What the quota system is doing to cricket in South Africa December 14, 2004

The legacy of positive discrimination

Mark Boucher's politically-motivated exclusion from the South African Test team has reopened the debate on whether the country's determination to transform the demographics of its sports teams is fair or right

Mark Boucher has not played for South Africa since the ICC Champions Trophy in September © Getty Images

Mark Boucher's exclusion from the South African Test team announced to face England at Port Elizabeth on Friday has reopened the debate on whether the country's determination to transform the demographics of its sports teams is fair or right.

Most South Africans, of course, will say that it's nobody else's business - but they would do well to acknowledge that lovers of the game, from Mumbai to Manchester, and most places in between, find the notion of positive discrimination within professional sport less than appealing.

This England series will signal a watershed for as many as a dozen South African international players who have been keeping their current ambitions a closely guarded secret - namely to play fulltime county cricket in England for the remainder of their careers. And before you think this is a straightforward black-and-white case of, well, black and white, it isn't. Three of the players prepared to forego their international aspirations are black.

As the last remaining hopes of an international debut, or recall, fade away with the start of the African summer, at least half a dozen - and possibly as many as 20 - contracts will become public knowledge as the veil of secrecy is lifted.

A player agency called Athletes 1 first circulated a remarkable list of 80 foreign cricketers ready and keen to play in England as Englishmen under the Kolpak ruling that exists between the European Union, Africa and the Caribbean. It included dozens of international cricketers, including Test players like Vasbert Drakes, Cameron Cuffy, Nixon McLean and Marlon Black from the West Indies as well as Zimbabwean internationals such as Brian Murphy and Trevor Gripper.

HD Ackerman spoke out last week about the attraction of English county cricket © Getty Images

But it was the high-profile South Africans that attracted most interest, particularly the nine cricketers with Test experience. One of them, HD Ackerman of the Lions, recently broke the silence and admitted his negotiations with Leicestershire.

"It's very, very hard not to be tempted by the salaries available in county cricket," Ackerman said several days ago, "but it's not just about the money. In South Africa there is a tendency to start thinking of players as over the hill when they reach 28, but that age is normally the start of their best years." Ackerman is 31 years old.

"I am still talking to Leicestershire, but they are attempting to finalise the paperwork and, if everything goes according to plan, I can't wait to devote the next few years to the club. I have some very good years left in me and I have to make the best decision for my long-term future," he added. "The hard reality is that a county salary is probably well over twice the value of a provincial salary, and in South Africa that amount is paid over 12 months, not six like in England."

Ackerman has been a career captain and skippered the Lions until he stepped down last week. Like everyone else living in South Africa, he simply will not talk about racial quotas or whether he had ever been required to tell a player he had not been selected in order to preserve the required racial balance of the team.

It is sadness and confusion rather than fear that makes it impossible to talk about quotas in South African cricket. In today's South Africa one would have to journey to the far-right, lunatic fringe to find a dissenting voice about transformation and its necessity. Cricket simply won't survive as an elitist, white-dominated sport. And that is why the recently formed six franchise teams who contest the domestic first-class competition have a minimum quota of four black players.

Quotas, of course, were actually abolished by the United Cricket Board in 2002, because top-quality players like Makhaya Ntini resented the label and young promising black players found it was almost impossible to make a breakthrough without eyebrows being raised - which many would argue was proof enough of the prevailing racist attitudes in the game. However, the quota has been more stringently adhered to since it was abolished; more than it ever was when it was official.

So the current situation for some of the country's best cricketers, who happen to be white, is that some of them are periodically "rested". Three of the Test players making themselves available to counties next summer have missed games this year for reasons of "balance". And some genuinely don't mind as long as the "sacrifice" helps advance the prospects and career of a black cricketer. Sometimes, however, the black cricketer selected is neither young nor particularly talented.

Makhaya Ntini was fast-tracked into the South Africa side in 1997 © Getty Images

And sometimes, as in 1997, a player like Makhaya Ntini is selected. Raw and hopelessly underprepared back then, just look at him today - the country's No. 1 strike bowler and one of the best in the world. There may never be brighter evidence in support of fast-tracking. Herschelle Gibbs, too, was given his chance as an opener when Adam Bacher was given a political discharge back in 1998. It ended his international career and he has spent the last seven years in the domestic wilderness.

When Kevin Pietersen packed his bags and swapped Durban for Nottingham five years ago in a spray of vitriol about transformation and racism in the country of his birth, he was waved a good-riddance of a goodbye by just about everyone in the entire country.

A lack of sensitivity to the uniqueness of South Africa's situation is one thing, but a complete failure to recognise it smacked roundly of arrogance and oafishness.

So now the next generation to find gainful employment on the cricket fields of England do so as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. They do not want to condemn the policies by which the game is administered because they have grown up to appreciate and understand. But South Africa is still a free country and now they believe they are merely exercising their right to freedom of choice, if not free speech.

Neil Manthorp is a sports journalist based in South Africa and is a partner in the MWP Sports Agency.