Sport and politics, those two inseparable bedfellows, collide in Ashwin Desai's book Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid. This is an uncomfortable read, especially if you regard sport as escapism. More important, this is a necessary read, especially if you want to understand the complexities of the South African game.
Desai, a sociologist by profession, digs up the dirt South Africa dumped in a shallow grave in the "giddy times" of Madiba magic, when sport was tasked as the great unifier. However, cricket (like rugby, athletics, golf, hockey, swimming, squash and badminton) was kept in the hands of an elite few, who deemed the majority of the country's population not ready to participate in those sports at a professional level.
The idea of ownership was well established in apartheid South Africa. The white population controlled access to the majority of the country's resources, on and off the field. We come upon startling statistics in the first chapter of Desai's book, which reveal that "whites had 73% of athletics tracks, 92% of golf courses, 83% of hockey fields, 84% of cricket pitches, 95% of squash courts, 80% of badminton courts, 83% of swimming baths and 82% of rugby fields".
Despite that, sports associations for people of colour existed, and tournaments were organised, often using sub-par facilities. At unity, that gap was not bridged and so the marginalisation of the majority continued.
The preface sets the tone with an anecdote about Desai and his father at Kingsmead in 1970, watching the South African team beat Australia. Desai is of Indian origin and was thus confined to the non-whites' viewing section. His father, who had lighter skin, managed to sneak into the white area to get a cup of tea, but when it discovered he was non-white, he was pushed out and jeered at. The family stayed away from the stadium for the next 23 years, when they returned for the
In that period, rebel tours were celebrated as legitimate international cricket, while the efforts of cricketers of colour were rendered invisible. Desai makes a brutal attack on sports journalism, blaming it for presenting a white picture to the world instead of a nuanced and questioning perspective on the circumstances.
Those are only the first people who come under fire in what will be seen as a scathing assessment of almost every respected name in cricket circles in South Africa. There are no sacred cows, especially not Ali Bacher. The United Cricket Board's first managing director has a chapter dedicated to him called "Bacher's backward glance". Desai accuses Bacher of some selective recounting of history, particularly in terms of the Basil D'Oliveira affair, in a book Bacher co-authored, titled Jacques Kallis and 12 Other Great South African Allrounders. Bacher's role in the rebel tours, and his transition from working in cricket during apartheid to working in cricket after unity is questioned.
The fifth chapter delves into the politics around South Africa's readmission, before two more revealing chapters that say the change was merely window-dressing: early efforts at transformation were mere lip service, and Desai provides a fascinating subplot by way of explanation, examining Makhaya Ntini closely, from his early importance to the administration as a flag-bearer, to the role Mickey Arthur played in the way his career ended.
Three-quarters of the way into the book, Desai has reached the Hansie Cronje corruption saga, which leaves him with just three chapters to deal with the 17 years since. He hurtles through Gerald Majola's leadership, but does not spare him, with a razor-sharp recollection of the bonus scandal that followed the 2009 IPL and the ignominy in which Majola left.
Just as the integrity of South African cricket seems to have been shattered, Desai ends with some hope. Recent developments regarding transformation have actually borne fruit, and although South Africa still operates in what Desai calls "uncertain times", there is more inclusiveness. The narrative runs up to Temba Bavuma's historic century at Newlands in early 2016, which made Bavuma the first black African batsman to score a hundred in Tests in for South Africa, and Desai wonders what the future will hold for a player who has become a beacon of hope.
Reverse Sweep is a reminder that cricket in South Africa has always been much more than a game. The book is unlikely to earn Desai many friends, especially in the cricket establishment, but it will win him a lot of respect.
Reverse Sweep, A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid
by Ashwin Desai
236 pages, ZAR 240