/ 19 March 2023

Cricket’s Pineapple Week nears 120 not out

Pineapple Week
South African cricket’s best-kept secret has to be Port Alfred’s annual Pineapple Week, going strong since 1904, and showing no sign of flagging.

South African cricket’s best-kept secret has to be Port Alfred’s annual Pineapple Week, going strong since 1904, and showing no sign of flagging. 

There have been occasional interruptions — for World War II and one year during the Covid-19 pandemic — and next year’s tournament is its 120th anniversary.

So-called because pineapples were ubiquitous in this area of the Eastern Cape (they’re still grown but not as widely, with chicory and cattle farming preferred), there were 24 teams at this year’s week divided into three strength-versus-strength groups. 

Many of the teams, such as Salem, Station Hill, Southwell and Manley Flats play regularly on weekends in the local leagues, but some are invitation teams gathered to compete in the tournament.

The cricket is played over 50 overs on coconut or hessian mats laid on the turf wickets to protect them from seven or eight days of use. The rules are stringent — no “ringers” or privateers can play exclusively in the week if they haven’t played a minimum number of matches for their club first — and matches are officiated by long-suffering neutral umpires.

Covers off: The game is about to begin.

Like high-speed fibre, neutral umpires are one of the modern world’s greatest inventions. They might get vloeked but they are ultimately obeyed. Barry Smith, a former bakkie driver, is head of the Pineapple Week umpires and a much-loved feature of the contest.

“No one gives Barry uphill,” says former tournament organiser Justin Stirk, “partly because he has a long memory. They know that marginal decisions might go against them if they do.” 

Although it is tempting to doze off in the afternoon session while umpiring at the country club, umpires must remain vigilant because chance-taking is pretty much institutionalised at Pineapple Week. Anything can happen — and it frequently does.

Once a team drifted nonchalantly onto the field with 12 players. A ball couldn’t be retrieved from the outfield because it landed close to two mating Cape cobras. No one had the courage to disturb them in the act.

A story is told — Pineapple Week is an endless fount of good stories — of a batsman who was already out in a low-scoring match desperately asking a teammate if he thought 

the opposition would mind if he batted again.

“With you as a batsman? No, not at all,” came the straight-faced reply.

Stories need characters and Pineapple Week is full of them. Who could forget “Tick bird” Fowlds, he of the long legs and knobbly knees, or “Dog Shark” Fletcher, or “Mielie Meal” Yendall? And who could forget the superstitious partisanship of Beth Amm, wife of Rex and mother to brothers Phillip and Pete, both fine cricketers in their day.

Beth was a heavy smoker and believed in her divine powers to influence the opposition in matches against Salem, the team for which her husband and sons played. 

If a visitor was scoring too freely, or proving difficult to dislodge, Beth would write their name down the side of her ciggie in pencil. By the time the cigarette was smoked, legend has it, the batsman would be snuffed out.

Besides the hocus-pocus, neutral umpires and an insistence by the organisers on good behaviour, there are other reasons for the health of Pineapple Week.

“Some of the youngsters are coming back and playing for the clubs of their fathers and grandfathers,” says Pete Amm, one of the driving forces behind the renaissance at Salem Cricket Club. His son Simon plays there. “They love the idea of revitalising cricket in the area and making a go of it,” he says.

For those who haven’t seen it, Salem is one of the more picturesque cricket grounds in the land. The field is flanked by a church and a graveyard and, depending on the time of year, a purple rain of bougainvillaea. The structures provide clues to the priorities of those who settled there. The word of God was paramount but so, too, was the word of the forward-defensive, the cover-drive and the maiden over.

The winners of this year’s annual Pineapple Week cricket tournament.

One of the eureka moments of the Pineapple Week organisers in recent years was to twin the winner of the week with the winner of the Ngumbela Cricket Tournament, started in 1989 by Mthetheleli Ngumbela in nearby Healdtown (pronounced Hilltown).

Ngumbela, a cricketer himself as well as a self-made millionaire with fruit and veg shops in Idutywa, started his tournament because he was perturbed by the young men of Healdtown and Fort Beaufort having nothing to do over the Christmas break but get drunk.

The tournament traditionally starts on the 16 December public holiday and features teams such as Jackhammer, Lamyeni Hard Catch and Fear Not, in an attempt to get the men out of the taverns and into whites. His vision outpaced his tournament but both grew steadily. There is now the Ngumbela Oval, ample prize money and a thriving culture of cricket as the tournament approaches its 35th edition.

The vibe at this year’s Pineapple Week cricket tournament.

The first match between the winners of the respective tournaments took place in 2015 in Cuylerville; the return fixture took place at the Ngumbela Oval the following year.

Ngumbela was a serial non-conformist. Once, when walking around the outfield of the Port Alfred Country Club, he noticed holes in a grandstand roof.

“You whites should be ashamed of yourselves, letting the rain pour onto the heads of people sitting in the stands,” he is reputed to have told a group of Pineapple Week organisers with a devilish chuckle.

Never one to be critical when doing something tangible would be better, Ngumbela promptly wrote out a cheque for R25 000 to repair the roof. His generosity has not been forgotten. The grandstand roof lives on as an informal memorial to Ngumbela, who was killed in a car crash last year. 

Cricket needs more men like the tireless extrovert. And it needs more tournaments like Pineapple Week.