Folk heroes, flag bearers and cricket

THE PACEMEN by Drew Forrest (Pan Macmillan SA)

It is unlikely that travellers who elbow their way through the farrago of Johannesburg's Park Station – whether towards a rickety Malawi-bound bus or the swishier train to Rosebank —have time or inclination to dwell on the history of cricket. But it is beneath the well-trodden floors of Parkie that the old Wanderers Club once stood, created, and jealously guarded, by colonial men looking to encourage more wholesome entertainment than that offered in the bars, brothels and gambling hells of the mining town.

In the early decades of the last century, the ground, lurching from one financial crisis to the next, hosted competitive women's matches, fancy-dress contests between "savages and thespians" and, during the Rand Revolt of 1922, became a makeshift prison for socialist prisoners.

In 1930, a one-eyed Norwegian insomniac helped to declare South Africa's cricketing independence, with all that entailed, by destroying the English batting order with a spell of five wickets for seven runs.

If some of these memories now lie buried and forgotten beneath so many layers of railway concrete, other ghosts haunt Drew Forrest's enigmatic The Pacemen: 100 Years of South African Fast Bowlers.

There is Krom Hendricks, "red-hot trundler" of St Helenian background, who disappeared from the historical record after being dropped on racial grounds from the South African touring team of 1894; Johannes (he preferred James) Kotze, the Anglophile bouncer and Boer War turncoat who died aged 51, possibly after bowling himself to death; Calcutta-born Bob Crisp, a "serial womaniser who crooned in the nightclubs of Alexandria" (and, incidentally, a founding editor of Drum) who, on his deathbed, found himself "startled" by news of democracy in 1994; and Eric Peterson, the one-time carpenter from Mowbray feared for his devilish off-cutter, who died in a car crash in 2002, gossip still lingering that adventures with "wine, women and song" in 1960s Mombasa had destroyed his career.

Cricket, an imperial sport

For Forrest, perhaps the most important ghost is Neil Adcock, who died earlier this year. The passing of Adcock, among the world's greatest seamers in the 1950s, sparked a posthumous furore. "A sad little article" in the back pages of the Sunday Times reported on an official decision that the Proteas forego symbolic black armbands; to have worn them, the administrator's argument went, would be a "politically charged" retrograde act in post-apartheid South Africa.

Forrest responds with targeted venom. Disenchanted with suggestions to erase pre-1992 cricketing records, he finds in this kind of political interference a kitbag's worth of inconsistency and absurdity. He sets his book up as a challenge. The argument is simple: rather than attempt to delete an unhappy past, better to write an inclusive, celebratory history of South African cricketers, sensitive to their backgrounds, "interweaving personal, social, historical and statistical detail".

What follows is a mix of social history and sports trivia. The endeavour is worthwhile and sincere, but also risky: the book often feels unsure of quite which way to turn, like a running batsman stranded between ends. For those for whom sport is merely a weekend distraction, there are plenty of quirky anecdotes, legendary sledging battles, and even the haiku-like marginalia of Mike Atherton's tour diary detailing anticipated threats and vulnerabilities in his South African adversaries.

But to readers familiar with the substantial critical histories of the sport by South African historians, little new ground is broken here. If Pacemen adds anything new, it is in identifying the fast bowler as a kind of South African folk hero and flag-bearer of a certain stripe of aggressive masculinity, at some remove from the "gentlemen" with which the game is proverbially associated.

There is much here to remind us that cricket is an imperial sport, arriving in the late 19th-century South Africa (as elsewhere) in a cult of athleticism and muscular Christianity when Britons, enamoured of their own heroism, tried to ward off the collapse of old certainties. Imperial elites consistently yoked cricket to broader political agendas.

Racial tension

Cricket helped to forge the Anglo-Boer compact on which South Africa's 20th-century history came to rest. But cricket was also taken up in the missions of the Eastern Cape and among South Africa's Indian Ocean diasporas, begging the question whether a modern Indo-African world begins with a shared argot of "googlies", "chinamen" and "in-swingers".

The subsequent, and all too predictable, exclusion of black cricketers is well covered. Forrest's poignant descriptions of Eric Peterson practising in a Paarl graveyard, or Dik Abed exiled in a hostile, bigoted English mill town, linger long after the final page. Rent by divisions and starved of resources, formal black cricket organisation was pushed to the margins.

It is a grim tragedy broken only by the dark comedy of a competition, in the 1950s, between South African Malays, South African Indians, South African coloureds and South African blacks.

Many white Test cricketers of the 1970s and 1980s faced moral dilemmas, not always easily resolved, whose ambiguities Forrest elicits vividly and sensitively. In this crucible, South African fast bowlers also faced more quotidian challenges: how best to deal with the transition from mat to grass wickets, with linguistic tensions and personality clashes in the dressing room, and zealous umpires determined to stamp out "chucking".

The evolution of professionalism (contrast, for example, Fanie de Villiers's R3 500 for one-day internationals in the 1990s and Dale Steyn's current R12-million a year) is also a theme that looms large in the book.

A flawless narritive?

Pacemen draws on a diverse range of sources – newspaper clippings, vast statistical databases, memoirs, several now obscure histories, and interviews with luminaries past and present. It certainly takes us "beyond the boundary", as the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James famously asked us to do in the 1960s. But it is a slender and often breathless volume, readable, and quite possibly re-readable, in less time than it takes to complete a competitive Test match.

The most substantial chapter is the introductory essay, offering an almost Freudian meditation on the archetypal fast bowler, a potted overview of the history of cricket in South Africa, a polemic on the black armband affair and finally some reflections on the criteria for inclusion into the book.

This is followed by 32 short profiles, each of about four or five pages, in almost all cases commendably illustrated by a rare photograph of the bowler in full swing. These short sketches tease and suggest, nod and point, to interactions between sportsmen and their social worlds.

There is an admirable fluency in the telling, bar some lapses into gratuitous hyperbole (we are asked to take a comparison between a pace attack and the Vietnam War seriously; a bowler pursues his craft "with murderous intent"; and so on). But the brevity of the profiles also leads one to hope that Forrest might one day offer a more sustained biographical treatment of one or two of any number of fascinating figures.

Meanwhile, the narrow focus on elite fast bowlers, who have played at least 20 Tests and taken 50 or more test wickets, means that Forrest ends up in a bind; he goes beyond the pale in only six of the 32 bowlers profiled.

One wonders whether an opportunity has been lost to have done some more digging for the forgotten men – and indeed women – denied first-class opportunities, and thereby offer a bolder statement of inclusion.

Informed sport enthusiasts may well read the book until close of play, but social historians are likely to declare somewhat earlier.

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