March 24, 2008

Stop fighting, start contributing

No one's arguing about the merits of transformation, but how well has it worked all these years? It's time everyone involved took responsibility for the process

Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt have been at the heart of the latest furore over South Africa's transformation policy © Getty Images

Life and sport in South Africa go hand in hand with the country's transformation policies. Transformation may be a contentious issue but its intention is nevertheless accepted by all. There is no choice.

In cricket, though, resentment is growing. Black cricketers and coaches, particularly in junior cricket, are seriously questioning its purpose and believe it is harming the psyche of both black and white cricketers. This recently dawned upon me when I was taking my CSA Level 3 coaching certificate.

The toughest issue, a young emerging black coach told me, is the issue of selection and having to explain to both black and white cricketers why they are playing and not playing. What is the bigger lie, he asked me: convincing a black cricketer he is playing for other reasons when he asks if he is only playing because of transformation, or keeping the dream alive for a white cricketer when he asks if he would be playing if it wasn't for transformation?

The issue was once again brought to our attention by the unprecedented move by Charl Langeveldt to withdraw from the tour of India. The indignity of the policy was clearly too much for him. CSA president Norman Arendse turned to government heavyweights to back his views on transformation. Well, you may have won the battle, Mr Arendse, but not the respect and understanding of the players. You would do well to follow the pragmatic approach of your CEO, Gerald Majola.

At team level it is hardly the ideal start to a very big 12 months of cricket for South Africa - after the tour of India, there are visits to England and Australia lined up. The whole furore will not help foster a sense of unity and pride. If things become tough, the issue will rise to the surface and fester in player's minds. How bad was the timing of all of this? Unfortunate, for the possibility of a great 12 months of cricket for South Africa is very real. It can still happen but the job has been made so much harder for all those who have to keep the process moving forward, working with players, trying to make sense of it all.

Transformation needs to focus on the kids it is intended to help and be meaningful and permanently changing. After 16 years, what is happening? Plenty of money and work has gone in, but much of it was misdirected initially, and the initiatives never fulfilled their broad intentions nor managed to convince a soccer-mad country of the merits of cricket. South Africa's poor public transport infrastructure, and widespread economic deprivation, means many kids can't get to existing cricket hotspots because of the horrendous distances to travel, and lack of money. This is not going to change soon.

A month ago I found myself in Soweto, an important transformation and development hotspot. The Dobsonville Academy there is part of the 2003 World Cup Legacy project and is funded by CSA and the Gauteng Cricket Board (GCB).The land was donated by a mining house. The local council provides maintenance staff.

I was pleasantly surprised by the facility. It boasts indoor and outdoor nets, a tidy clubhouse, office, boardroom, kitchen, function hall and change rooms. It is situated on a big piece of land bordered by hectares of open space and it feels like being out in the country. The field has had good recent rains and the proud groundsman ensures it is in first-class condition. The middle and net pitches are well kept. A sense of commitment and pride prevails. Security is astonishingly minimal for Soweto: not a brick has been removed from the facility since it was built four years ago.

I was astonished to learn that in Soweto 420-odd schools exist with virtually no sporting fields. In Dobsonville alone there are 13 schools, with about 1000 kids in each. The academy tries to cater for as many schools as possible and is proving to be an excellent feeder system.

Transformation needs to focus on the kids it is intended to help and be meaningful and permanently changing. After 16 years, what is happening? Plenty of money and work has gone in, but much of it was misdirected initially, and the initiatives never fulfilled their broad intentions nor managed to convince a soccer-mad country of the merits of cricket

The GCB manages to keep things going at the academy at a cost of not much more than the monthly instalments and insurance on a luxury car. The major problem is that the facility generates no income. There are no advertising boards anywhere on the premises. Sponsors are slow in coming forward, apparently. Given the poverty, it is not feasible to charge even a meager monthly subscription of, say, US$1 per kid. About $600,000 has been spent on the facility already and it now relies solely on GCB support and handouts. Lack of funds means efforts are devoted to maintaining what there is, rather than on fresh development, and hoping in time that things will change.

I am thinking of coaching some of the academy's promising young batsmen. I've seen some of the best Under-13 cricketers there and I like what I see. Almost 200 young cricketers visit the academy on a monthly basis. For many young kids, the facility is a lifeline. Three coaches employed by the GCB do the coaching. They are three of 20 currently employed by the GCB to coach in the townships. In the halcyon days of development it used to be 127 coaches. There is much cricket work to be done in South Africa's townships. This is important for any aspiring cricketer needs to know that where he comes from and how little he may have are no barriers in getting to the top. Pride in his facility will keep him there and one day he will contribute to its growth and upkeep.

Time has passed and allowed me the chance, in light of my visit to Dobsonville, to reflect on the events of the past week. Two points of view have grabbed my attention. The first is the opinion expressed that transformation is not about race but providing opportunities for young cricketers at grassroots level. The second is that those fighting over the issue are actually on the same side and their objectives should rather be to put pressure on the general council of CSA - and it in turn on the government - to provide decent facilities and coaching at the school and club levels in disadvantaged communities. I think our sponsors also need to give some thought to why they support cricket and if they are truly influencing the transformation process.

Why does only one decent cricket facility exist in South Africa's second biggest city? Cricket generates good money today. Are the major sponsors scared to step up their involvement? I believe it is time they took a stand for meaningful change in the development of cricket at grassroots level. I believe we could be far more affective with accountability and transparency between CSA, sponsors and private individuals who have a financial interest in the process. This model could ensure growth and self-sustainability, which is the biggest problem facing Dobsonville.