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Schools give South Africa the edge

Higher standards in grassroots cricket, and warmer weather, are two vital advantages South Africa has over England

Will Hawkes

July 31, 2012

Comments: 38 | Text size: A | A

Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott look skywards, England v India, 1st Test, Lord's, 1st day, July 21, 2011
The English weather could be a factor in the slow development of cricketers in the country © Getty Images

Not all South Africans resent every run Kevin Pietersen scores against their side. "I'm very proud [of him] - every time he hits 100 I feel bloody happy for the bloke," says Mike Bechet, who taught Pietersen cricket at school. "He's gone beyond the idea of being a traitor. I just see him as a professional, the same as an accountant going to work in London. I've got no hang-ups about anyone playing for England. We'd rather they played for South Africa, but there you go."

Bechet and his fellow South Africans can afford to be magnanimous. It is no exaggeration to say that over the past half-dozen or so years, South Africans - or, to be more exact, Southern Africans - have done much to reshape and improve the English game.

That's most obvious in the role that Pietersen (for all his risible uncertainty about whether he wants to play one-day internationals) and Jonathan Trott have played in establishing England as the world's foremost Test side. And then there's Andy Flower; Bechet is probably not alone in his country in regarding England's tough-nut coach as a South African, philosophically at least. "For Andy Flower, read Southern African," he says.

This advance in Test cricket has been matched by a similar revolution in county cricket, where an influx of tough, hard-working South Africans, be they Kolpak, overseas or English-qualified, has undoubtedly raised standards. "English cricket has come a long way in the last ten or 15 years," says Surrey allrounder Zander de Bruyn, who has played extensively in both countries. "The cricket here is just as hard now as it is back home."

Among those who have done particularly well are Martin van Jaarsveld (who played for Kent under Graham Ford, when the club was jokingly referred to as Kent Free State) and Jacques Rudolph (once of Yorkshire, most recently of Surrey), both of whom were among the heaviest run scorers in the first decade of this century.

Until the Kolpak regulations were tightened, it was not unusual to find five or six South Africans in a single county team: when Leicestershire faced Northamptonshire in a 50-over game in May 2008, there were 11 South Africans on the field.

Few counties have felt short-changed. "I would think the majority of South Africans that have come to this country have given great service to county cricket," says Brian Rose, director of cricket at Somerset. "There aren't many examples of people that have gone home early, for example, or done badly. I can't think of very many at all."

A look at the England top order demonstrates how crucial schooling is, particularly for batsmen: those who didn't grow up in South Africa (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell) went to private school. They benefited from the sort of facilities that most cricket-loving youngsters can only dream of

Even now, in the post-Kolpak era, the three highest run scorers in the County Championship First Division (at the time of writing) were born in South Africa: Nick Compton, Ashwell Prince and Michael Lumb. And be in no doubt that there are still plenty of South Africans about. When Compton's club Somerset hosted Middlesex in a Championship match in April this year, seven of the 22 players had been born in South Africa. Among them was Craig Kieswetter, the South Africa Under-19-turned-England one-day-international wicketkeeper. He is the brightest star in a gaggle of young England hopefuls with links to the land of Nelson Mandela.

Anyone expecting the South African influx to end any time soon is likely to be disappointed. This also means that there have been fewer opportunities for cricketers raised in the UK. Some would say they have been hard done by, others that the standard of young cricketers in the UK is still not as high as it is in South Africa.

That's certainly the view of Rose. "Young South African cricketers seem to be two or three years advanced in both maturity and physical strength compared to people in the UK," he says. It's clear that while England has taken plenty from the Rainbow Nation, there are still lessons to be learnt about player development.

Few people have a better insight into why this might be than Bechet, the first XI coach at Maritzburg College in KwaZulu-Natal since 1993. Bechet is also a selector for the South African Schools and Under-19 sides. He knows South African youth cricket inside out - and having presided over six schools tours of England since 1993, he understands the English game pretty well too.

