Omar Henry: we need to move forward
Omar Henry loves South Africa as much as he loves its cricket. As the first non-white South African to play Test cricket in the post-apartheid era, Henry faced reality, stared at it directly and maintained a high level of performance. These days, he is convenor of the selectors of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).
In an exclusive interview with Wisden CricInfo, Henry talks to Nagraj Gollapudi about South Africa's performance against England under Graeme Smith, the controversial quota system and the future of South African cricket.
© Western Province Cricket Association
Yes, we 're very happy. As for the critics, everybody is entitled to his own opinion. That's the game of cricket. It doesn't matter what you do - people are going to question it. You just have to back yourself and believe you are doing the right thing for your country. We have started a new era now and we know the standards of South African cricket which we need to maintain and improve on. We have some problems at the moment in the bowling department, but we are addressing that reality by facing it, creating more opportunity and improving on it.
Was Smith the only choice for the leadership role?
There were other candidates, but it was just a case of South African cricket having to move forward, and leaving the former negative legacies behind us. So we decided to have a clean chap, somebody who is fresh, somebody who didn't have any baggage, who could move forward. And Smith has all that and is a very tough character for his age.
Judging by the World Cup, South Africa haven't completely recovered from the thrashing they received by the Australians in the back-to-back series in 2002. What could be the reason?
The loss against the Australians was a turning point in South African cricket to a certain extent. The gap between the two best teams during that time grew wider and we accept that, as things weren't in proper order and certain issues needed to be addressed. Players didn't come out with the same attitude as they did against England in the last Test we played. That shows the character of the players and the people of South Africa in general. If they are nurtured in the right direction they will give quality.
Why is it that the depth of South African fast bowling is depleting?
There are various reasons. A decade back, we only had Allan Donald as far as genuinely quick bowling was concerned, and he played a remarkable role in that capacity. Then Shaun Pollock arrived to reduce the burden on Donald's shoulders. He was followed by Makhaya [Ntini] and for some time Nantie Hayward, who has gone to play county cricket. [Mfuenko] Ngam, who - as far as I'm concerned - is a phenomenally talented bowler, is rehabilitating from injury and if he comes back our problems will be solved. Dewald Pretorious has got the potential and the more he plays, the better he will get as a strike bowler who can take more wickets. And then we have the young Monde Zondeki who is in the team here. He has got pace and he is learning very quickly.
[Shaun] Pollock doesn't have that bite anymore, in spite of his impeccable length and line. Do you think Ntini is ready to take over as the lead strike bowler?
He [Ntini] is close to it. A few more adjustments are required in terms of his focus, but things don't happen overnight. Since it's a question of his mindset, he's almost there. As for Pollock, he's a vital cog in our attack regardless of what people are saying. With Pollock, Ntini, [Jacques] Kallis (once he comes back) and Pretorius performing well, it doesn't seem that bad. We just need to buy more time and help nurture the others in the right direction - hopefully with the return of Ngam and [Andre] Nel (serving a match ban) - we will have a healthy South African pace attack once more.
What about the lack of quality spinners?
I know we can't compete with the world-class spinners, but we should try to hold our own. Paul Adams is the first option as a Test spinner - although he was not picked for the first Test against England solely as part of the gameplan and for no other reasons. Robin Petersen is young, and at 21, he still has a long way to go. Unfortunately Nicky Boje is injured and then there is Claude Henderson who played against Australia and went for a few runs, but then these guys will get enough chances to prove their worth. So it is not something big to worry about.
With the retirement of the likes of Donald, Jonty Rhodes and Daryll Cullinan, does South Africa have enough mental strength to challenge the big teams?
Well, you just have to look at our captain. The amount of Test matches he's played, at 22, to hold the record for the highest number of runs for a batsman. I mean, how many Tests did Cullinan take to register his 275? Then there is Jacques Rudolph who has already a double century to his credit. This must tell you something about South African cricket. Who knows what the future holds, but from the pack we got it doesn't look too bad at all.
