South African cricket development received a long-awaited boost with the announcement of an initiative to take the game to areas which are not traditionally hosts of big matches. The eKasi tournament will be played annually for the next four years between Titans and Lions in a township selected out of one of the provinces. The inaugural 50-overs fixture will take place in Mamelodi on August 23 and broadcast live on pay-channel SuperSport.
The Mamelodi Cricket Club is a historic but neglected venue that will benefit from a share of R130,000 (US$13,000) through this initiative. Both the Mamelodi and Soshanguve facilities will receive a revamp funded by ODI sponsors Momentum. The company will take a team of volunteers made up of its own staff members and Titans players, who will paint the club house and change room, re-tile the bathrooms and showers, and fix the windows on Mandela Day this Thursday.
"When we asked our staff who would be interested in this project, we received 80 replies within 10 minutes," Danie van den Bergh, head of brand at Momentum, said. "We want to do something meaningful, beyond the commercial stuff, and make a difference."
Playing professional cricket in previously disadvantaged areas has been identified by CSA as one way to promote transformation, although it has not been put into practice with any regularity. The Soweto Cricket Oval, in Johannesburg, was promoted as the most iconic of these venues and has hosted tour matches and warm-up games in the past. But it has not been used recently and was in a state of disrepair before the Gauteng Cricket Board worked to change that.
Other grounds in places like the Western Cape's Langa, Kwa-Zulu Natal Kwamashu and Eastern Cape's Motherwell, have never hosted any high-profile fixtures, despite their thriving cricket culture. "We agree that there is a too little cricket played in the townships," Naasei Appiah, CSA acting CEO said. "We know that impacts on people's access to the game. For various socio-economic reasons, it is difficult for some people to come to the stadiums we use. We want to start readdressing the problem."
The now-upgraded Soweto Oval has already made a pitch to CSA to return to the calendar for warm-up matches, which is currently under consideration. Other grounds could have the same status, depending if CSA looks to widen its net, but Appiah acknowledged they need funding and interest from relevant sectors to add to their own investment in these areas.
"Post the 2003 World Cup, we had a legacy project that saw 60 cricket fields being built in different areas, but these have not been looked after or maintained, and we have lost them to other sports," he confessed. "We need to understand what we do when [we] put a cricket field down and maybe we need to hand them over to fully fledged clubs to run them." The fields Appiah was referring to were left to the care of municipalities, which were disused during the off season, and then themselves used by other sports.
With facilities being upgraded at existing clubs, Appiah is hopeful the funding that goes into cricket in development areas bears fruit. He also accepted that will happen if CSA show sustained interest, instead of only one-off events in townships as they have done in the past. The four-year commitment the Titans and Lions have made is the start of a longer-term initiative.
Both camps are looking forward for the derby encounter which will form part of their preparation for the Champions League T20, which they are both involved in. "I played the last two years of my club cricket in Mamelodi so I know the field and place well," Rob Walter, Titans coach said. "I'm very excited that we can use the match as part of our Champions League planning. It will be our first competitive outing and we need it to build our base for twenty-over cricket. There are certain phases in a fifty-over game that are T20 specific, like the first five-overs and death overs. We will field the best side we can for the match."
Internationals like AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Morne Morkel may not make an appearance, but the Titans have promised to give the crowd some big-names to watch. They will also play a warm-up against the Cape-Town based Cobras in Mamelodi, the week after their match against the Lions.