It is his view that England's school cricketers still aren't as tough as their South African counterparts, for all the apparent advances made in the professional game. For him, South African schools cricket is more competitive, more disciplined and - perhaps most controversially - more democratic than England's system.

"We've got a hell of a competitive school set-up here and guys go hard at each other," he says. "We've got regular inter-school competition - there's a lot at stake, there's history behind it and people keep a close eye on who's beating who. With no disrespect, because I think English cricket is in a great situation at the moment, the schools there don't seem to be as competitive."

Some might question the significance of schools cricket. Does it matter that so many English schools appear to have forgotten cricket exists, for all the good work done by Chance to Shine? Don't the clubs pick up the slack?

A look at the English top order demonstrates how crucial schooling is, particularly for batsmen: those who didn't grow up in South Africa (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell) went to private school. They benefited from the sort of facilities that most cricket-loving youngsters can only dream of.

To describe South African school cricket as democratic would be a stretch, perhaps, but it might be in a better state than England's private-school dominated scene. In South Africa, a number of state schools (Maritzburg is somewhere in between: it is part of the government system but charges some fees) can compete on a level playing field with the private schools, even given the dismal legacy of apartheid.

The English school that Bechet describes as "the yardstick of English school cricket" is, inevitably, a private one - Millfield in Somerset, where Kieswetter completed his education after he moved to England at the age of 17. Here, as in the professional game, a South African approach has reaped rewards, says Bechet.

"They're tough," says Bechet. "I think [Millfield cricket coach and former England seamer] Richard Ellison has brought a toughness to that school because he's worked in South Africa. He came out and played here a bit. I remember the first time we played them, he said, 'My boys can learn a lot from you guys. Little things, like discipline, how we all dress the same on the field.'"

Some may dismiss Bechet's words as those of a proud South African, but the results of his school's last tour to England, in 2010, bear him out: played 15, won 15. Eton were beaten by 102 runs, Wellington College by eight wickets, Millfield by 72 runs. These are scorelines that suggest Martizburg, at least, are significantly tougher than their English counterparts.

Not everyone believes the superiority of South African youngsters is all down to a culture of high-intensity competition, though. The weather plays a key role too. South Africa's warmer weather makes for better, more reliable wickets - crucial in a batsman's development. "You get a sharp eye at an early age," says Rose. "If you compare that to playing on some low wet wickets, dull wickets in England - it takes longer to develop. People are leaving school at the age of 18 in England who are still very young in nature."

Jacques Kallis plays with local school kids, London, August 27, 2008
Jacques Kallis plays with schoolkids in London during the 2008 tour © PA Photos

Seen in this light - or lack of it, in England's case - it might be that South African-raised youngsters will always be a step ahead of their England counterparts because they've played more cricket, thanks to the weather. It's a factor that de Bruyn noticed when his son was over last summer. "He always wants to be outside and playing, but when it's raining you can't really go outside," he says. "They play more in South Africa because of the weather. People get outside more."

For all that English cricket is engaged in a constant losing battle with the weather, though, it's undoubtedly true that the game at the top level has toughened up of late. Few can have failed to notice that the England players are fitter than ever and that they seem more focused than ever. The fact that it has become worthy of comment now when England field badly demonstrates the advances in professionalism that have been made.

Bechet is not alone in thinking that this toughness has come from South Africa. One player, for him, demonstrates how England has cleaned up its act. Trott has drawn frequent criticism from English observers for his ponderous, sometimes ugly approach, but even his biggest critic must admit he has an enviable desire to win.

It's a desire to win that was honed on the fields of South Africa, Bechet says. "He is a bit of a nutter. When he was at school here at Rondebosch [a boys' school in Cape Town], he was an aggressive bugger. I know that, I saw him. My teams have competed with him. He is tough, tough. I don't want to say horrible little bastard, but you know what I'm saying? He fights you to the death."