What would be your personal advice to the future stars of South African cricket?
Its very simple: we wouldn't have selected these youngsters if they didn't have what it takes to play the game at the highest level. I would tell them just to enjoy and accept their responsibilitybatsmen should score runs, and by that I mean hundreds and double-hundreds, and bowlers should take wickets. Players need to have a plan of action and get into a routine and do the hard work.
Some of the better players, such as Nantie Hayward, are opting to play for English counties instead of international cricket, due to improper selection policies in the past. Isn't that a loss to South African cricket?
I am not sure if it is that way. To me there are various things that lured the likes of Hayward to the county game and one thing is the pay. And you can't criticise the guy just because he is dropped from the team and he plays elsewhere, but if the guy was good enough then he should have stayed in contention because you could always come back with your performances.
But not so long ago, Hayward was being talked about as Donald's heir?
Well, that was my predecessors, not me. I have had my dealings with Nantie and he knows where I come from and I have accepted his decision. Look, if you've got the desire to play for your country you will do everything to get there. And if you got a desire to earn money then you will do anything to earn money. It is as simple as that.
Politics has always played a bigger role in South African cricket and it has affected the game. Do you agree?
It is affecting some people, not the game. There are always pros and cons for any subject. It is how you manage what you're confronted with that counts, and I think South Africa is doing a fantastic job. We had been in isolation for so long; so you have to look at the positives: in 1992, we returned to international cricket, beat almost every country in the world who played cricket all the time. Isn't that a remarkable story? But you don't see the world focusing on that, it is focusing on other issues and we cannot afford to let the world influence us on the other things. We know that we're good enough to be among the best and we're going to keep trying to sustain that and even improve.
The socio-economic disparities between the whites and the other communities has always posed a hurdle in the development and grooming of talent. Is there a way out?
It certainly is a problem, but we are addressing it and a lot of positives are coming out. At the end of the day you need a solution for every problem you are confronted with, and if you take all the things that our country has been through - as far as our political past is concerned - it is phenomenal that we are still ranked second in Test cricket. If you look at the history of countries like England, India, West Indies and then you look at our history - that is in patches - what does it tell you about the people in South Africa? The inspiration, passion, commitment and love for the game, in spite of our troubled history, is commendable.
Does racism exist in South Africa cricket?
Racism is there in the world ...we might have made progress, but my personal opinion is you deal with it when you confront it.
Has the abolition of the controversial quota system helped?
It certainly has set minds free, letting everybody compete for a place in the squad. But the focus still has to be on the underprivileged - those who never had the opportunity. That's the reality of South Africa: you can apply that to any sphere of life. There's a lot of programmes being carried out to create more opportunities for everybody. Development programmes, legacy progammes which deal with the facilities, sports management courses for administrators are some of the constituents of the structure planned by the UCBSA to put the things in the right perspective. You have already seen Ntini as the best product so far of this system.
Is the quota system out of people's mind?
I just look at the cupboard: there's huge competition at the age-group level. The under-19 team - that toured England - have the potential to progress and it is what they do from here about improving their game and their knowledge that counts. One needs to be good at the dynamics and the mechanics of the game to rise higher.
A few years back, the number of provincial teams in the first-class game were expanded from seven to eleven. Has enough talent emerged to justify that move?
The system needs to be structured. There are enough players to choose a team of eleven, but whether you have enough quality to have eleven professional cricketers is the debate. Are these eleven teams professional enough? Former greats have voiced the concern of the widening gap between a province player and an international. I agree with them in principle, but their reasoning is based on the past - twenty to thirty years ago, when the conditions were different.
A lot of people play golf, but are they professional golfers? You need a standard: the player who has played professional cricket needs to know what standards are required and what standards need to be maintained. The objective is to get the best cricketers to play against one another. That will mean a need to create tough competition, and when everyone has raised their game, then you can select the best.
Finally, your opinion on the [Lance] Klusener affair?
Unfortunately I cannot talk about it because of the sensitivity of the issue and it is out of my hands.