fact offered his services, and when this was. Not that it really mattered. The Proteas won three matches out of nine in finishing seventh, their worst World Cup ever.

So began the jiggery pokery from the administrators upon the teams' return. First they fired the coach (Ottis Gibson), his assistant (Dale Benkenstein) and the convenor of selectors (Linda Zondi), a man who had earned a deserved reputation for standing up to the interference of newly-installed Moroe. Afterwards they appointed Nkwe, who has had one (note, one) extremely successful season as a franchise coach, as interim team director, a title that confused the cricket fraternity if not the entire population.

Yet it was these very administrators who refused to act on Gibson's requests for a truncated IPL for Rabada, the Proteas' best fast bowler. It was they, too, who stood by while the tournament schedule was manipulated so their second game against Bangladesh was brought forward, and so by the time they played India in their third match, it was the late-arriving Indians' first.

For the first time in the post-readmission history of the game in this country, CSA and SACA are in the High Court, while the notoriously high-living suits tamper with the constitution to allow current CSA president, Chris Nenzani to prolong a term of office that has already lasted six years - a situation ratified at last weekend's AGM.

Eighteen months after a historical series victory against Australia at home - South Africa's first since 1969/70 - we are left to rue opportunities missed. The 3-1 series victory could have ushered in a new age but was instead followed by a deteriorating relationship between the players and the board, with little trust forthcoming from either side.

A classic example would be the case of Duanne Olivier, potent a fast-bowling weapon in the Tests, signing a Kolpak with Yorkshire, largely because his T20 opportunities for South Africa were restricted. Other retirements, notably Faf du Plessis's, are on the horizon, which will leave the cupboard looking unusually bare, particularly with Steyn, Amla and Morne Morkel gone, JP Duminy having retired and Vernon Philander looking all of his 34 years.

Under Lorgat, whatever his faults, CSA looked outward, towards foreign money, expertise and ownership; under Moroe they have become secretive, controlling and dictatorial, whether in their relationship with SACA, the players or the cricket-loving public.

The MSL is a case in point. In Xhosa, "Mzansi" means "South Africa" or, more loosely, "the nation", which is fine if you're a local. To foreign ears and eyes it simply looks odd and parochial - which is what South African cricket looks like to South Africans, as it enters its age of undiluted clannishness and patronage.