He was a young man, but he was a man of the old South Africa and thus burdened wherever he went. Despite his few years, he had already lugged this load to many places in the name of cricket. It would shadow him to many more, often in the name of the new South Africa.

Some of those places had magical names: The Lawn in Waringstown in Antrim, Henry Thow Oval in Prestwick, People's Park in Aberdeen, Boghall in Linlithgow, Bothwell Castle in Uddingston, Chedwin Park in Spanish Town, Jamaica, St Mary's Railway Club Ground in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and Ntselamanzi - the Xhosa for "Place of Water" - in Alice in the Eastern Cape, a ground that aches with black cricket history as the river that runs past it aches with loveliness.

And yet, after all that travel and all that experience of other people, places and cultures, and the fact that he had magic in his middle name of Raxham, his mind had remained about as broad as the blade of a bat is thick, and about as thick with ugly ignorance as the longest boundary in all of cricket is long.

"Ag, that Ali Bacher," he said one summery day during the 1990s as he sat with his team-mates under the grapevine that made a splendid canopy for the players' area at another lovely ground past which a river ran, The Feathers in East London, when the conversation turned to politics and sport and all that.

"He's just a kaffir lover."

The man he spoke of had captained South Africa's all-white Test XI in 1970, had as an administrator become known - the jury's still out on how accurately or not - as the man with the false-bottomed briefcase hiding Krugerrands to pay teams to come to South Africa when the world was telling them to stay away.

Bacher saw the light amid the turmoil sparked during what became of the last of those detested ventures, led by England's Mike Gatting, in 1990, and turned against rebel tours to become managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, a structure that outwardly at least was racially unified.

"Why don't South Africa simply pick their best team and get on with it? Because, thanks to the inequities of the past, we have no clue who our best players are or where to find them"

It was in that guise that Bacher made an impact on the life of our young man of the old South Africa. Without what Bacher himself still calls his "Damascus Road experience", his hard work to undo the damage he had helped do, his obsession with cutting a new, non-racial path for cricket in this country, South Africans of Raxham's era would never have known the happiness of travelling far and wide to play the game of the colonists and the colonised under the national flag.

And yet there he was, spewing stupid racism under a grapevine on a summery afternoon spent at a cricket ground within earshot of a rippling river. Talk about a black fly in your chardonnay.

Was this an isolated view? The nods that echoed Raxham's opinion said it was not. When an observer present made the point that the reason Raxham had been able to play abroad as part of teams representing South Africa was because of the efforts of people like Bacher and those who forced him to change his ways and, with that, nothing less than the course of the game itself in this country, the nodding stopped and a cold silence descended.

Yes, they really believed cricket was theirs to do with as they pleased, part of the privilege they took as a birthright. Yes, they really could not - or would not - understand that the society that had raised them had been divided along fault-lines placed with evil intent that had to be mended if they had any prospect of a worthwhile future in the wider world. CLR James had it damn straight: what the hell do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

Even as these truths revealed themselves at this sorry scene, not quite 75 miles away at Ntselamanzi, cricket was being played as it had been for a century and more by people who Raxham and his ilk would count as being loved by Ali Bacher.

The ground snuggles in the valley bequeathed by seven surrounding hills, each of them crowned by a hamlet and each of those in turn represented on the field by a club whose members speak, quite earnestly, not of playing cricket but of "defending the village".

Ntselamanzi is far from unusual in the region. From Masingata to Middledrift to Keiskammahoek to Collywobbles - yes, Collywobbles - teams comprised entirely of black African people have been playing cricket for a long time and nurturing traditions like that of the Amacal' eGusha (Sides of a Sheep), tournaments played every December in which the winners are awarded a sheep that is promptly slaughtered, barbecued and shared.

Somewhere in his warped consciousness Raxham knew this to be true, or had at least heard of these crazy black bastards who thought they could play cricket. Not for a nanosecond did he stop and think that the game in South Africa would be richer and stronger if due respect was given to all who held it dear. That kind of notion was for people like Bacher, and Raxham was a fighter - not a lover.

But, you say, that was 20 years and more ago. Since then we've seen Makhaya Ntini cut a shining patch through all that prejudice. And now Kagiso Rabada is proving he belongs. To say nothing of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander. Can we say that race remains an issue in South African cricket?

A convincing answer to that question fluttered into public view in November when a group of black African players wrote to Cricket South Africa (CSA) asking why left-arm spinner Aaron Phangiso was the only member of the country's 2015 World Cup squad not to play a game at the tournament. Phangiso was also the only black African member of the squad. They asked why Dean Elgar was flown out from South Africa and preferred to Khaya Zondo when JP Duminy's hand injury took him out of the last two one-day internationals in India in October despite the fact that Zondo was already in the squad and Elgar is no one's idea of a one-day batsman. Zondo was also in the T20 squad, and warmed the bench throughout that series.

