April 7, 2009

South Africa's hour

The offer to host the IPL is an impressive statement of confidence by a nation prepared to accept challenges

By a strange quirk of fate and in the twinkling of an eye, South Africa has become the cricketing venue of choice. Within a fortnight the second season of IPL will start on African soil, with 59 matches to be played, attended by all the glitz and glamour that accompany this dynamic and theatrical form of the game. In September the unloved world championship will likewise be staged in South Africa, with the game's eight senior teams competing for the trophy. Both tournaments were supposed to be held on the subcontinent. Both had to be moved. In both cases South Africa offered the only feasible alternative. And so the pariah state becomes the host, and all without a bloody revolution or labour camps or guillotines, or even undue recriminations. It is a great achievement that had great men at its core.

To arrive in South Africa in the early 1990s, just before the release of Mr Mandela, when many whites still regarded him as a terrorist, when many felt that the African National Congress was the epitome of evil, when fear stalked the land, was to encounter a country and a game aware that the stakes were high as the nation veered between violence and settlement. As far as cricket was concerned, the old powers were desperately trying to prove their sincerity by investing funds in townships and moving away from cloak-and-dagger rebel tours that had undermined the game around the world, even as it supposedly maintained standards in the white domestic game.

Despite the camps and programmes, many of them run by black women committed to promoting sport as an alternative to the streets, cricket retained its image as a game for the elite. If rugby belonged to the Afrikaners, then cricket was in the hands of the "liberal" Anglo Saxons in their Cape Town and Johannesburg strongholds. Reputations are not easy to elude. Even now the game retains the tag among swathes of the previously dispossessed. Changing that outlook is the primary task facing Cricket South Africa. Twenty-over cricket can help with that. No wonder they were excited about the prospect. Without paying a cent, making money in the meantime, they can show their wider audience that cricket is not a stiff or stuffy game, that it offers hope rewards, challenges.

Talented players emerged from Soweto and Alexandria, and were pushed through the ranks, partly to impress an international audience eager for its conscience to be assuaged, partly to inspire locals. Tracksuits, kit and opportunities were thrown at them by officials who knew, deep down, that cricketers cannot be microwaved, that the hard path is more reliable, but hoping against hope that a few might emerge. Most of these gifted sportsmen failed as cricketers. Economic and social factors could not easily be ignored. Gauteng introduced a mentoring scheme and a veteran spinner asked his charge what he needed, whereupon the boy quietly and devastatingly replied, "I need food, I need food." So much for a pair of batting gloves. All the more reason to salute the miracle. Others were forced to fetch water from a township tap or to accept responsibility as the oldest male in the family. Or else they lacked the physical strength to compete with those raised on healthy diets. As the songster said in another context, the chances really were a million to one.

And so cricket's public face remained stubbornly and frustratingly white. Of course, the game had been played in various Indian communities and by coloureds in the Eastern Cape. Indeed non-white cricket has a proud history that is nowadays attracting increasing attention and documentation. Basil D'Oliveira's success overseas had been a source of encouragement , but there was regret that D'Oliveira was not able to open doors for others. Players from these areas were not quite sure what it all meant - was the gap between them and the whites enormous, or could it be crossed in a generation? It was left to Makhaya Ntini, the Amla brothers, JP Duminy and Wayne Parnell to provide an answer.

Mr Mandela's release and the keenness of the awaiting government to rebuild, as opposed to destroy, meant that South Africa was able to resume playing international cricket. In 1992 they took part in the World Cup. Next came the first elections and majority rule founded upon the notion that all men are equal and ought to be judged only by the content of their character.

Inexorably these breakthroughs led to the current, mostly happy, state. By hook or by crook, South Africa began to develop a multi-racial team. Furious debate raged, behind the scenes and in public - not so much between backwoodsmen and progressives as between those regarding cricket as a separate place and those persuaded that it had a part to play in the reconstruction. Injustice and artifices were created, as with varying degrees of enthusiasm the country sought to find a peaceful path forwards that entrenched change without damaging the better parts of the inheritance. No book has been written to serve as a guide, nor were intentions always honourable, but the fact is that South African cricket has managed to forge a new alliance. As much can be told from the comfort and content of the current team.

