16 August 2016

Beyond the Boundary: Transformation in South Africa Cricket

Words by Antoinette Muller and videos by Leila Dee Dougan

It is hard to disagree that South African sport has failed to transform at the top level, but cricket’s political association in South Africa stretches way further back than apartheid. Daily Maverick’s Antoinette Muller and Chronicle’s Leila Dee Dougan visited the heartlands of black cricket in South Africa to explore why cricket and politics will always be bedfellows; the work being done by CSA at grassroots, and how high performance and transformation go hand in hand.

 South Africa’s Temba Bavuma (left) and Kagiso Rabada celebrate the wicket of England’s Nick Compton (not in picture) during the second cricket test match in Cape Town, South Africa, January 2, 2016.  REUTERS / Mike Hutchings

South Africa’s Temba Bavuma (left) and Kagiso Rabada celebrate the wicket of England’s Nick Compton (not in picture) during the second cricket test match in Cape Town, South Africa, January 2, 2016. REUTERS / Mike Hutchings

This article was originally featured on The Daily Maverick and has been republished with permission. For the full length feature of this piece, click here.

Ask the average South African sports fan what the most contentious word in South African sport is over the last ten years and they’ll probably answer: transformation. This disharmony culminated in flared tempers when South Africa’s minister of sport and recreation, Fikile Mabalula, announced that four of South Africa’s major sporting codes – including cricket – will be banned from hosting or bidding for global sporting events due to their failure to include more players of colour in national teams.

For Cricket South Africa, this announcement could not have come at a worse time. At stake for the governing body is the 2018 World T20, shoehorned into the cricketing calendar following the success of the recent event in India. The showpiece is as good as theirs, if governmental powers that be allow the tournament proceed as hoped..

But what does transformation even mean to those on the ground? Beyond the Boundary, a special feature by Daily Maverick and Chronicle tried to establish just that and found that while the public discourse might view transformation as something synonymous with mismanaged minimum quotas for players of colour, the word transformation actually means something far more principledto the people it is affecting. Transformation is, simply, giving each and every person in South Africa an equal opportunity to be successful.

Achieving that success remains a serious challenge in a country with a society as unequal as South Africa. 

On the surface, nobody can argue that two decades into democracy, cricket has failed to transform at elite level. Makhya Ntini remains the only black African cricketer* to date to have represented South Africa in ten or more Tests.  During the early days of unification, players like Mfuneko Ngam and Monde Zondeki, both from the rural Eastern Cape like Ntini, had only brief spells in the international limelight.

Ngam, who grew up in the tiny village of Middledrift, was struck down by persistent injury — initially put down to malnutrition — but something he has since come to understand as over-training. His professional playing career will always be marked by what could have been, especially for a man who, by his own admission, “never thought he would make it” when he was growing up in a rural village of one of South Africa’s most underdeveloped provinces.

This theme of promising black African Test players emerging and then disappearing became a recurring one, for myriad reasons. Until 2015.

Two new poster boys have taken over the transformation relay from those who came before them. Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma look set to carry the hopes and dreams of the next generations on their broad shoulders. Both are acutely aware of just how important their presence in the South African Test side is. Speak to either of these young men about their significance, and they will tell you that what they are doing “is not just for [themselves].”

But both of these players went to elite private schools and during the course of Daily Maverick’s research, it became abundantly clear that this is the gap that needs to be bridged.

As a way to try and fast track development of black players, CSA have had to resort to minimum quotas. These systems, first introduced to cricket in 1998, have gone through various evolutions and in its current form,  is most aggressively applied at domestic level. Targets, as they are now called, required South Africa’s domestic teams to field at least six players of colour and at least three black Africans in all competitions.

These targets have led to accusations that the standards of the domestic game has declined, but a fact that is often overlooked is that South Africa’s international stars rarely play four-day domestic cricket these days, something Vincent Barnes, CSA’s High Performance Manager, feels strongly about.

“I get upset when senior franchise players don’t play for their domestic teams,” says Barnes.

“I will always tell the story of JP Duminy walking to the wicket on debut for the Cobras. The person who got out was Herschelle Gibbs. The person who joins him in the middle is Gary Kirsten… the guy comes in after him is HD Ackerman… then Ashwell Prince… then Neil Johnson… if you think of these type of players that play around him, the difference it makes to your career, and how they can fast-track your career… Compare that to coming to the wicket as a young cricketer and there’s another youngster and another couple of youngsters,” he adds.

That South Africa needs more black cricketers cannot be doubted and while some might believe that “black people are more interested in playing soccer”,  is a complete fallacy. If Cricket South Africa wants black cricketing talent they need to look no further than the Eastern Cape. This province has been the heartland of black cricket and the game has been played here for more than a century. Introduced by Scottish missionaries, and by some of the workers who returned from the mines, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the country where there is such an ingrained love of and passion for the sport.

Even during apartheid, cricket thrived in the rural villages. Players would level out fields where cattle roamed and roll out old, worn-out matting wickets to set up games. The Eastern Cape has hosted the “Slaughter of the Sheep” festival for years – a tradition which continues to this day. Both teams bring a sheep as a prize and the team that wins gets to keep and eat one-and-a-half sheep – usually shared on the spot.

It is in this province, in the sleepy town of Alice at the university of Fort Hare, where big things are happening for the next generation of South Africa’s cricketers. The programme is headed up by former South African fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam and Greg Hayes, who was central to the fast tracking of Makhaya Ntini. Since its inception in 2009, the academy has produced over 25 semi-professional and franchise players of the 50-odd who have come through the system. Those who don’t make it as cricketers might still find another job within the sport, thanks to the programme.

The people involved in this effort work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, battling challenges that are overlooked by those who think professional cricketers are just magicked from South Africa’s elite schools. While that does happen, it is not the best way to foster a culture of excellence that will make South Africa one of the best sports teams in the world.

Hayes and Ngam are two men hugely passionate about what they do, both with a unique understanding of what is required to help a youngster from the most rural areas of the Eastern Cape make it to the top. They make a mean team.

Hayes has spent most of his life fighting for equality in parts of the country where it’s far too easy to forget about the people who live there. It is difficult not to be enchanted by his passion – not just for cricket, but for developing people as a whole. He doesn’t care who gets the credit for his work that rarely gets the coverage it deserves. If he could be cloned and a version of him placed all around South Africa, sport would be in a far better place.

Programmes like these – and people like Hayes – ensure that a beacon of hope still exists in a society that is constantly having its lights knocked out.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.

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