The current series will undoubtedly be defined by a similar intensity, not least because both teams are cut from the same cloth. The English, though, face another battle away from the Test arena if they are ever to be able to thrive without a helping hand from the South African school system.

Will Hawkes is a freelance journalist in England

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by CduPlessis on (August 2, 2012, 7:38 GMT)

@Sandshoe-Crusher Dale Steyn was born and bred in a small mining town in the east of SA, didn't go to an elite school, and worked his way to the top the old fashioned way, with hard work and determination to succeed!!! Considering the nature of this article, actually the antithesis of what is perceived as the way to succeed in int cricket now, he had no personal coach or even professional school coach, just a patch and a ball. I can think of only Paul Harris and now Tahir in the last 10-15 years who was born outside SA!!!

Posted by fast_gun on (August 1, 2012, 20:39 GMT)

Well it is a very interesting article. I see it as a trend not only in England, but across the world. The interest in cricket is really on a decline in South Africa too. And we will have a problem in the near future simply because we are not nursing the talent from the masses. Tully sad.

Posted by letsgoproteas on (August 1, 2012, 11:22 GMT)

I would be interested to know what the difference is between the two nations' with regards to money.

Im pretty sure England has a lot more money involved at school level. They also have a lot more players playing the game in the uk right through from school to the county teams with their systems that they have in place... Is it not just English nature now a days to lay down and die. Gone are the old "war hero's" of the past, its a nation thats just gone soft.

Posted by Robster1 on (August 1, 2012, 3:23 GMT)

Shows just how bad the state school sector is now in the UK. It's seriously expensive but all those who can do whatever possible to avoid sending their children to state schools. State school sports facilities in the UK are appalling, non-existent + the weather's terrible too.

Posted by Meety on (August 1, 2012, 1:53 GMT)

@OzzyHammond - "...England have produced some of the very best, and probably only Australia out of all the nations have produced some better ones." - PROBABLY? What was England's representation in the Cricinfo World XI (the most exhaustive analysis of it's kind)? Oz FOUR, WI - THREE, ENG - TWO! No probablys about it "Ozzy"!

Posted by Meety on (August 1, 2012, 1:28 GMT)

@landl47 - sorry mate, your comments on Saffa batsmen is not right. Saffas have quite a few batsmen in their top 10 run scorers last season, & will be well placed for batsmen & bowlers in 5 yrs time. About a yr ago I commented that something like 10 of the last 30 English test debutants were born outside of England. I agree that there are different "degrees" of being foreign (purely in terms of cricket development only), but it is a significant trend regardless.

Posted by Sandshoe-Crusher on (July 31, 2012, 23:30 GMT)

Andy Flower never played Cricket in South Africa other than when he was making 70% of the team total playing for the Zimbo's. There seem to be a lot of Zimbabwean born players that South Africa gladly calls their own......where was Dale Steyn born?

Posted by yorkshirematt on (July 31, 2012, 23:12 GMT)

@RandyOz If England stopped recruiting saffers and irish we'd be in a similar situation to the West Indies, I firmly believe that. As a cricket lover, from England, I'd love to see an competitive England side with an English born XI, but must accept that to have a successful "england" side we have to make do with a large number of players born in other countries, as our system is so weak. I see it in a similar way to supporting yorkshire. We have Ballance, Brophy, Jaques and did have Starc, all born overseas but representing the White Rose so I support them. I have to forget about the background of England's players, and accept that, somehow, they are "representing" my country. Not ideal at all really but what can we, the supporters, do to change the ECB's policy?

Posted by yorkshirematt on (July 31, 2012, 22:55 GMT)

@RandyOz You may joke about it but it does look pretty serious. Your comments hurt because they're true. All sport is dying in England, mate. The lack of talent coming through the ranks in cricket is obvious, and in our home olympics we've won only four medals so far, not one of them gold.The only sport that seems to be doing alright is soccer, but that's just because of the money poured into the game from the TV companies and the fact that it's the national sport. But even then, if you look deeper beneath the surface you'll see smaller clubs going out of business, and kids being coached the wrong way at grass roots level.

Posted by yorkshirematt on (July 31, 2012, 22:44 GMT)

Club cricket rather than schools cricket is the heart and soul of English cricket and most youngsters learn the game through playing at their local cricket club from an early age, and from there the better kids sign for counties. I would hate to see clubs lose this massively important role to an "eliteist school system". The article does make a good point about the link between private schools and English batsmen, however. It's a long held conception here that the batsmen are privately educated "toffs" and the bowlers are tough working class lads, often from "oop north". Great article though and one that's bound to create some interesting debates.

Posted by SCC08 on (July 31, 2012, 21:05 GMT)

Agreed RandyOZ.. One question though: surely the Ausi climate would be more favourable for South Africans, how long till Aus wakes up and gets some. I bowl a bit, bat in the top 6 and have regularly featured in the runs for my 2nd league pub side.. Reckon i could bar in the top 3 for Aus? Prepared to take a pay cut.

Posted by funkyandy on (July 31, 2012, 20:05 GMT)

When the Aussies were in their pomp in the 90s, I remember a story going around that they wanted to put an Australian 2nd XI into test match cricket - such was their dominance. South Africa have actually put that in practice!! And they're numbers 1 and 2 in the world!!!

Posted by Harrypom on (July 31, 2012, 19:45 GMT)

Please take care about claiming Andy Flower for South Africa.!Those of us in Zimbabwe still claim him for our own.

Posted by yorkshire-86 on (July 31, 2012, 19:03 GMT)

Cricket clubs in the UK are dying. The ECB 'schemes' and 'assistance grants' systems are throwing millions of pounds at buying clubs youth coaches, nets, bowling machines, hi-tech pavillions ect, but wont pay a penny towards the main thing that is driving thousands of cricket clubs under every year - insurance, utility bills and rent.

Posted by katoom on (July 31, 2012, 17:22 GMT)

i've gotta agree with jazman as i have seen it with my own eyes. i've been living in england for the past 8 years and there is hardly any sign of school boys playing cricket, never mind playing outdoors at home. and for jimmy phillips to say it's a sickening article.... well i'm afraid what you have just read is the truth, there is no running away from it. sad but true as the saying goes.

Posted by   on (July 31, 2012, 16:52 GMT)

My school had Gary Sobers visit (poole grammar) and every year we play against MCC.

Posted by   on (July 31, 2012, 16:16 GMT)

What a sickening article. Who would want to base their future on an elitist school system? Why not focus on CLUBS where everyone can get a go regardless of how much money their father earns?

Posted by Jazman on (July 31, 2012, 14:47 GMT)

Facilities, standard and, ultimately, sporting culture are natural products of the amount of interest in the sport - not the other way around I would think. I might be wrong, but my take is that, among the western cricketing countries only South Africa and Australia enjoy a major interest in cricket among the youth. It is basically the national summer sport of Australia, South Africa and to a lesser degree New Zealand. In England kids simply do not hold that same fascination with cricket. ...and then there is my own little theory: English kids do not have the luxury of living in big, detached houses with yards big enough for a game of back yard cricket. We used to play all the time with the neighbors' kids... One bounce one hand catches; ball over the wall/ fence is out (you fetch - mind the dog) , etc.

Posted by StoneRose on (July 31, 2012, 13:58 GMT)

Great insight, thanks for the article

Posted by CduPlessis on (July 31, 2012, 13:16 GMT)

Remember batting ave in SA is always lower due to the seam friendly conditions. So just out of the top of my head guys on the fringes are De Kock (19, mid 60s, yes I mean that, although he has played only 15 odd games) Riley Rossouw (22, ave mid 40s), Pienaar (22, low 40s) Dean Elgar (25, high 40s), JJ Smuts (23 almost 40), S van Zyl (24 Low 40s), Harmer (23, mid 30s with the bat, high 20s with ball) and then bowlers like Parnell, Theron, Alexander (below 30), Richards (bowl ave below 20), Shezi, Abbott (young bowlers with ave in the 20s) etc etc etc I dont see how this means we are going to struggle in 5, or really even 10 years, with this talent and others to come through we will be top 3 till the end of the decade but whatever landl47... In SA some schools have great facilities, I think Ken Rutherford said somewhere during the 1990s Red Hill school in Joburg, whose not really well known for cricket, had better training facilities than the NZ national team, thats what makes the diff

