Quotaless T20 a big step backwards

Lungi Ngidi and other black South African cricketers risk being left out in the cold in the Global T20 League, where the national team targets for players of colour do not apply. (Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Lungi Ngidi and other black South African cricketers risk being left out in the cold in the Global T20 League, where the national team targets for players of colour do not apply. (Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Earlier this year, Cricket South Africa (CSA) said it would be launching a Global T20 League. Up to this point, South African interest in our T20 league had been slight.

In the CSA T20 Challenge, formerly the Ram Slam, crowds were often limited to diehard fans of local cricket. The few games that were televised exposed empty stadiums and entertained a smattering of channel surfers and gym treadmill users.

This provides an easy contrast to the indomitable Indian Premier League and Australia’s festive Big Bash League, which regularly fill gargantuan stadiums with supporters.

These T20 competitions have become highlights of the international cricketing calendar, complete with pyrotechnics and cheerleaders. Many top players now prioritise early retirement from international cricket to allow them to spend a few years playing under lucrative contracts in T20 leagues around the world.

In this context, it seems indisputable that such a tournament in South Africa was inevitable and overdue. It has been long anticipated. Perhaps surprisingly, then, information about the league is difficult to come by and is being revealed by CSA in a helter-skelter fashion.

This suggests to the casual observer — armed only with Google and a hunger for unreasonably detailed information on cricket — that panic rather than careful planning has resulted in the lightning-fast materialisation of South Africa’s Global T20 League.

Kolpak, quotas and T20

One possible reason for the panic is the re-emerging tendency for players, especially white players, to take up lucrative “Kolpak” deals in England and on the international T20 circuit.

This issue came to the fore again in January, when Kyle Abbott dumped the Proteas for the greener, albeit rainier, pastures of county cricket. Many blamed the transformation targets in national and domestic cricket.

Currently, in South Africa’s domestic leagues, CSA requires teams to select at least six black players, at least three of whom are black African players, in every game. The results have been impressive. Many players have taken advantage of these more frequent opportunities immediately.

Examples include players such as Khaya Zondo (currently captaining South Africa A and the Dolphins franchise), Andile Phehlukwayo (who roared on to the scene with sensational performances against Australia), Lungi Ngidi (who, alongside Kagiso Rabada, is the fiery future of South African bowling and debuted destructively for South Africa against Sri Lanka), and Mangaliso Mosehle (the hard-hitting wicketkeeper whose vigour recently earned him a spot in the South African T20 team against Sri Lanka).

At a national level, the target is that on average six black players, at least two of whom are black African players, are selected in a season. Reports indicate that these targets were exceeded in the first seven months of 2017 and the team was noticeably more representative than it has ever been.

A quota-free competition

It is in this context that CSA’s decision not to implement targets or quotas in the Global T20 League must be understood. It can be assumed that, given South Africa’s political and constitutional prerogatives for transformation, CSA would have planned carefully how to broach this issue.

Sadly, either this is not the case or, lured by the flashing lights and six-figure bank accounts, CSA has decided to rewind much of the progress it has made in transforming domestic cricket in the past year.

What is the point in providing selective opportunities for black players? Aren’t the more lucrative opportunities, which provide excellent experience and exposure, more vital for black players than domestic games played for a relative pittance in desolate stadiums? Why does the logic and principle that applies to all other cricket in South Africa not apply to the Global T20 League?

CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat told ESPN’s Cricinfo that “we’ve got the whole transformation philosophy in the prospectus” for the new T20 league and “we asked the owners to be mindful of what we’re trying to drive [transformation] as a key pillar within CSA”.

Apparently, CSA is willing to gamble one of its “key pillars” against the reality of structural and direct racism in the cricketing fraternity. Moreover, it will do so on the basis of business jargon in a prospectus and the good faith of profiteering owners of multimillion-dollar cricketing franchises.

Lorgat reassures us that, if the owners do not keep their gentlemen’s agreements to pursue transformation imperatives in the “seventh year [of the 10-year licences], we’ve got a review … if they’re not contributing [to transformation] … we reserve the right … to cancel the licence”. Slim comfort for a generation of black players who will peak during this period.

This belief in the good faith of commercial entities is more startling when one realises that South African-based companies own just two of the eight teams. The constitutional, legal and policy imperative for black economic empowerment seems to have slipped silently off the radar.

Owners based in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and Qatar can hardly be expected to understand, let alone navigate and self-regulate, the complexities and urgency of transformation imperatives in South Africa.

Money, fame and whiteness

What, then, is the real reason for this change in tack? Money and the need to attract international stars is one possible answer. As former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum said at the launch of the Global T20 League: “All of us [are] sort of … unashamed T20 mercenaries.”

The launch was as awkward and amateurish in appearance as CSA’s planning for the competition. It was packed with low-quality, touristy video packages of our cities and guffaws from the presenters, who lacked basic knowledge about the players they were interviewing. 

Despite Lorgat’s reminder that “these [owners] are businesspeople”, the allure of money for big-name international players and respect for the owner’s investors is, unfortunately, not a satisfactory explanation for the disappearance of transformation targets. In large part, it seems that a further explanation is the need to protect white South African players to make sure they don’t miss out on opportunities, itself a perverse form of affirmative action.

Excluding the Eastern Cape

Each of the eight Global T20 League teams has a maximum squad of 17 players. Of these, four must be foreign players and two “rookie” players, presumably those without provincial or national contracts.

If the four foreign players — the drawcards — play, it leaves just seven spots available. Had the league maintained the domestic targets of six black players a game, only one spot would be left for a white South African player.

White players would be forced to compete with international stars for a spot and so would be less desirable to teams. This, it seems, could not be allowed to happen.

CSA’s willingness to accommodate, without acknowledging or compromising, the interests of white South Africans in the Global T20 League extends to its choice of home grounds.

Notably omitted from this list is East London. Because of its location and history, the city is the closest access point to cricket for poorer black cricket fans in the Eastern Cape, where the game is popular.

Instead, a third Gauteng venue in Benoni and a second Western Cape venue in Stellenbosch were chosen. It will not escape the notice of those even mildly aware of apartheid spatial design that these smaller towns and the other host venues — in Bloemfontein, Pretoria and Cape Town — will be easily accessible and will attract large numbers of white spectators.

This doubles the offence against the cricket-loving public in the Eastern Cape, where people would likely have travelled from deep rural areas to get a taste of world-class professional cricket.

There is no doubt that South Africa’s T20 league was in dire need of a makeover. But with cricket struggling to haul itself out of the shadows of apartheid and the cobwebs of colonialism, CSA’s targetless and haphazard approach to the Global T20 League seriously threatens to reverse some of the impressive progress it has made in the past year.

Tim Fish Hodgson works in human rights law and is a master’s candidate at the University of Oxford. He sometimes writes about cricket and politics, and tweets from @TimFish42. These are his own views

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