International bodies reluctant to acknowledge improvements, 1983

South Africa: progress towards non-racial cricket

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My initial contact with South African cricket came in 1973, as a member of a strong Derrick Robins XI. The situation was illuminating: it was the first non-racial cricket tour of South Africa, and sharing a room with John Shepherd, a West Indian, gave me an insight into many questions.

In 1978 I was asked by Barclays National Bank of South Africa to spend an English winter in Johannesburg, developing and expanding their already considerable cricket coaching programme and playing in the top Johannesburg league for a non-racial club. With this becoming an annual visit I have gained an intimate knowledge by personal contact of the aspirations and problems of cricket in Johannesburg, and, by contact with the other provinces and the personalities involved, of the situation in other areas.

Two points are central to the Barclays' philosophy in cricket development. It is insisted that the scheme benefits cricketers of all races (although in prevailing circumstances the major portion of the budget is directed towards non-white cricketers) and the involvement is viewed as a long-term commitment to the establishment of cricket in areas where it has not previously thrived. Taking the population groups within South Africa, cricket in general is well established in the Asian, Coloured and white areas, but is a relatively new sport in most African areas.

Thus for people to expect that with the coming of non-racial cricket within South Africa some eight years ago, representative sides would immediately become markedly more non-white was unfounded. Few non-white cricketers were of a calibre to compete for places on merit with white players who had had would exposure for the development of their talents. It made one realise what an enigma Basil D'Oliveira was, and that his amazing example should not be held as a yardstick for the average product of non-white cricket. A goal to be achieved yes, but not the norm.

Having established the framework in which equal development and opportunity can take place, there is bound to be a lead-in period before the talent develops sufficiently for the non-white players whom the public expect to see representing South Africa, and playing at provincial level, to do so in any numbers. Initially the non-white representation has to come from the Coloured and Asian groups. Almost certainly it will be some time before an African cricketer wears a Springbok cap. Nevertheless, given time, I can see no reason why the development of African cricket should not be along the lines of South African football, which has become an African-dominated sport. It is important that the public overseas accepts this perspective and appreciates that a lot of good is being done within South African cricket and South African sport in general, even if the whole South African XI does not come from Soweto.

Within the Barclays scheme in Johannesburg, evidence of this development has been seen since 1978 with non-white cricketers gaining selection for the Transvaal Schools under fourteen, under fifteen, open-age group and the senior Transvaal B team on merit. This trend is happening throughout the country, and in the different population groups the progression is bound to continue. There has been an honest and sincere effort by the South African cricket authorities to overcome deep-seated internal problems and prejudices. They have challenged the laws of the land so that their belief in non-racial sport may be realised. It cannot be said of cricket that it is a cosmetic selection of a few talented non-white players for representative sides. It is a major commitment, and one can understand the disappointment of South African cricket representatives, who have made considerable steps forward in their sport, when international bodies seems so reluctant to acknowledge these improvements.

Within South African cricket there is a split allegiance between the South African Cricket Union, the almost universally-recognised governing body, and the more politically motivated South African Cricket Board with its predominantly Asian and Coloured membership. This causes continual internal problems, especially for the non-white cricketer. To say that either camp truly has the support of the non-white cricketer is to over-simplify a complicated issue. There is an ebb and flow between the two sides; and that such a difference of opinion exists in a country of so many population groups, with further divisions within each group, is hardly surprising. Despite their different ways of going about them, their aims are basically the same. When different personalities run the SACB set-up, the current differences may be looked back on in years to come as a passing phase. What would be hypocritical is if either side were to adopt an unyielding stance and so create what in effect would be a reverse apartheid system within the game.

Tours such as that by the English SAB XI, provided they are handled correctly, can do a great deal to further changes within South Africa. There is a valid view expressed - about the future of South Africa - that socio-economic trends and principles decree that attitudes and therefore, eventually, laws will have to change, and that commercial companies and their attitudes will have a big part to play in forming the country' s future. Why, in that case, can the same attitudes and ideas not be applied to cricket and other sports, which, to those playing them, are businesses? The idea of a cricket world split in two, comprising those with and without contacts with South Africa, is disastrous. World cricket can't afford it and South Africa would rather avoid it. But unless constructive contact is made and South Africa's advances are recognised, without threatening a rupture in the world game, there is a real danger that entrepreneurs within South Africa will successfully develop their activities.

I was once asked what I was trying to do in Johannesburg. I replied that, whether through the coaching programme or by playing club cricket, I hoped to help create a system in which everybody had an equal opportunity to play the game; and in which people could meet on equal terms afterwards, learning, through contact, more about each other. Without such contact messages are misunderstood and false images built up, either within the country itself or externally. The philosophy can be applied, I believe, at international level and can help to ensure the natural development of the game.

© John Wisden & Co