Doubtless the IPL will be fun. The game must go on. But it'll take more than a pile of money and a hundred dancers and screaming commentators to camouflage the size of this defeat. The cost to the game, and the world, has been high. It's hard to remain optimistic

Although it helped, it was not enough, for the IPL or the Champions Trophy, that the new South Africa had settled down more easily than even the dreamers had dared to hope. Simply, Lalit Modi and company were looking for a location capable of holding a multi-million dollar extravaganza lasting more than a month and including most of the cricketing stars of the era. Grounds, safety, support and experience were essential. South Africa alone could provide them. England and Arabia were mentioned as alternatives, but neither held water. England offered an audience and accommodation, but its season was underway and it was not able to provide empty stadiums. The IPL did not want to be moving around from place to place. Modi said that cost was not a consideration, yet it could not be completely ignored. Moreover the English grounds were often tied in to advertising contracts, and the same applied to television coverage. Also. it tends to rain a lot in England. Nor was Abu Dhabi a realistic proposal. Several arenas were needed, and training camps and so forth.

South Africa was the last country standing. It had the interest and the infrastructure, the space and the desire. Already it had staged a cricket World Cup, one spoilt by self-indulgent boycotts leading to distorted outcomes. Already it had held a rugby World Cup (RWC). For that matter it had won the most recent RWC, whereupon the State President had joined the team in a merry jig, a sight more improbable and almost as uplifting as the sight of Mr Mandela wearing a Bok jersey as he presented the 1995 trophy to Francois Pienaar.

Now it was busy preparing for the 2010 soccer World Cup, amongst the biggest sports tournaments of them all. Again it had bid boldly and been acclaimed. Stadiums were being erected, plans laid. Of curse it could organise a little cricket tournament featuring a handful of teams. And it could do so at the drop of a hat. It was an impressive statement of confidence made by cricket officials and politicians in nation prepared to accept challenges. It was, too, a sign that, not least in its own mind, South Africa has come in from the cold.

Clearly it has taken more than the rise of one country to cause these competitions to be shifted. South Africa's delight has been the subcontinent's despair. Certainly the Indian election complicated matters and stretched resources, but the idea that a nation as powerful and so devoted to the game could not protect a hundred or so cricketers was alarming. After all, South Africa also has an election looming, an event likely to pass off without incident but bound all the same to arouse passions. South Africa is riddled with crime as well, and recently laptops belonging to a rugby team staying at a posh hotel in Durban were stolen. Hardly a family has not been exposed to thefts and murders. Yet South Africa put its hand up.

India's inability to stage the tournament sets a bad precedent. What, now, for the 2011 World Cup? The IPL does not include national teams, merely famous international players. It is a much less tempting target. The outrage in Pakistan shows that sportsmen are no longer immune to attack. The Mumbai attacks confirm that the wealthy and western are regarded as legitimate targets. Moving the IPL and the Champions Trophy was a desperate measure likely to have dire consequences. For the time being the cosmopolitan dream is over, beaten by the anger. South Africa's gain has been substantial and shows its leaders in a favourable light. But the cost to the game, and the world, has been high. It's hard to remain optimistic.

Doubtless the IPL will be fun. The game must go on. But it'll take more than a pile of money and a hundred dancers and screaming commentators to camouflage the size of this defeat. Full praise to South Africa for responding to the call, but the implications of this relocation ought to worry every lover of the game, and life itself.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Banudas on April 8, 2009, 14:42 GMT

    This has definitely tarnished India's Image. India is supposed to be holding the next ICC world Cup and my guess is that we could be having mid-term polls at that time. Are we going to shift that as well?

    Kudos to SA for getting to this so swiftly. It is strange that there is criticism around crowd, city base etc. I would like to watch it in SA than not have it at all.

  • Procheta on April 8, 2009, 13:11 GMT

    Excellent as usual, Peter! Yes, it's a great last 17 years for South Africa and good on them for hosting sporting events of enormous magnitude in the 21st century. But the fact that a nation as big as India, with 1.1 billion people, cannot commit to protect 100 cricketers is a matter of utter shame. What if India have another election in 2011 during the World Cup or 2010 during the Commonwealth Games(given the fickle nature of our politics, hung parliaments and the falling of govts at the drop of a hat in the last 20 years, that is a real possibility)? Will they be cancelled/relocated as well? In a way, I hope we are presented with such a predicament and see how the govt acts. As a matter of principle we should hope that this IPL season is unsuccessful and all the millionaires involved lose millions; they are equally culpable. Or may be, when there are elections, the entire country should come to a standstill. Stop running trains and planes if you can't guarantee their security!

