If the personal is political then the playing field is even more so, especially in South Africa. This is a country where sport and public policy have always gone in hand in hand, where race and class, rather than access and ability, open the doors to professional teams, and where selection has never been simple or purely about merit.
That's right, never. Not even at the beginning.
When South Africa played their first Test, in March 1889, one William Milton was part of the XI. Milton was a former England rugby player and also head of the Western Province Cricket Union. A year later he became head of the Prime Minister's Department for Cecil Rhodes. From its outset, cricket in the Cape was politicised, with Milton using his influence to organise English tours to South Africa, and to promote the game in the country, according to his standards.
When South Africa played their most recent Test, in January 2020, Temba Bavuma was part of the XI. Bavuma is the only black African batsman to have played Test cricket for South Africa, and the only person from the country's largest demographic who played in that Test. That meant South Africa fell behind on their transformation target - they are required to field, on average over the course of a season, a minimum of six players of colour, of whom two must be black African. This makes selection in some instances a colour-by-numbers game, with questions raised over the integrity of the process. Perhaps those questions should always have been asked.
By the time South Africa played their third Test, in 1892, Milton was a political and sporting hotshot. Rhodes' private secretary at the time, he was also captain of the country's cricket team. He was responsible for organising England's 1891-92 tour to South Africa, whose success hinged on ensuring the hosts provided a competitive enough team to take on their visitors, and provided the gamblers with content to hedge their bets on. On that score, he failed. South Africa were defeated by an innings and 189 runs.
But the tourists were challenged later in the month. A Malay team, made up of players from the Cape coloured community, played against the English in an additional fixture. Malay slaves, and rebels and outcasts from the region, had been brought to South Africa from South East Asia by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th century. They brought Islam to the country and formed strong ties with other exiles from Madagascar, East Africa and Brazil, who were also dumped in the Cape by the Dutch. Though the Malays lost the match, they put up more of a fight, and one of them made much more of an impression than any of the South African national players.
William Henry "Krom" Hendricks, described by George Hearne as the "fastest bowler in South Africa," kept the Malay team in the game. Hearne captained the English side in the match against the Malays, and his only Test was the one in Cape Town earlier in 1892; his brother Frank played in that match for England, interestingly enough. It did not go unnoticed that the South African national side had lost because they lacked a strike bowler. Hendricks obviously had the potential to fill that gap, but he never played for South Africa.
Little was known about Hendricks until now, with the publication of Too Black to Wear Whites , written by Jonty Winch and Richard Parry, who have pieced together the social history of cricket in the Cape, mostly through newspaper reports. They found reports of the game among coloured communities from the 1870s, and reference the first Malay inter-town tournament in 1890. The matches took place at Newlands, which at that point was leased to the Western Province Cricket Club, who allowed it to be used by Malays because they brought with them an estimated 5000 spectators and substantial amounts in gate receipts. So much for the later narrative that people of colour are not interested in cricket. Winch and Parry paint a picture of a vibrant and engaged cricket community, of which Hendricks was a part.
The man himself is something of a mystery. Nobody knows why he had the nickname Krom, or exactly where he traces his ancestry to (Hendricks himself claimed that his mother was from the island of St Helena and his father was Dutch and early stories about him confused him for another Hendricks, Armien). There were no photographs of him that could be used in the book; the illustration above was created by an artist, Bella Forsyth, off a tiny picture from the 1930s which showed Hendricks in his early seventies standing next to his grandson.
What is clear is that Hendricks was an immensely talented bowler and that he impressed many who came across him. Apart from Hearne, Hendricks also impressed the heads of the Transvaal and Free State cricket unions and the journalist Harry Cadwallader, all of whom advocated for his inclusion in the South African side that was due to tour England in 1894.
Cadwallader was also the secretary of the South African Cricket Association, in charge of the 1894 trip. He wanted both Hendrickses (Krom and Armien) and Ebrahim Ariefdien, all bowlers, to be part of the group that travelled to England. He had the support of the diamond tycoon Abe Bailey, who was also a cricketer, and who was more interested in ensuring South Africa were strong on the field than on insisting they were white. Ironically, the same argument is often used today against transformation, and it appears race and performance have always been regarded as mutually exclusive.
Cadwallader's good intentions took on a different light when, in an article publicly supporting Hendricks' inclusion, he wrote that Hendricks would travel as both a player and a baggage handler. Hendricks objected to that idea in a letter written to the Cape Times the next day. "I would state that if chosen, I would not think of going in that capacity," he wrote.
Interestingly, Hendricks argued his place in the team on the basis of race. He questioned why he was regarded as being of colour. "I must disclaim any connection with the Malay community," he wrote. Hendricks referenced his father's birth to Dutch parents and his mother's heritage in St Helena (an island in the South Atlantic Ocean best known for being the place of Napoleon's death, where people are generally dark-skinned) as evidence that he was not Malay, and though he did not ask to be considered white, the implication was clear.
Rhodes was aware of the issue, and was against Hendricks touring on racial grounds. He is reported to have said, "They would have expected him to throw boomerangs during the luncheon interval." Through Milton, Rhodes was able to block Hendricks' selection, even when Hendricks turned around and sought Cadwallader's help in being included. Cadwallader wrote a subsequent letter to the Cape Times claiming Hendricks would be "pleased to go to England if required, on certain low terms for services rendered and would not for a moment expect to be classed with the rest of the team".
So began a long and desperately sad period in Hendricks' life, in which he grappled with his own identity. He tried several times to petition to play for white clubs and failed. He wrote numerous letters to newspapers to make his case. These were meticulously unearthed by the authors of this book, including one from as late as 1904, when he was 47 years old. Then, he applied to play senior cricket for Milton's Western Province Cricket Club and argued that he was European, based on his father's bloodline. His request was denied, on the basis of race. Instead, Hendricks continued to play among the coloured community, had 11 children and 40 grandchildren (one of whom went on to play football for Liverpool) and is barely celebrated among South Africa's cricket greats.
Milton, on the other hand, has a legacy that lives on. The first state high school in Bulawayo is named after him. It has produced 17 first-class cricketers, 14 of whom are non-white, and also Hendrik Verwoerd, who went on to become prime minister of South Africa and is known as the architect of apartheid. Under Verwoerd, South Africa's racial segregation become entrenched, and sport, like all other areas of life had to fall in line with that.
There were no further suggestions of white and black players competing with or against each other at national level. South Africa's national teams were all-white, and black players formed their own unions and tournaments, initially in separate race groupings and then collectively under the South African Cricket Board of Control. In 1991, the white and black boards were unified and South Africa, pre-democracy, re-entered the international sporting arena. They are a year short of three decades into this new era and selection is still politicised, with a government-imposed target system in place to address the pace of change. Apart from Bavuma, only eight other black Africans have played Test cricket out of a total of 110 post-readmission players. The discussion around transformation is ever present.
In women's cricket worldwide, the last five years have marked a significant change, culminating in February's record crowd at the T20 World Cup final. In South Africa, women have been professional since 2014. They were the first South African senior team to have a black African head coach, and they are more demographically representative than the men's team. It's difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for this other than that, typically, the women's game is not steeped in the same traditions as the men's. Players are not produced by a small number of elite schools, which might have allowed the women's game to diversify. Instead, there are other issues, not least of which is remuneration, as women seek to close the gender pay gap. And so, even as we move through some of the politics on the playing field, others remain deeply personal.
Too Black to Wear Whites: The Remarkable Story of Krom Hendricks, a Cricket Hero who was Rejected by Cecil John Rhodes' Empire
Jonty Winch and Richard Parry
Penguin Random House
255 pages, R260