Posted by RandyOZ on (July 31, 2012, 11:41 GMT)

The 'new wave' as they are calling it, has already creeped its way into the English team, and now it's not just batsmen. Compton, Kieswetter, Meaker, Dernbach, the list goes on. It's embarassing that the ICC's weak laws have been allowed to prop England up for so long.

Posted by RandyOZ on (July 31, 2012, 11:39 GMT)

The lack of depth in England is getting worse, hence why they have even now moved on to poaching Irish. With no good spinners coming through Dockerill looks like the next United XI spinner.

Posted by RandyOZ on (July 31, 2012, 11:31 GMT)

The article is pretty obvious, and so is the conclusion: cricket is dying, if not already dead, in England.

Posted by   on (July 31, 2012, 11:23 GMT)

not to mention rugby as well. that is why england always get klapped by the boks!

Posted by jabrankundi on (July 31, 2012, 11:15 GMT)

@Hammond, Since readmission, England has never come close to being as competitive as SA. SA has always been a tough team which is why they go into every tournament as favorites. When was the last time England went into a tournament as favorites?

Posted by Geeva on (July 31, 2012, 11:14 GMT)

To be honest i think both SA and Eng are not advancing the game to the mass of the populations. more schools need to play cricket give the facilities.I grew up in the 90's middle class indian area in Cape Town,we didnt have green parks we played cricket on the road,the 1st time i saw a cricket wicket was when i started my high school at Plumstead High(Paul Adams and JP Duminy are past pupils)!So there is interest in cricket give the facilities and u will find talent throughout the cricketing test nations!!

Posted by pops2 on (July 31, 2012, 11:08 GMT)

In most centres, model C schools in SA all played cricket in the pre-democratic era. Since democracy, those previous exclusively white schools became exclusively black schools, and now for the very most part those cricket fields have goal posts... and even then there is minimal football being played. The bottom line is parents will choose which sport they wish their child to excel in and then pick a private school that fist the bill.

Posted by proteaboytjie on (July 31, 2012, 11:03 GMT)

How will england be better in 5 years @ landl47,@poodie if your coaching system is messed up? example- I played club cricket in UK in 2008 but before I could go I needed a level 1 CSA certificate just to find out later that my level 1 is a level 2 in the UK...how does that work? for a country where cricket was born that is pretty poor...@ hammond, you boast about history but even the aussie greats said that if it was not for appartheid SA wouldve been on the fore front of test cricket many years ago...basil D'oliviera is one of our greats but because of apartheid left and played for england. even history shows that we produce better players.

Posted by Hammond on (July 31, 2012, 10:32 GMT)

@Tim O'Connor- you are kidding. England have produced some of the very best, and probably only Australia out of all the nations have produced some better ones. England has been a more successful test playing nation than South Africa by a considerable distance. Read up on your cricket history before sprouting nonsense.

Posted by   on (July 31, 2012, 10:09 GMT)

In 5 years time, SA will be struggling and England will be doing just fine.?????

Not sure why people keep saying this. SA have produced better players since forever.

Posted by proteaboytjie on (July 31, 2012, 10:00 GMT)

@geeva, I also recide in Cape Town and I am involved in both club cricket(as a Player) and school cricket as a coach and I must agree that you are right, western cape has the biggest cricketing community in SA and if you are not at a good school chances are that you wont get into a provincial setup. the other problem is that alot of the areas are seen as "disadvantaged" but no effort is made to reach out to those kids. I live in somerset west and the children at those schools whether it be private or public schools never get to play provincial cricket, nomatter how good they are and its mainly because, they live too far from town or the name of the school has no significance like a SACS or BISHOPS. its a pitty because we lose our talent to other provinces or to the UK when they are older.

