'The progress of our black players is not representative'
Before South Africa's first democratic elections, the country had been already been accepted back into the international community, and cricket was the first sport they played as a unified nation. In November 1991, a historic delegation travelled to India, where three ODIs marked South Africa's return. Since then they have beaten every Test team home and away and spent time at the top of rankings in both the five-day and 50-over formats, but they only have one ICC trophy to their name and have never won a World Cup. The composition of the team has changed, with the society, to become more representative of the population, and to date, 30 players of colour have represented the team at national level. The administration has been highly successful in securing commercial deals and infighting has been keep to a minimum, until recently.
To assess the two decades of cricket in the country, ESPNcricinfo spoke to four influential figures in South African cricket: Ray Mali, former ICC and CSA president and current president of the Gauteng Cricket Board, Peter Kirsten, former Test player, Enver Mall, former chief executive of Kwa-Zulu Natal Cricket Union and match referee, and Rushdie Magiet, former national convenor of selectors.
How would you rate South Africa's performance, on and off the field, in the 20 years since readmission?
Mali: I would give us eight out of 10. On the field, we have done very well. The world needs South Africa. You can't play cricket without South Africa. But, we need to make sure the momentum is sustainable, and keep the feeder system going so there are players for years to come. A disappointment has been our performances in World Cups, which is a barometer for all teams. You are only rated highly when you win a World Cup, like Sri Lanka in 1996. We tend to lack the killer-punch and some mental toughness. Off the field, the boardroom squabbles of the last year are sad. We've wasted time that we could have used to develop the game.
Kirsten: On the field, it's been very much what we would have expected. The team has made progress and won international series. What has been disappointing is the manner of elimination in three World Cups, 1999, 2003 and 2011, which has led to this term, "choking." The systems seem to be in good shape, all the way down to Under-13 level, and there is lots of talent and diversity coming through, which makes us strong. The emergence of spinners now, like Johan Botha and Imran Tahir, which we didn't have in late 90s and early 2000s, is also a good thing. Hopefully we'll be seeing more young kids wanting to be like them.
Off the field, it has not been as successful, with a lot of infighting at CSA, which is quite sad. They need to rectify that pretty quickly and stamp out any corruption and do some damage control on the elimination of sponsors.
Mall: There have been more highs than lows. Despite winning numerous Test and ODI series, South Africa have failed to win a World Cup. We don't know what has held them back from crossing the line and there might be too much importance placed on one tournament, when, in fact, they have achieved big things aside from that. Winning a World Cup has less to do with being the best team in the world at the time than having a little luck when it is required most of all at crucial times. It is still the monkey on our back and we are due our piece of the required luck element soon to go with our generally consistent all-round international performances.
Magiet: The team has done reasonably well, considering we have had a lot of new players, especially black players, with no previous international experience, so they've basically come in raw. The side did need some initial adjustment, but has really come to the fore and are doing well. Off the field, I would say nothing has changed. Attitudes are still the same. I have always said that some of the old establishment don't believe in the merit of the black player, which is disappointing.
Cricket is South Africa's third-most popular sport (after football and rugby). Do you think it is representative enough of the population demographic, and how have you seen it change over the last two decades?
Mali: There is still a lot to do. Many black people refused to be part of the unity movement in 1991 because they did not see it as the real thing. Some of them have only come through 10 years later. We have to create the environment where they can be part of the sport. The national team will only change if we change the clubs in black areas like Soweto, Lenasia and Eldorado Park in Gauteng. They have to have facilities equal to those in previously advantaged areas. They have to have quality coaching. It's not sustainable to bus black people into the areas where they can find those things and then send them back. They need the facilities in their own backyard for things to change.
Kirsten: Since unification, we've seen the game being popularised among all sectors of the community, especially the Eastern Cape. When they restructured the domestic competition to form franchises, I would have liked to have seen Border as a separate franchise. Therein lies the most number of black cricketers, and so far the progression of our black players is not representative.
Mall: There is very little in the country that can claim to be representative of population demographics and cricket is but a microcosm of this. Despite what many may believe, we are still some distance from our cricket structures and environment being truly representative of our demographics.
