Bowling out white vested interests

Talking on radio on Sunday about his plans for a new structure to mentor young black cricketers, former South African batsman Gary Kirsten used the word ‘primitive” in describing the backgrounds of the people he hopes to help.

Kirsten is actually one of the good guys, well-respected by the new management of cricket as well as the old guard. But it is was an unfortunate, and revealing, choice of word.
What does it tell the black player about the attitude of his white teammates and management? Primitive signals ‘uncivilised”. Kirsten may have meant ‘basic” or ‘undeveloped”, but then he should have used such words.

The politics of social transformation continue to bedevil South African cricket.

Good things are happening, but are not communicated as well as they could be. Instead, turbulence and clumsy words deflect any sense of strategic direction. Much of the time it is hard to detect any common vision for transformation in cricket and its place in wider social transformation.

National consensus about progress and the parameters of this issue is conspicuous by its absence.

Like a mirror, sport will invariably reflect the emotional condition of the nation. That is part of its beauty and relevance. All of these starting propositions could just as easily be leveled as accusations against the government and our society in general.

Sometimes petty politics interfere with the bigger picture. Take the example of Newlands cricket stadium. The new CEO of Western Province cricket, Andre Odendaal, came up with the admirable scheme of renaming the stands after a range of illustrious cricketers, past and present.

At the time, Odendaal noted that ‘Everyone has been terrified to call a stand anything other than a north or south stand, but it is a sign of how far we have come that we can now do so.” Or not. Because sadly the plan went awry.

The first stand was to be named after Basil D’Oliveira, the ‘coloured” cricketer whose selection for the England touring party to South Africa in 1970 caused the cancellation of the tour and an international furore.

Representatives of one of the former ‘coloured” cricket clubs objected on the grounds that D’Oliveira had not done enough for local black cricket during his exile in England. Even if there is merit in this argument, the effect is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Now the plan is ‘on ice”, says Odendaal. An opportunity to make Newlands a more welcoming home for black people has been lost.

Meanwhile, the national team continues to struggle, to a large degree because it is so confused about how social transformation intersects with the task of winning matches.

Another example from the Western Cape illustrates the point. Thami Tsolekile is the best wicketkeeper in the country—a view publicly held by the Proteas’ coach Ray Jennings—and has been for quite a while. He had to wait patiently for an opportunity because the long-term incumbent, Mark Boucher, was not only a successful player but also a powerful personality within the team.

Last year Boucher’s charisma became a negative as he began to take his loss of form out on his teammates. The national selectors dropped him and chose Tsolekile for the November tour to India.

Tsolekile’s wicketkeeping was excellent, as it was in the first Test against England. Then he was dropped in favour of AB de Villiers, who is a promising batsman but an unproven wicketkeeper. Tsolekile was told his batting was not up to scratch.

During the same period a batsman named Hashim Amla was rewarded for an early season run of high scores for his province and was selected for the tour of India.

Curiously he was not selected for the first Test, played in the second, then was omitted from the first Test against England. He played in the second and third Tests in Durban and Cape Town and, despite showing his capabilities with some fine shots, was dropped from the crucial match that the team lost in Johannesburg.

He lost out to De Villiers, who had retained his place as a batsman, while a contrite Boucher was restored as wicketkeeper.

De Villiers got his chance after a handful of professional games; Amla had to wait two more seasons since he first showed his talent for KwaZulu-Natal. Boeta Diepenaar has kept his place in the team and, moreover, was told he would play in the whole series against England, despite the fact that after more than 30 Tests he averages less than 30 every time he bats (40 is the benchmark of success at international level).

There are two conclusions, based on the facts, which the new convener of selectors, Haroon Lorgat, will have to dispel.

The first is that white players get more chances to prove themselves than black players. The second is that the selectorial policy does not take sufficient account of the social implications of its choices. What will the treatment of Tsolekile and Amla do to the attitude of young black and Indian cricketers in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, to whom the two are heroes, other than to discourage them?

Lorgat’s main challenge will be to devise a strategy that can outwit some of the other elements of South Africa’s cricketing establishment whose subliminal mindset is simply that they do not have the same inner trust of black players as they do of whites.

I suspect that Jennings, for example, who until his appointment in November was one of the most strident members of the ‘merit brigade” who complain about affirmative action in selection policy, would be hard-pressed to articulate a sensible interpretation of what social transformation means.

Like his predecessor, Omar Henry, Lorgat is a former player, but has the advantage of being a senior partner at Ernst & Young. Longer-term planning and better communication with the players are likely to be the hallmark of his tenure.

His professional experience will stand him in good stead when confronting the vested white interests that still seem to exert much influence on the game, and in ensuring that black players not only get a fair opportunity, but are seen to get one. Wish him luck.

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