"In the division between the haves and the have-nots of this country, cricket is snuggled firmly into the bosom of the haves"

Black Africans don't struggle to get past the box-ticking exercise that squad selection can be, but they are significantly less likely to be named in the XI. Since South Africa's return to the Test arena in 1992, they have capped 87 players (midway through their series against India, at any rate). Sixty-four of those have been white in a team that is marketed as representing a country whose population is 79.2% black African.

Why don't South Africa simply pick their best team and get on with it? Because, thanks to the inequities of the past, which remain central to modern South Africa, we have no clue who our best players are or where to find them. Our best black players, that is. White players still enjoy significantly easier access to good schools and with that good coaching, and from there the professional ranks. They are at centre stage, while most black players are tucked away in the wings.

Why does it matter what colour players are? Because, in South Africa, it has always mattered - for centuries it mattered enough to deny players who were anything but white places in teams, and that was among the least of apartheid's dehumanising subjugation. It matters now more than ever because the world thinks South Africa is a democratic model for society when it is not. Instead, it is by some measures the most unequal society on earth. And, in the division between the haves and the have-nots of this country, cricket is snuggled firmly into the bosom of the haves.

At least, it is in terms of big cricket; the stuff that gets written about in newspapers, magazines and online and blathered about on television, that attracts millions in sponsorship and draws vast crowds. But the heart of South African cricket refuses to beat inside the confines of that cage.

Many who call themselves cricket people have been born into the game in some way. If they didn't play it at some level, their fathers or brothers or partners did, or turned to the back pages of the paper first in summer, and the bond was formed. It is not easily broken, even if interest dwindles to checking the score now and again. Others have been attracted by the success of the South African team since, in effect, 1970.

They are all part of a game that, in South Africa, is not what it is in England, where it is a proud part of the national narrative, or Australia, where it is an expression of excellence and ego, or India, where it is an obsession that heeds no boundaries.

Cricket does not loom as large in the South African national consciousness as football - nothing does - but it is the country's second most popular sport. That's right: cricket is bigger than rugby.

It is also, despite the lingering stink in its ranks of people like Raxham, the most unifying of South Africa's major sports at the elite level. As big football is regarded as pretty much a black game so big rugby is seen as pretty much a white game, and that's despite significant anomalies. Neil Tovey was the captain who raised the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 and Dean Furman has also led them, while Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira is a pillar of the Springbok team.

But we know where in the sand these lines are drawn. Ask a white South African which football team they support and they are entirely likely to reply Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool. Ask the same question of black South Africans and you will hear answers like "Kaizer Chiefs and Arsenal".

Cricket, of course, doesn't work like that. Teams win matches and series but it is individuals who win hearts and minds. And there is no individual who wins more hearts and minds of all races in South African cricket (in cricket anywhere?) than AB de Villiers, Superman in pads himself.

"I am not a nice guy on the field," de Villiers said during South Africa's Test series in India. "I want to win games so I will do whatever it takes for us to win games. If I have to sledge, I will get involved like that. I will try and intimidate a player if I have to. I will try and get Virat [Kohli] off his game by talking about his technique and little flaws. I don't mind doing things like that, whatever it takes to win games.

"I am not a nice guy on the field and I have never really respected a guy that's been a nice guy on the field. I want the opposition to be hard and to play to win the game for their team.

"Off the field I try to be a good human being. It goes a lot deeper than that; it's got nothing to do with cricket. I know my role in the side and that's to win games of cricket and a lot of times I don't have to be a nice guy to do that."

De Villiers is an Afrikaner, so English is his second language. But seldom, if ever, has the South African way of cricket been so accurately captured. Better yet, de Villiers puts his bat where his mouth is in a way that, if he were less successful at it, would be demeaned as un-South African.

Not that he flaunts his superpowers only when he pops out of a phone booth in a cape and underwear as outerwear. Quite the opposite: that de Villiers emerges from all that as good old Clark Kent, or in his case Clark van Kent, is his most magic touch.

All that talent and all that skill and all that audacity, and he is still that bloke you met at your mate's braai the other weekend. What was his name again? Not Raxham.

De Villiers is at once a throwback to the days when cricketers were people, and a throwforward to the days when the game will be played by cyborgs. Similarly, maybe South African cricket has come a long way and maybe it hasn't. Just as time seems to stop for de Villiers, it's difficult to tell from inside the bubble.

May it never pop.

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