Who's talking about colour now?
Merit selection has pretensions to perfect science: put the best 11 players on the field and let them get on with delivering of their best. Simple, equitable, the only way.
Not quite. What if the best players are kept off the field by some extraneous factor, like racially based selection policies? What if they've given up their dear ambition to play for their own countries and resort to becoming international mercenaries? What if, because of these issues, no one knows who the best players really are? Merit selection? Based on what, exactly?
If you think this refers to the current climate in South African cricket, with its affirmative-action mindset, think again. The truth is, no South African team has ever been picked on merit.
Basil D'Oliveira knew exactly how Allan Lamb and Kepler Wessels felt when the door to an international career was shut in their faces. Kevin Pietersen? He opted for England because he didn't like the terms of a contract offered him by the Dolphins way back when he was no more nor less than a decidedly ordinary offspinner.
Unlike D'Oliveira, Lamb and Wessels never had to apologise for daring to be born into a society imprisoned by an arsenal of evil laws. Their generation of white South African players had their Test careers snuffed out or rendered stillborn by 22 years of apartheid-induced isolation. But that was as nothing compared to the many generations of black players who were forbidden to compete with those who were fatuously called the country's finest. Now the pendulum has swung. In fact, it's still swinging.
The ever-swelling ranks of the South Africans who ply their trade in England, among them players with international experience, are grist to the reactionaries' mill. They never seem to tire of telling us how much talent is draining away. What these closet bigots don't say is that many of those who have decided to further their careers overseas have exhausted their potential, that their experience is their only bargaining chip, that their places have been taken at franchise and international level by younger, more talented, better players. All we ever hear from them is how unfair the South African system is. Would they wade in so passionately if the players who were leaving were not almost all white?
Verily, to be South African in modern South Africa is to be cursed to live in times that are too interesting by half. But there is evidence that the era of good intentions being sideswiped by smoke, mirrors, stuff and nonsense is nearing its end.
The first inkling of this happy day finally breaking came when South Africa won their Test series in England last year. The squad included seven players of colour, a fact that had been held up as a reason for South Africans not to be too cheerful about the impending rubber. "A mixed team went to England and came back with a series win; that hadn't happened for 30 years," said commentator Aslam Kota. Ashwell Prince scored two vital centuries and Hashim Amla another. A bloke with fire in his belly didn't get a game. His name? JP Duminy.
Seven black players were also in the squad for last season's tilt at South Africa's Holy Grail: a series win in Australia. Duminy replaced the injured Prince, and the runs boomed off his bat much like his confidence leapt at opponents. His 166 in Melbourne, where South Africa clinched the series, is destined to be celebrated among the finest innings played in this country's cause. Amla, meanwhile, was his regular rock-like self with three half-centuries in the series.
Somehow, these successes escaped the notice of the malcontents. Ever ready to play the race card when South Africa failed, they were suddenly rendered colour-blind and struck silent. "When you're winning and guys of colour are performing, you don't hear from the detractors," Kota said, a view echoed by Norman Arendse, the former president of Cricket South Africa: "I know that some people had issues with the fact that there were seven players of colour in the squad that went to Australia, but winning masks everything."
As a team, all the South Africans had to do was go out and win. Finally, merit selection made some sort of sense. One of these years, we might achieve it. If we do, we shouldn't forget the much-maligned Arendse. Along with the late Percy Sonn, Arendse fought the fight with all the passion he could muster. The victory in Australia belongs to him more than it does to many of his compatriots.
"Certainly, that kind of [political] pressure wasn't a factor in Australia," said Mark Boucher. "Things have improved a lot in the past year or two. Whether you're white, black, pink, blue, it's a matter of getting the job done." Did Boucher think transformation was working? "I should hope so, considering the amount of time and money that has been put in."
That reply hints that matters of transformation remain sensitive. "The [black] players understand where the whole process is coming from and where it is going to," Kota said. "But they're wary of talking about it because then the whole thing hits the headlines and it puts them in a difficult position. Maybe they hope that no one will ever ask them about the issue."
A leading black player confirmed Kota's view, declining to be interviewed on the subject. "Some of the guys have spoken out in the past, and it hasn't gone down too well," the player said. It also didn't go down too well that Australia avenged their defeat with an emphatic victory in South Africa in the second half of the season. But even that didn't ignite the racial embers.
According to Arendse, the fact that Mike Procter is South Africa's convenor of selectors tends to shut some people up. "Not only is he strong as a selector, he was also highly respected as a player and he has built up a lot of experience as a match referee," Arendse said. "That wasn't the case with some of his predecessors. We would occasionally be reminded by certain figures within cricket and by inferences in media reports that they had not played at the highest level. You can't say that about Mike Procter. He's been there."
Because of the success of transformation, Procter enjoys a luxury that some of the other men who have occupied his seat must have gone to bed dreaming about. "We sit down as selectors and we don't really think about transformation," he said. "It's no big deal, we just get on with selecting the team. Somebody said to me before the Cape Town Test against Australia that we had six players of colour in the 12. To be honest I hadn't even thought about that."
Sounds like merit selection. Almost.
Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa