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Sue de Groot

Saffers and Englishmen: a love story

What happens when you put South Africans and their former colonisers together?

Sue de Groot

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Kevin Pietersen stretches during England's training session, Port Elizabeth, November 28, 2009
Pietersen: disputed property © Getty Images
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Series/Tournaments: England tour of South Africa

It can be hard to reconcile being a pacifist with liking ball games. This is why I prefer cricket to, say, hurling or basketball. Where other sports are a thinly veiled substitute for war (in the case of contact sports like rugby and darts, not even veiled), cricket is a gentle, unifying sort of pursuit played by civilised nations. The players, by and large, respect each other's freedoms and the rules of engagement. And the fans, mostly, reflect this spirit of honour.

Except when South Africa is playing England. In the last few weeks I have watched mild-mannered men - educated men who make it to work and back each day without succumbing to the road rage that chokes Johannesburg's streets, family men who never beat their children or dogs, men who believe in the rule of law and the Geneva Convention - turn into purple-faced, pop-eyed louts, screaming murderous threats that would make their tax advisors turn pale. If the English players could hear some of this, they'd turn tail and trott back home.

South African cricket fans can watch our team get beaten by Bangalore and still have a good time, yet as soon as we play England, even if we win, these formerly gentle, non-judgmental spectators turn into frothing monsters. Why this rivalry? Is it because the English got the best out of Kevin Pietersen? Or because they make nicer beer than we do?

A friend suggested that it stems from old scars; that the animosity goes way back to when the English were wearing red coats (making them excellent targets) at the battle of Isandhlwana in 1879.

I was confused. "The British lost at Isandhlwana," I pointed out. "The Zulu warriors obliterated them."

"Exactly," said my friend. "But they just kept coming back, didn't they?"

Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is some lingering resentment felt around the world by former colonies who can't understand how England came to be in charge of them despite suffering a whole string of military defeats. But very few modern-day cricket fans in South Africa remember being ruled by the Empire. Most of them enjoy weather reports, fried breakfasts and Monty Python, all things that, you'd think, would make us grateful to the English. Yet all these are forgotten when it comes to cricket (something else the British gave us).

 
 
Perhaps South Africans resent antipodeans because Mike Haysman won the heart of the prettiest Miss South Africa we've ever had and got her to marry him
 

If the rivalry between actual players is bad, the verbal shrapnel that flies between the encamped fans of each side is worse. Watching on television, you can feel the tension in the room thicken the minute the camera swings to the Barmy Army section of the field.

And this, I think, is the cause of it all. Our inferiority complex stems not from the fact that we once had to sing "God Save the Queen", nor from knowing that we will never be able to field a team with as many funny sounding names in it as the English, nor does it have anything to do with their prodigious skill as sportsmen. It's about their fans: they can drink more and shout louder and be more badly behaved than we can, and that's just wrong.

There is, however, one occasion when Barmy Army (we also hate that they have a name and we don't) and South African fans are united, and that's during the Ashes, because if there's any team South Africans despise more than the English, it's the Australians.

This makes even less sense: you'd think the two youngish nations would be united against their former ancient occupier. Not so. Just ask Shane Warne. Allegedly he was afraid to venture anywhere alone in South Africa and insisted on always having a protective phalanx of Twenty20 cheerleaders surrounding him.

Perhaps South Africans resent antipodeans because Mike Haysman won the heart of the prettiest Miss South Africa we've ever had and got her to marry him, or perhaps it's because of the eucalyptus and Port Jackson seeds that they furtively emptied from their pockets and that now proliferate, sucking all the scarce water from our less hardy indigenous flora, or perhaps it's because their actors have won more Oscars than ours have.

I don't know. Maybe we just hate islands.

RSS FeedSue de Groot is a Johannesburg-based journalist, columnist and television scriptwriter

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Sue de Groot is a Johannesburg-based journalist, columnist and television scriptwriter. Formerly managing editor of men's magazine Directions, features writer for Femina and assistant editor of Cosmopolitan, she is now features editor of Food & Home Entertaining. She wrote the "Wicket Maiden" column for the Wisden Cricketer SA until that magazine's sad demise, and tries to restrict herself to writing about life's six highest pleasures: food, gardening, books, films, cats and cricket.

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Sue de Groot Sue de Groot is a Johannesburg-based journalist, columnist and television scriptwriter. Formerly managing editor of men's magazine Directions, features writer for Femina and assistant editor of Cosmopolitan, she is now features editor of Food & Home Entertaining. She wrote the "Wicket Maiden" column for the Wisden Cricketer SA until that magazine's sad demise, and tries to restrict herself to writing about life's six highest pleasures: food, gardening, books, films, cats and cricket.
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