Magiet: Before unity, a lot of people of colour moved away from cricket and lost interest in the game because of the stigma that was attached to it. I stayed away from Newlands from 1959 until 1991, because on principle it was wrong. There were many like me, but the truth is that we loved cricket and so we still followed it and knew every player in the white sides. To a very large extent, the former Model C schools [semi-private, mostly white schools] have played a large part in helping with representation. They have superior facilities and coaching staff, and with the number of black children going to school there, things have definitely changed at lower levels. Take Cape Town for example: for six out of the last eight years, a predominantly black club has won the top league.
What are the main reasons for the difficulty in finding and retaining players of colour?
Mali: It is pointless to say people must play mini-cricket only. What we need is cricket schools in black communities. You can't take guys away from their own backyard, like what happened with Makhaya Ntini, because that creates problems. They need to stay in their own environment.
Kirsten: There is no difficulty finding them. I do a lot of a coaching and see them coming through from the age of eight. We have a lot of academies springing up. What is difficult is that a lot of them don't get picked and so they lose motivation and go into business. There is very little inspiration for players of colour because they have few predecessors to look up to. There are also obvious things like the lack of facilities in previously disadvantages areas.
Mall: The roots of this problem lie in our education system. The majority of schools that have the necessary facilities to promote and play cricket and provide meaningful coaching are still the former white schools established in the pre-democracy years. Access to these schools is still generally aimed at and limited to the middle class, which probably still encompasses almost the entire white population of South Africa and a small but growing percentage of the black population. As the black middle class increases and more and more black children attend these schools each year, the numbers of black players in cricket and other sports is increasing annually.
Magiet: Some of the problem in retaining players of colour lies in the current provincial set-up. Our franchises coaches are all white. Sometimes this results in black players not getting selected and not being given a decent chance. They get disillusioned and wonder how much longer they should fight for.
Is enough being done at lower levels to encourage development? And what would you like to see being done in that regard?
Mali: Young people need mentors to follow their progress. In Port Elizabeth, for example, where I grew up, there are cricket social workers who are tasked by clubs to follow up on youngsters. It's a bit like we did in my day when my father, Gerald Majola's father and a few others were used in the system to listen to young black players. These types of administrators must stay on to retain players of colour. There is just not enough guidance for them at the moment.
Kirsten: A lot is being done. For example, the University of Fort Hare, has an academy run by Mfuneko Ngam and Greg Hayes. A few of the players from there have been contracted to the Warriors. With the new seventh franchise in our 20-over competition, I expect to see six or seven players of colour. At school level, we have a completely mixed and natural set-up, and we are lucky that our schools' coaching is one of the most effective in the world.
Mall: Until we reach a stage where cricket is fully represented in terms of the demographics of the country, not enough will ever have been done. I would like to see more cricketing facilities and sustainable structures being developed in areas which don't have them, especially at schools which do not have a cricketing culture or are only now trying to develop one.
Magiet: More must be done at provincial level and black cricketers must be given more of a chance. There should also be a mentoring programme, because when kids play the game at primary and high-school level they go back to the township and have nobody to talk about it with. We need somebody to attach to that cricketer and it does not have to be a black person. Look at AB de Villiers and the child he is sponsoring. Those things should happen more often.
Have transformation targets hampered the national team's progress?
Mali: There was talk about 12 or 13 years ago that we pushed people into the team, but in 2001 we did away with quotas and left it to the discretion of the selectors. We reorganised ourselves to achieve targets. The word quota means "I am inferior", and the truth is that those guys were there on merit and were able to compete. But, in order to get them into the team we had to put our foot down so people would accommodate players of colour. We had to prick their consciousness so they would do that.
Kirsten: There was a time, perhaps when Percy Sonn was president, the Jacques Rudolph and Justin Ontong incident occurred. We went a little bit overboard too soon on that score. I think that was the time where we, as people, were still uncomfortable with each other. I don't think the team is hampered anymore and we should have had more players of colour in the team. There have been a lot of players performing at franchise level, good first-class cricketers, who, if they had a bit of luck, could fit in to the team. If you can find one Makhaya Ntini, you can find more. I have no doubt that they will come through, in the next five years.
Mall: I don't think that anyone can honestly say that we lost any series to any opponent due to certain black players being selected ahead of certain white payers in terms of the transformational targets which were in place.
Magiet: Absolutely not. We have never selected anybody who did not deserve to play for South Africa, especially at Test level. We have never compromised our standards. I am in favour of a target system at provincial level because only then can black players come through.
Do you think the right people are involved in administration to steer cricket in the correct direction as we move forward, and what sort of leadership must they provide?
