An evolving culture

Towards one South African voice

Rodney Hartman
Rodney Hartman on South African cricket's quest for a common identity and a unified culture

In the wake of South African sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile's comments that there should be no more racial quotas in sport, here's an article published in Cricinfo Magazine in December 2006 on South African cricket's quest for a common identity and a unified culture.

Makhaya Ntini is the face of the extroverted new South Africa © Getty Images

Given its fractured past and its multicultural present, the ethos of South African cricket defies holistic definition. The quest has only begun to forge a common culture that can be ordained and identified as the South African way. To properly understand this, one has to appreciate the social and political history of the country.

For most of the 20th century South Africa was a nation sharply divided. Any number of cultures prevailed, side by side but seldom together. On the cricket field there was one culture for whites, one for blacks. There could not be a single culture because there was not a single South Africa. There were, for example, black cricket heroes who white cricket lovers did not see or even know. When I was a boy I considered myself a student of provincial cricket in South Africa. Today I meet prominent black cricket officials who I learn played provincial cricket during my youth. Until now I had never even heard their names, let alone visited any of the grounds on which they played. What was the culture of cricket around those players and those grounds? I truly do not know.

The advent of democracy and political freedom in 1994 was described as a miracle. It was not so great a miracle, however, to merge overnight the rich cultures of the new South Africa into a single, all-embracing one.

There is today a constant grappling among South Africans to come to terms with the divergent cultures in the great melting pot of a post-apartheid society. Socially South Africa is at odds with itself in forging a common identity, but it will come.

There are those who would impose a manufactured culture on South African cricket, so as to quickly embrace and convert those with no background in the game. This is a short-sighted and artificial approach that could prove counter-productive in its disdain for the conventions that underpin the game. No, a genuine new culture must emerge spontaneously by the integration of attitudes and traditions of the various interest groups.

I was educated at what can be described as a traditional cricket school. We learned the game in the English way. We had cricket coaches who played the county game. We got our cricket from the pages of the MCC manual, and played the game in a conservative way. Black cricketers my age knew nothing of this.

At my provincial cricket stadium, the area reserved for officials and invited guests was always known as the Long Room, in the manner of Lord's; that should tell you everything you need to know. Once reserved exclusively for white patrons, the Long Room today is home to a multi-racial patronage. Given the inherent exuberance of my black compatriots, who voluably support cricket as they might football, the Long Room is no longer a staid environment. It is now a more vibrant and vital place in which vastly different cultures are at play. At times you may see some grey eyebrows raised; then again, you will sense new elements of joy and excitement that are central to the discovery of our rainbow nation.

Out on the field, the traditional English, or colonial, culture is still evident, but there are stimulating diversions. The team is no longer racially exclusive and it includes players from those traditional, and formerly whites-only, cricket schools, and others who grew up learning the game in the dusty streets of the black townships. Together now, they bring to the game the conflicting cultures of their upbringing.

Makhaya Ntini at long leg exhorts greater effort from his team-mates through high-pitched rhythmical chants in his native Xhosa. In my days as a youthful student of the game, there was no place in our teams for a Xhosa cricketer. What is he saying out there? I'm sorry, I do not know. Yet all his team-mates understand, and that, dear reader, is the crux of the matter. The quest is on to forge a common culture, to ultimately play and follow the game the South African way. The players are clearly relishing the challenge.

If you sense at times that the South African team is dull and boring, it is only because some of the players are still paging through the conformist manual from which they were taught. But wait for the moment when the Xhosa cricketer begins his chanting and his young white team-mates warm to his words and in turn produce a multi-lingual chorus, and you will discover elements of an extroverted new culture that is taking root. Listen to the players shouting encouragement and instructions in Afrikaans, which is not necessarily their mother tongue, and know that here is a unique way to puzzle, and perhaps unsettle, the opposition.

Wait for the moment when the Xhosa cricketer begins his chanting and his young white team-mates warm to his words and in turn produce a multi-lingual chorus, and you will discover elements of an extroverted new culture that is taking root

Then watch when the coloured batsman Herschelle Gibbs has a mind to unleash his God-given talents and you will see in him the incarnation of Barry Richards when he, too, for a more limited audience in a sadder, bygone era, gave full rein to his genius at the top of the all-white South African batting order.

Then observe the multi-racial crowd packed into the stadium and know for sure that here is a distinctive cricket culture emerging that revels in the spirit of belligerent engagement and is systematically casting off the shackles of an introverted, conservative past.

South Africans by their nature play to win. They know that the Australian cricket culture is forged on the ability of "hard" men to prevail. When they beat Australia, as sometimes they do, they know they have played a "harder" brand of cricket. It is, for them, the ultimate accolade.

Take time to observe the South African captain. He is young enough to be unaffected by the inequities of apartheid, but he learned his cricket at one of the more famous of the traditional cricketing schools. Graeme Smith arrived in the South African team as a mere boy, who although strong and well coached was still uncertain about the style of cricket he should explore. Still a boy, he was appointed captain of his country and has emerged from his shell to be outspoken in enjoining his team-mates to follow him unconditionally in playing what he and his coach call "brave cricket".

This is not a new phenomenon; it has its roots in a playing culture that was first exposed under the audacious and tragically tarnished captaincy of Hansie Cronje during his tenure between 1993 and 2000. His win-rate of more than 50 per cent in Test cricket during that time places him as his country's most successful captain still. Cronje's approach was to initiate attack and lead from the front; it is a style that was best exemplified by himself and Jonty Rhodes, and by his fast bowlers Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers. It is embodied still in the survivors of that era, in the exploits of Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher, Ntini, and Gibbs, and now under Smith's command it is given further expression by the exciting batsmanship of an AB de Villiers.

The world of cricket should be interested in the unique dynamic of South African cricket. Whereas the cricket cultures of Australia, England and India are long established and perhaps set in stone, the new culture of South African cricket is in its infancy. When it finally matures, the world will know it.

Rodney Hartman is a South African newspaper columnist and the author of several books on cricket