From township to centre stage
If Francis Nkuna or the Mokonyama brothers, Ephraim and James, head to Mamelodi Cricket Club on Friday, August 23, they may not believe their eyes. The humble pitch they once played on will be the stage for a match between Titans and Lions.
In a bid to take the sport to the people, the two franchises will contest the first eKasi (Xhosa for "township") Cup - a one-off match between the two teams, scheduled for every year for the next four years, to be hosted by previously underprivileged residential areas in the Pretoria and Johannesburg regions. In the lead-up to the match, the facilities of the townships will also be upgraded.
When Nkuna and the Mokonyamas played, as recently as five years ago, a venture like this would only have been a dream. So would the thought of being written about in the cricket media have been.
Most cricket fans have not heard of Nkuna or the Mokonyamas but they are among Mamelodi's proudest products, and their stories belong to South African cricket across colour lines.
Club cricket has thrived in various communities and Mamelodi, 20km east of Pretoria, is one example. Cricket had always been played by children on Mamelodi's dirt roads, but it became a more formalised game in 1987. The concept of Bakers mini-cricket - a soft-ball version developed to bring the game to schoolchildren - had been born five years earlier and, with talk of sporting unity in the air, the project rolled out in 1986. Mamelodi was among the first to sign on and its youngsters were early beneficiaries.
They played in games on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons, but it was only when they graduated from primary school and were no longer eligible to participate in the soft-ball games that the community decided to start a club.
The Mamelodi Cricket Club was formed in 1993 on an unusual site.
"We didn't have anywhere to locate the club in the beginning, so we asked the municipality if we could turn the rubbish dump into a cricket facility," Edward Khoza, one of the founding members of the club, who is currently the manager of current operations at Titans, said. "It wasn't a very safe area around the dump either. A lot of people would get mugged there and there were gangs, but there was no other place."
The city of Pretoria (now Tshwane), the Northerns Cricket Union and Mamelodi worked together to clear the land, plant grass, and place a concrete pitch in its centre.
Ephraim Mokonyama was one of the first to play on that field when Mamelodi joined the lower leagues of the Northerns set-up. He went on to play one first-class match for Northerns, and given the challenges facing Mamelodi in terms of infrastructure and equipment, it was an achievement to treasure. "We relied heavily on Northerns to subsidise us with bats, balls, pads, all those things," Khoza said. "The guys had to share all of that because that was the only way."
Despite their difficulties, Mamelodi played a competitive brand of cricket and in 1999 were promoted to the premier league as Northerns sought to transform the top division. They were the only black African club to play at that level, and expected to be met with hostility.
"When we went to our first match at Sinoville Cricket Club, there was a lot of talk that we were not good enough and we shouldn't be playing," Khoza said. "We lost the toss and got put in to bat. It was a new situation for us. I don't know whether it was nerves or whatever but we were bowled out for 48 and we knew people would believe those things about us not being suited to this game.
"And then..." Khoza paused for effect, "... and then we bowled them out for 45." His satisfaction, nearly 14 years after that day, is obvious from the way he laughs. "That gave us hope, that one match, it gave us hope that we belonged."
But things didn't remain that easy, since Mamelodi mostly battled against clubs who had much more than them. Then they got some unexpected assistance via a sponsorship from Slazenger through Mark Webber, who was involved with the bat company. Along with his friend Rob Walter, the Titans coach, who has also worked for long as the fielding coach and fitness trainer for the South African team, Webber decided to play for the club.
Walter said he joined to make a difference. "I really loved my time there, everyone was passionate. The groundsman, Moses, for example, we used to call him Keith Kirsten [South Africa's most renowned horticulturist], because he took such good care of the outfield. The guys had a real pride in competing. I suppose my one regret was that we didn't win more games."
Walter's most vivid memory of the difference between what Mamelodi had and what was available to players from more privileged backgrounds is of the "two shacks" - corrugated iron structures that served as dressing rooms. Walter was struck by how basic they were. "But it was what those guys had to be proud of."
The club took care to ensure the dressing rooms did not deteriorate the way those in other fields in similar areas had. Cricket South Africa recently reported that most of the 90 fields built as part of the 2003 World Cup legacy project have fallen into disrepair or been taken over by other sports. This often happens when grounds are left to the care of city councils instead of being handed over to an established club. When a ground is used for football in the winter, it can be difficult to turn it back into a cricket facility during summer.
Mamelodi escaped such a fate because it looked after its own ground, but the club is careful not to treat it as exclusive. "If you start to chase people away, you chase away your own security. The minute you start locking doors, people think you are hiding something valuable and they want to get it," Khoza said.
"We let people use it. At the moment, we have an exercise initiative started for elderly ladies who come and train in the mornings. We have other classes as well and they have respected our instruction to avoid the square. By building that relationship, we also get them interested in the club and in our cricket. They want to come and see our players."
One such player was Nkuna, who, Khoza said, was the club's biggest star. "In the space of one year, he went from being an Under-16 player to being chosen for the South African U-19 side." Nkuna was among the national academy intake in 2005, along with Faf du Plessis, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, and Aaron Phangiso, who also played at Mamelodi later in his career.
Khoza is certain Nkuna would have gone on to play for South Africa, had repeated stress fractures to the back not ended his career early. These days Nkuna coaches at a high school in Johannesburg. He would like to see more players from the club go on to work in Mamelodi, but for that he'd like to establish a high-school league in the township, which already has a primary-school competition.
For all his plans, Khoza needs money, and Mamelodi are constantly looking for new ways to make it. So far their most profitable venture is through Titans, who give the top six clubs in the region access to a suite at a reduced rate for an entire season. "We sell tickets to the suite, and although we have to give some proceeds of the tickets to the Titans, it's a good opportunity to make money for the club," Khoza explained. "We could make anything between R4000 [US$400] and R250,000 [$25,000] in a season and we can use that for equipment, for our clubs, anything."
Hosting the inaugural eKasi match is another way for Mamelodi to grab the spotlight. The match will be screened live on television, albeit via a pay service, which reaches far fewer people, but Khoza said the club received a lot of offers for sponsorship because of it. Mamelodi also benefitted from a R100,000 ($10,000) upgrade from eKasi sponsors Momentum, who oversaw a Nelson Mandela initiative to refurbish parts of the ground.
Titans' players also got involved, conducting a coaching clinic with local kids and repainting the facility. What they left standing as it was is the concrete structure, built by the players themselves in the last decade, that has served as their clubhouse. It is a reminder of how tough things once were and how hard they had to work to keep cricket thriving in this township.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent