September 1, 2015

Would it have been different with Khaya Majola around?

Cricket in South Africa is perilously close to being irrelevant for the country's largest demographic group

The England team visit the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg in 1995. Nowadays, townships rarely get to host touring teams © Getty Images

These are troubled, grit-in-the-shoe type times for South African cricket. Something is obviously wrong, although opinion diverges as to what exactly this is. Could it be a post-World Cup hangover? The delayed personality and experience vacuum that has followed the retirement of stellar players? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that neither AB de Villiers nor Hashim Amla - captain of the ODI and Test sides respectively - are naturally gifted or inspirational leaders, a situation compounded by the fact that coach Russell Domingo has his apologists as well as detractors.

Long have the South Africans been searching for a settled 50-over opening partnership and too often finishers and lower middle-order power-hitters don't close or clear the ropes. There are too many left-handers with similar strike rates in the upper order of the ODI side and normally good fielders are dropping catches. The South Africans even look unhappy. Victory in the ODI series against New Zealand on Wednesday night at Kingsmead brought no joy, only relief. Clearly, there are issues.

Graeme Smith is the one of the few men in these moody, on-edge times who has been prepared to call a bat a bat. He's been in the SuperSport commentary box for the duration of the just-completed New Zealand series, and his style has been to hector his fellow commentators by asking them direct questions. A well-developed capacity for fence-sitting seems to be a mandatory requirement for the men from SuperSport and it's been instructive to see Smith probe for the outside edge. His emotional chafing with the chums and the system is almost tangible. It's also poignant because you sense he knows what's wrong in the team and broader environment but he's no longer in a position to do very much about it.

The message to young black cricketers is that they're not wanted unless they can get to a good school in one of the leafy suburbs. Cricket, a sport that was courageous enough to actively change its politics when Bacher realised the error of inviting Mike Gatting's England "rebels" to South Africa in 1990, has become stuck in an upper middle-class cul-de-sac

Pathos is not confined to the recently retired. With the local release of former Cricket SA president Mtutuzeli Nyoka's book Deliberate Concealment last week, we were reminded that it's the 15th anniversary almost to the day of the late Khaya Majola's death. Khaya, the older brother of Gerald, the man Nyoka fell out with over the 2009 IPL bonus scandal, was widely tipped to take over from Ali Bacher when Bacher shuffled off to organise the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. In the event, this never happened. Khaya died tragically of colon cancer in 2000 and Nyoka - irony of ironies - sat on the interview panel that gave Bacher's job to Gerald.

Few outside of South Africa know much about Khaya but inside the country he was well liked, even revered, a grace-filled man in a sometimes ungracious country. He was a tireless advocate of transformation but managed to be so without being prescriptive or doctrinaire, bringing people along without having to raise his voice. He was almost single-handedly responsible for transforming the fortunes of his beloved Soweto CC in the late '90s, going so far as sleeping on the clubhouse floor on Saturday nights to ensure that his players didn't get up to mischief in nearby township taverns and shebeens. Under him players like Johnson Mafa, Sonnyboy Letshela and the late Walter Masimula all went on to play provincially and played dominant roles in the club's glory years.

Does cricket speak to young black kids in South Africa anymore? © Getty Images

It's a different situation nowadays. Privately, CSA officials will tell you that the townships are irredeemable, disaster areas with poorly-functioning schools and malfunctioning councils. Although England play in Kimberley, Pietermaritzburg and Potchefstroom on their forthcoming tour, it is significant that they will not play a match in a township, as they did, say in 1995-96. The pragmatism of such an attitude is undeniable, yet the spiritual and emotional consequences of such a withdrawal of interest is profound. The message to young black cricketers is they're not wanted unless they can get to a good school in one of the leafy suburbs - and not everyone can. What this means is that cricket, a sport that was courageous enough to actively change its politics when Bacher realised the error of inviting Mike Gatting's England "rebels" to South Africa in 1990, has become stuck in an upper middle-class cul-de-sac. Bacher doesn't approve because he's told me so. One cannot speak for Khaya, but it's difficult to see how he would find reason to forgive the current cricket administrators' and the government's retreat.

It is comforting to think that with him at the helm things would have been different. Indeed, it is possibly no more than a reflection of our touchy times to even consider what he might have done. This, after all, is one of the most economically skewed and racially over-wrought societies on earth. The hidden rips and dangerous tides of the sport might have dumped even as sure a swimmer as him.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg