/ 20 September 2023

Cricket must help South Africa and India rekindle their friendship

India V South Africa Icc Men's T20 World Cup
Virat Kohli of India congratulates Wayne Parnell of South Africa following the ICC Men's T20 World Cup match between India and South Africa at Perth Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

South African cricket has always been at the forefront of transformation in sport locally and globally. Democratic South Africa has agitated for greater democracy and respect for countries from the developing world in the International Cricket Council (ICC), which should result in increasing equality and making cricket a truly global sport.

When the liberation movement was banned in 1960, cricket filled the void as the ANC exiled leadership tried to find its feet. The eventual isolation of apartheid South Africa began with the apartheid state refusing to allow the 1968 English cricket team tour to the country if they included black South African-born cricketer Basil d’Oliveira

When the liberation movement was unbanned in 1990, opposition to the tour of the English rebel cricket team reminded everyone that apartheid remained intact. 

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations deadlocked in 1992 and the National Party lost a by-election to the ultra-right Conservative Party, which opposed any form of negotiations. Then president FW de Klerk was forced to call a whites-only referendum on whether to continue with the Codesa negotiations. South Africa was competing in the Cricket World Cup for the first time and they would have been expelled if the referendum vote was “no” to negotiations.

The South African Council on Sport (Sacos) was the king of organised sport in black areas in the 1980s. Sacos’s rallying call was “no normal sport in an abnormal society”, and refused to play and support so-called white sport, because that would give the impression that apartheid social relations were acceptable.  

But, in the late 1980s, I observed a development that seemed out of sync with the usual shunning of any mainstream white sport. Many residents from the northern areas of Gqeberha, who were so-called coloured and of Indian origin, had begun attending white cricket matches at St George’s Park. 

There were two types of major professional cricket tournaments organised by white South Africa cricket. The four-day Nissan Shield competition and the 45-limited overs day and night tournament, the Benson & Hedges Series (B&H). The B&H was modelled on Australia’s Kerry Packer World Series of the 1970s, with colourful clothing and equipment.  

Sacos sport, including cricket, was not reported in newspapers, and did not feature on radio and television stations. So we all watched on television the self-same white sport that we shunned on. We loved the cricket played by Graeme Pollock, Ray Jennings, Clive Rice, Garth le Roux and Alan Kourie, even if they or others may have thought of us as the unwashed masses.

With the advent of the B&H series, it was as if the boycott of white cricket was suspended.  Nearly every week, my friends at school who attended the mid-week B&H match would regale us with tales of how good the cricketers were, especially Kepler Wessels, who had left South Africa in the late 1970s to play for Australia. 

In October this year, the 50-over Cricket World Cup will be held in India and, unlike previous tournaments where we held some hope that we could win, cricket fans are under no illusion of victory. Despite beating Australia 3-2 in the recently concluded one-day series, and where our batters did come to the fore, we still cannot be counted as one of the favourites to lift the World Cup trophy.   

In many ways the demise of South African cricket can be traced to the rise of India as the dominant force in world cricket politics. Ironically, South Africa has had strong relations with India on a social and political level. The founder of democratic India, Mahatma Gandhi, cut his activism teeth and developed his strategy of satyāgraha in South Africa. India was the first country to sever trade ties with apartheid South Africa, as far back as 1946. 

The relationship between the ANC and the Indian Congress was strong, resulting in close post-1994 government-to-government relations. It is no coincidence that the first official post-1990 one-day international cricket matches played by South Africa was against India.  

Today though, relations between the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) and Cricket South Africa (CSA) is at an all-time low. The problems can be traced to India asserting itself on the global stage. Relations were strong between India and South Africa, despite a change in India’s government, with the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party removing the Indian Congress from power. South Africa and India were in the India, Brazil and South Africa formation and India would later support South Africa’s inclusion in the Brazil, Russia, India and China group of countries, Brics.

South Africa’s David Richardson and Haroon Lorgat were appointed general manager and chief executive of the ICC, respectively, in 2008. When the Mumbai hotel bombings took place in 2008, the BCCI chose to move the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, one of the most lucrative in the world, to South Africa.

South African cricket commentators generally lamented the commercial appeal of the IPL and how it was bad for cricket. The local cricket writers seemed to parrot the views of the English cricket officials, who then did not release their cricketers to play in the IPL. At the same time, Lorgat opposed India’s plans to transform the ICC. Richardson was more supportive of India.  

Gerald Majola, the chief executive of CSA and a friend to Indian cricket, was hounded out of office because of a scandal linked to bonuses paid to staff members when hosting the IPL in South Africa.

To the chagrin of the BCCI, Majola was replaced by Lorgat as the chief executive of CSA. The BCCI began to view CSA as a friend just in name, not one in the trenches. The result is that the Big Three in the ICC today are India, Australia and England, who replaced South Africa. The West Indies, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Pakistan are on the periphery of world cricket. The commercial appeal of South African cricket diminished significantly without regular tours by India, England and Australia.  

Cricket in South Africa is struggling to attract commercial sponsors, especially for the domestic game. Other than the limited overs game, four-day cricket, the staple of the sport, is not televised. Transformation in cricket has become increasingly under pressure, unlike rugby which has leadership who embraced the change and showed how it works on the basis of merit. In cricket the opinion of many is that black cricketers are being forced into teams.  

Former cricketers who have become coaches in the domestic game, such as Ashwell Prince, who came through Sacos, are opposed to the quota system but not transformation. Cricket officialdom does not know how to bridge this gap. Indeed, it implemented a report by Judge Chris Nicholson that seemingly gave more authority in the leadership structure of South African cricket to non-cricketers so that corruption or graft could be dealt with. 

Since the economic rise of India it has moved closer to Western countries, not necessarily its friends in Brics. Western countries conveniently ignore the rise of ultranationalism, with violence perpetrated against people of Christian and Muslim faith. The focus is on India being a world player given its recent moon landing while it participated in the Brics summit in Johannesburg.  

But the political posture of India, as we have seen in the ICC, is one where the country seems to believe that an India-centric view will result in undermining Western dominance. The result is that India benefits not at the cost of the West but of the developing world, including South Africa. 

Given our history with India, and despite recent developments, South Africa can sit down with Indian cricketing authorities and get them to acknowledge that working solely for the good of India does not equate to opposing Western dominance, which is at the centre of global inequality.  

South Africa’s historical relationship with India provides a comparative advantage for us to open discussions with India on how it should use its growing economic and political power to advocate for greater democracy and equality in global governance structures, not just limited to cricket. 

Donovan E Williams, a social commentator.