Posted by RossDSA on (July 31, 2012, 9:06 GMT)

@landl47: If there are currently no promising young South African batsmen how did our u19's beat your U19's in England so easily? http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/492514.html

As for your spinner argument you make it sound like England has been churning out world class spinners for years. Can you name a decent English spinner in the last 15 years apart from Swann?

Posted by Poodie on (July 31, 2012, 8:57 GMT)

@landl47 - Are you bieng serious or is that a wind-up? It sounds like a well rehersed arguement to me. Its hard to pick up a paper without seeing a county game where somebody with an Afrikaans surname has scored a hundred. County and english cricket has definitly improved with the influx of south african players. However most of them are here as part of a slow exodus of ex-pats from SA looking for a better life or career elsewhere. And for that reason, in 5-10 years time, yes SA probably will be battling and England wil be fine.

On a separate note, just because England lost the first Test, there is no need for a thorough examination on "Why south african conditions produce better cricketers". England are world No1 and I'm sure they'll play like it eventually.

Posted by Nuxxy on (July 31, 2012, 8:26 GMT)

The other commonality between the two countries is the struggle cricket has to reach the masses, where football dominates. Geeva is quite right in stating that there are no black cricketers who come from a township. But part of that is because they aren't interested in cricket. Rugby is followed more closely than cricket. For those wondering, Ntini came from a rural area and got a bursary to a good school. The closest to a township player is a few of the coloured players, who have grown up in poorer areas.

Posted by Nduru on (July 31, 2012, 8:11 GMT)

I have to agree with @Geeva. Cricket in SA is still hugely elitist. Only a handful (that is being generous) of black African players produced since 1994! And not a single test (or even first class) quality black batsman! Those schools that are producing cricketers are very elitist. You can't say that because Rondebosch Boys or other not quite private schools are able to compete with Bishops, that the sport is reaching widely. Yes, middle class (so-called) coloured schools have produced, but the 'toughness' is all very much part of the white empire building culture that exists at the 'top' schools. And one more thing. Andy Flower is a product of the Zimbabwean cricketing system regardless of the fact that he was born in Cape Town. And he went to very modest government school in Harare, not a top private school!

Posted by   on (July 31, 2012, 8:06 GMT)

@landl47 In 5 years time, SA will be struggling and England wll be doing just fine. England are struggling now, its hard to see how they can be doing just fine 5yrs from now.

Posted by Geeva on (July 31, 2012, 5:42 GMT)

I would disagree that the SA schools cricket is democratic!!I am from Cape Town and we have elite cricket schools eg Bishops,Rondebosch,SACS,Wynberg on par with private english school with full tym professional coaches.These schools are pretty much upper class!

Note SA since readmission still has not produced a black batsmen!your writer talks about english private schools tawt batting to strauss,bell and cook.!Black kids in townships dont have access to facilities!!

Posted by landl47 on (July 31, 2012, 4:57 GMT)

As so often with articles like this, a nugget of truth is stretched into a generalization. The fact is that if you look at the young players (under 25, say) in each country, there are significantly more good young players born in Engand than born in South Africa at the moment. Yes, Trott and Pietersen learned their cricket in SA and Kieswetter played some schools cricket there, but Strauss and Prior played all their cricket here, as did Meaker and Dernbach. Meaker and Kieswetter are the only SA-born players in the Lions squad; the rest of the bowlers were born in England and none of the batsmen are South African. In fact, it's hard to come up with a really promising young South African-born batsman in either England or South Africa. As for spinners, the last decent SA-born spinner was Toey Tayfield! Suggesting that England cannot thrive without help from the SA school system is, quite frankly, nonsense. In 5 years time, SA will be struggling and England wll be doing just fine.

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