  • Shyam on April 8, 2009, 5:47 GMT

    Although the shifting of the IPL from India does put its image in bad light, it is a wise decision to avert any chances of an untoward event during the much awaited elections. The move is realistic considering the fact that today, India is surrounded by all borders by warring states and unstable govts.. Recent attacks all over the world show that committed terrorists can strike despite heavy security. Its better to be cautious than to be in denial of reality and regret later which could permanently tarnish India's image. It's unfortunate that though the govt of India suggested to postpone IPL to a later date, it could not be done due to a tight calender. However, Modi's team have ensured that the show goes on, and who knows, this could be a blessing in disguise to the brand IPL. South Africa's acceptance is indeed proof of a confident nation and its progressive relations with the BCCI.

  • Raj on April 7, 2009, 18:23 GMT

    What I fail to fathom is why were the elections in the way all of a sudden? I am pretty sure the elections were pre-planned and the BCCI would have known or should have known about it long before the preparations for the 2nd season even began. Anyways, I really think that for safety reasons its a good thing the IPL was moved. It indeed is a bit of a shame that the Indian government cannot provide adequate security to 8 teams and that the country seemingly has to come to a screeching halt during elections.

  • H on April 7, 2009, 17:31 GMT

    A good article overall and kudos to SA for transforming itself into a well-run and respectable place. It is disappointing, however, to see India struggle with organizing an event. I agree with comments earlier that this is more out of petty politics than a real security issue. Congress has been seen as weak on security and they want to be perceived as sincere. If not win them the battle, this will at least significantly reduce the gap as IPL is highly visible in India.

  • Michael on April 7, 2009, 16:37 GMT

    Nice article, but a pity that so much of it is about what happened in SA 15 years ago and before. Why not try write about the IPL in SA without including all that baggage. The IPL went to SA for a number of reasons - such as what it is now, not about the state of cricket in 1994. Making 50% of the article about the past is stretching it a bit.

  • Joy on April 7, 2009, 15:53 GMT

    As always, the Indians have messed it up. Both the BCCI and the Indian Government knew well in advance about the general elections as well as about the IPL tournament.Still,they faltered at the last moment;held a number of fruitless meetings,blamed each other and allowed the tournament to be shifted to South Africa. If the tournament is to be held in South Africa, why name it the Indian Premier League?

    Since this is a forum to discuss cricket, I will not write a word about the Indian politicians and administrators(there's nothing to say about them. However, Lalit Modi has done the right thing. He has not buckled under pressure and have allowed cricket enthusiasts to enjoy what they love.

  • Dana on April 7, 2009, 15:03 GMT

    "Because I just can't see the South African public providing the atmosphere generated by the pasionate Indians."

    You're kidding right? South Africans are crazy about their cricket. In fact, every game has been sold out within two hours of the bookings being opened. I've never seen the stadiums sell out so quickly for any cricket match, and I've been attending games for thirty years. I count myself lucky to have gotten tickets, and I'll be there going crazy supporting the teams.

  • Aditya on April 7, 2009, 14:30 GMT

    You have to understand, Peter, that the IPL could not be staged in India because security would already have been there for the elections...and further the IPL would have been a distraction because there is a need to get people out to vote and get them involved in the political process. It is not a bad precedent at all - next year's IPL should be held in India pending some unforeseen event. For literary effect, you are known to overblow stuff in your writing - I think you should stop it, because it is looks cliched, hackneyed and poorly thought out.

  • Faraz on April 7, 2009, 13:02 GMT

    Exaggeration nothing more, Indian government didn't failed to provide the security but they merely suggested that IPL should be held after general elections, they never said we won't provide security. The thing is IPL didn't had any choice but to relocate because there is no other time when IPL can be organized as calender is already full with many international cricketing events. Moreover the reason for rescheduling suggested by central is not security but petty politics, people in India know it very well.

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