Australia in South Africa 2008-09 February 23, 2009

Aussies impressed by Soweto talent

Mike Hussey was impressed by the talent on display in the townships © Getty Images
As the Australian team bus drove through Soweto with a police escort it was easy to think back to the old cliché that cricket is just a game. But for some of the hundreds of children who flocked to a skills clinic with the Australian players in one of the poorest areas of South Africa, it might be that cricket is far more than that.

Somewhere in amongst the huge group could be the next JP Duminy or Makhaya Ntini. Only if their skills are nurtured will they have the chance to follow in the footsteps of their cricketing heroes. And judging by the pace and accuracy of some of the young fast bowlers and the keen eye of a few teenage batsmen, the raw talent is there.

"Some of these kids are bowling rockets," the Australian fast bowler Doug Bollinger said. While Brad Haddin oversaw a couple of young wicketkeepers, Michael Hussey guided an older group of teenagers through some batting techniques while Bryce McGain cast his eye over some school-aged spinners in the nets.

It's fair to say that the Bramfischerville Oval, an island of lush green tranquility amongst the red dust and shacks of Soweto, had never seen anything quite like it. Hoosain Ayob, the former first-class fast bowler, is now a development co-ordinator in the Gauteng region. He said it was difficult to keep some of the most talented children in the Soweto region interested in cricket and a visit from the Australian squad would do wonders.

"Some of these kids will remember this for the rest of their lives," Ayob said. "Even just talking to Ricky Ponting or talking to Michael Clarke or somebody of that sort can make such a big difference.

"This is where you should get the top guys to come up from time to time and nurture these kids. Sometimes we do get a chance, like Garnett Kruger for example came over to Lenasia [an Indian township south of Soweto] for a day or two and it made a big difference, a big impact."

Soweto might not be the safest place in South Africa but neither should it be portrayed as a crime-riddled township, unwelcoming to outsiders. Tourism is growing in the townships and the house in which Nelson Mandela lived is a major attraction. Still, the Australian team took no chances and was whisked in and out without seeing any more than the view from their coach windows.

It didn't matter. Making the trip was the important part. A team that has been criticised for its on-field behaviour in the past couple of years cannot be faulted for its off-field efforts. Less than a month after they brought smiles to the faces of bushfire victims in Victoria, the players were again doing their best to lift spirits.

Simon Katich donated his Man-of-the-Match prize money from the warm-up game in Potchefstroom to buy cricket gear for the local players. Haddin made the kids laugh by leading them in a handstand contest. The support staff were even being hounded for autographs. The youngest squad member, Phillip Hughes, felt a long way from home but said the important thing was to spread a bit of goodwill.

"It is definitely a long way from Macksville," Hughes said. "Soweto today and all the local guys around and all our guys have very thoroughly enjoyed today. It's been great to see the smiles on the kids' faces."

Did they unearth the next Dale Steyn or the next Ashwell Prince? "You never know," Hughes said, before remembering a three-Test series was approaching, "but hopefully not soon."

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo