The future of South African cricket is black and bright

COMMENT

Just a few weeks in and 2017 has already been quite a year for transformation in cricket. When the Proteas completed an emphatic series win against Sri Lanka in Cape Town last week, all 20 wickets were taken by black players. Given the dire state of transformation in cricket, this is certainly a first.

Then, earlier this week, Cricket South Africa (CSA) took another bold step in fostering black cricketing excellence by announcing nine players of colour in a 13-player T20 squad to play Sri Lanka.

The squad, which will be captained by Farhaan Behardien, smashes all existing representation records and the team could far exceed the target set by CSA that, on average, there must be six players of colour in the team for the duration of the season. Among the nine players of colour in the squad are four black African players — another record.

Despite these strides made towards transformation, Kyle Abbott, a white player who has chosen to quit playing for South Africa, has dominated the columns of cricket analysts, the comments of former players and discussions of cricket enthusiasts on social media platforms. In most of these discussions, the future of South African cricket is depicted as being on the point of imminent implosion.

Paranoid whites

One of South Africa’s most prolific cricket writers, Firdose Moonda, described Abbott’s decision to relinquish his spot in the national team in favour of a long-term contract for the English team Hampshire as being indicative of the dire state of local cricket, and listed six more South African cricketers who “could be next in South Africa’s talent drain”.

To the South African eye, and in the context of the public debate on transformation in South African cricket, all that these six cricketers have in common — they are at vastly different stages of their careers and play a full range of cricketing roles — is that they are white.

But Abbott, after being pressed by journalists on the issue, has dismissed the ubiquitous quota excuse (his words) as being a reason for his departure.

There is nothing new about threats and fears of a “white flight” in post-apartheid South Africa. Last year, responding to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s crackdown on CSA for “not meeting their own set transformation targets”, Jacques Kallis tweeted: “So sad that I find myself embarrassed to call myself a South African so often these days #no place for politics in sport.”

From his grave, Marxist historian and pan-Africanist CLR James can be heard asking exasperatedly: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

Perpetuating the KP myth

There is a tired familiarity with these debates. We recall Kevin Pieter­sen, who left South Africa to play in England. In his 2006 book he claimed: “I was dropped because of the quota system” and “I should not have been discriminated against because of something that happened years before my time.” Pietersen says that he had no option but to leave because “I would have been frozen out by the system”.

More recently, while contemplating a possible return to the South African cricket fold, he questioned Temba Bavuma’s selection, saying: “I don’t know who that kid is who bats six.” “That kid” Bavuma went on to become the first black African player to score a Test century for South African in the very next match.

But this endless stream of nonsense continues because it is entertained by enough — largely white — fans and analysts.

The disproportionate importance given by the South African public to Abbott’s decision can only be understood in its full context. In our cricket team, white South Africans still take up far more space than we deserve in the country. This is true with regard to ownership of land, university degrees achieved, ownership of companies on the JSE, the list of South African billionaires and positions as top-paid chief executives.

Like Abbott, white people have never been “frozen out of the system”: despite quotas, black economic empowerment and affirmative action policies, which are mandated by the Constitution, they still thrive in an environment in which most black people struggle to make a living. Simply put, the system still works for white people.

Could it be that white players who cannot succeed in South Africa and choose to move to England are often simply not good enough? Ironically, given the debate it raised, in Abbott’s case it is unarguably both black (Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander) and white (Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel) excellence that exceeded his ability that kept Abbott on the sidelines for as long as he was.

#DrinksCarriersMustFall

It is black cricketers, like black people generally, who continue to struggle for opportunities in South Africa. For years black players as varied in playing roles as Aaron Phangiso, Khaya Zondo, Thami Tsolekile and Lonwabo Tsotsobe were expected to be “bench warmers” for significantly longer periods than Abbott has sat on the sidelines “wearing a bib”.

This is the conundrum faced by black cricketers: when black players are selected, it is automatically assumed to be because they are black and when white players are not selected, it is assumed it is because they are white.

The non-selection of black players is therefore met with a silent apathy and even contentment, while even an apparent lack of opportunities for a player like Abbott is met with an outpouring of public sympathy.

In their anger at this type of exclusion, some black players wrote a letter to the CSA late in 2015 decrying the limited opportunities to play for the national team once picked for the squad. The players’ letter was aptly accompanied by the hashtag #DrinksCarriersMustFall, linking their struggles to black students’ struggles to achieve free, decolonised education and using the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

It also powerfully compares sidelined black players’ positions to Hendrik Verwoerd’s description of black people as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, and concludes that their nonselection erodes players’ “human dignity and self-esteem”.

Celebrating black excellence

Thankfully, and under significant pressure from Mbalula and the South African public, CSA is slowly making progress and leaving many white cricketers, white South Africans and white media analysts in its wake. Black players are finally getting consistent opportunities to perform at international level.

Those who refuse to change with the country might well decide to leave. But, like Abbott, white people should be brave enough to admit that they have the luxury and privilege of doing so out of their own choice — they are not compelled to do so out of a shortage of opportunities.

And white people should spend far less time worrying about white flight and the reasons for it and far more time celebrating black excellence. A good a place to start will be celebrating Hashim Amla’s 100th Test match in Johannesburg later this week.

Abbott may be symbolically representative of the past of South African cricket but he is neither its present nor its future. The future of South African cricket is both bright and black.

Tim Fish Hodgson is an avid South African cricket fan living and working in Johannesburg. These are his own views. You can follow him on twitter @TimFish42

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Tim Fish Hodgson
Tim Fish Hodgson is a legal adviser on economic, social and cultural rights for the International Commission of Jurists

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