Mali: As a former president of the ICC, I worked in a situation where we had people of the highest qualifications - accountants, auditors, doctors - all involved. CSA needs corporate expertise to operate in a business environment and they need attend courses in that regard. We also need people who will push transformation, but they cannot be like donkey-cart drivers. They have to make sure everyone understands why we do such things. They have to be consultative.
Kirsten: I am concerned with our leadership controversies. CSA president Norman Arendse resigned a few years back and our provincial leadership voted in Mtutuzli Nyoka. Two years later, they voted him out twice in the space of a year. We have a lack of feel for the kind of person we need. The calibre of executive committees is not up to scratch. Some of them lack the intellectual capacity to understand how to run a successful business. We need people with a good track record, business understanding and effective connection with their public. I want to see less protection for people who want their friends in a region.
Mall: The problem with cricket administration in this country is that we are still using amateur structures to professional multimillion rand cricket business organisations. The majority of people who serve on the board are well-meaning and dedicated servants of the game, who have come through the ranks of being club representatives, but very few of them have the training or experience to appreciate that the organisations they run are really big businesses.
Magiet: There was a time when we had very good administrators, like Ronny Pillay, Percy Sonn, SK Reddy and Krish Mackerdhuj. People have softened now. Some of them are only in the jobs for the glamour or the money. I am perturbed about the attitude and I feel we are undoing some of the hard work we did over the first few years.
Have the changing formats of cricket, especially the introduction of Twenty20, had any impact on the growth and development of cricket in South Africa?
Mali: Throughout my involvement with cricket, I think T20 has been my best achievement. I remember how we had to convince India to play it, because in 2006, they were dead against it. It is has been very good for cricket because it creates some development and everyone is interested it. Big business wants to associate with it. My vision is to move into China with it.
Kirsten: T20 has popularised the game a lot more and tackled a different section of the public because it's quick and it's exciting. Corporate business has become attracted it. It also requires a different type of skill to play. I think it does need to be quelled so that we don't lose Test cricket. Hopefully the IPL can stop luring retired players who are now just average. For example, they have abolished T20 in Border Cricket at junior level and they only play 50 or 60 overs now because previously, the kids used to only play T20 shots.
Mall: T20 has brought a whole new generation of fans to cricket, but they have come exclusively to this format, which is a worry. T20's role in being a cash generator must not be downplayed though.
Magiet: I am not a supporter of T20 but it has changed from what it was initially. First it was only skop, skiet and donder [Afrikaans words which mean: kick, shoot and punch], but now there is some finesse. It has definitely brought new players and supporters, but I don't think we should attach too much importance to it, like they do in India now. There is too much money in it. I think it will be a passing phase.
Like many countries, South Africa's domestic competitions are not well-supported or watched. What do you think is the problem with the structures - is it format-based or is there a problem with the standard, and what can be done to change that?
Mali: Kids must understand that the pinnacle is still Test cricket, and you can't just play T20. So first-class cricket is important. What we need is for marketing people to be interested in first-class cricket. The standard is good enough and we can see that because our Test team is No. 2 in the world. We should explore the option of playing the longer version of the game as day-night. That could change the support base.
Kirsten: Not many people watch first-class cricket anywhere. It's a surfeit of television. It's difficult for the players, because nobody wants to watch the four-day game. We've seen some great performances by some franchises, but there have been times over the last few years when I have questioned the standard. It may be because the national team have been away a lot, and so they don't feature domestically. Our competition can become a bit sterile at times. I think it's good that the one-day game has gone back to 50 overs.
Mall: The first-class format is still the most important format to prepare for Test cricket. Although there is little or no support at the grounds, the average cricket fan is very much aware of the progress of their respective franchise teams in the Supersport Series. Harnessing, consolidating and engaging with new generation of cricket supporters, who have access to the internet and other electronic media and follow cricket through these areas, has not even been seriously considered by our cricket administrators. There are no marketing strategies that I am aware of by our administrators to see how to at least get more cricket supporters to follow ball-by-ball cricket on the internet or to consider live radio-type commentary via internet streaming for these first-class matches. Our cricket authorities seem to have resigned themselves to let the first-class game drift on with no hype or innovative marketing strategies. The standard of first-class cricket in South Africa is as high as it has always been and does not require any tinkering.
Magiet: It is a problem everywhere, not just South Africa. We should stick to the strength versus strength franchise format we have now and also focus on a lower level where people can come through, like the new semi-professional league.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent