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Ashwell Prince on being a player of colour in the South Africa team: 'It was a lonely place'

"A person knows when they are welcome, and you know when you are unwelcome"

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
'I regarded my career as a war. I would lose small battles in the war but I was going to be there for the duration' - Ashwell Prince  •  Getty Images

'I regarded my career as a war. I would lose small battles in the war but I was going to be there for the duration' - Ashwell Prince  •  Getty Images

A lack of will to engage with South Africa's segregated past has resulted in continued devaluing of the experiences of players of colour, according to Ashwell Prince. Speaking at Cricket South Africa's Social Justice and Nation-Building Hearings, Prince said he felt unwelcome throughout his nine years in the national team, was labelled a "quota player" by his team-mates on several occasions, and experienced racism in the dressing room. He is not convinced the issues have been resolved to this day.
Prince last played for South Africa in 2011 and detailed how the national team had an opportunity in that year to discuss their diverse backgrounds but rejected it, something that he feels has repercussions on the team dynamic today. "In 2011, we had a culture camp and they wanted some topics for us to discuss. They wanted us to be open and honest because we were going to be a team, so we needed to be open and honest with each other," Prince said.
"One player suggested: 'can we talk about the history of our country? Things like Apartheid, the Group Areas Act (a piece of legislation which stipulated where people from different race groups could live), and forced removals? Can we try and dig into how these things affected our lives and try and establish what impact it had on our parents and on ourselves? This was what one of the non-white players wanted to talk about and it was shut down immediately. The answer was, 'No, we can't talk about that. We don't think that should be discussed in this environment.' So we didn't have a discussion. Now, today people don't want to take a knee. Maybe had we discussed this in 2011, and people had realised the suffering non-white people had in this country, it would be much easier to take the knee. But no, we don't want to talk about that."
While that incident came towards the end of Prince's career - he went on to be dropped via email after the Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka - he narrated a series of stories from his debut in 2002, which made him feel othered. Prince said he was labelled a "quota player" by the media when he was picked to play against Australia, after scoring 92 for the South Africa A team to push his claim for a place. Once in the squad, he felt immediately isolated.
"There was no welcome from the coach. There was no (sense of) let's make this guy comfortable," Prince said. "It was a lonely place. A person knows when they are welcome, and you know when you are unwelcome. You can get a sense of whether people want you here or don't want you here. It would have been nice for people to back you. You saw it happening to other guys your age, your peers. You saw it happening to a new player if he was white but it wasn't happening if the player wasn't white."
Despite that, Prince "was on a mission" to prove that "from my background, people were good enough." Having not been to an elite school and with his formative years in the non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS) structures, Prince said he "regarded my career as a war. I would lose small battles in the war but I was going to be there for the duration."
"Maybe had we discussed this in 2011, and people had realised the suffering non-white people had in this country, it would be much easier to take the knee. But no, we don't want to talk about that."
Ashwell Prince
However, Prince quickly saw he was in for an almighty fight, not just against perception, but against the people in his own change room. "In the 2006-07 season, we were playing a day-night match in Durban and a fight broke out on the grass banks. Most of the people were Indians," he said. "Some of the comments in the dressing room astounded me. There were remarks made like, "Typical f****** charous (a derogatory word for South Africans of Indian heritage), can't behave themselves, drinking cheap liquor and can't behave." My wife is Indian. We had one of the greatest managers, who we all respected, in Goolam Rajah, who was Indian. For people to use that terminology in the dressing room and think it was okay astounded me."
A few days later, in a team meeting, Prince took on his team-mates. "I was by no means an established player but I said I had something to say and I said: 'This is the national team, surely we can't use this language?' Everyone was taken aback," he said.
His ODI career did not last much beyond that. He was axed after the 2007 World Cup, where South Africa lost in the semi-finals to Australia, and returned home to infighting that Prince said took on racial tones. "When we returned home, CSA decided to have an inquiry as to what happened," he said. "We were in a hotel: the players, team management and senior officials from CSA and some younger players. Some questions were asked (about what went wrong) and there was silence in the room. After that one of the players broke out and said: "The problem we have is the quota system." And one or two others gained confidence and latched on to that so it became that that was the problem in our cricket: the non-white players are the problem. People were talking and five or six players said the same thing.
"I had reached a point where I didn't care if I didn't play another game, I was going to have my say. I said that we were blown away by a superior team in the semi-finals. If people just said that, we could have left that room and no dramas. Instead, people fell out badly. I said: 'Guys if I wasn't supposed to play, then tell me. Look me in the face and say I was not supposed to play. Don't say the quota system is the problem.' Nobody was brave enough to say who shouldn't be there. When things went wrong it was the quota players' fault. When things went right, the others were the heroes. As long as I played for the national team, that was not a team. We were never one."
Prince and the other players of colour in the squad were so offended by the suggestion that they were responsible for South Africa's underperformance, "we said if you think the team lost because of quotas, maybe we should scrap the quota system," he said. "We were firm believers that we deserved to be in the team."
Their assertion was leaked in the national newspaper, which led to Prince resigning as the South African Cricketers' Association president. "I feel betrayed," he said. "You were supposed to be living your dream but it was anything but a dream, It was an absolute nightmare. I played cricket by giving every inch for my teammates and I didn't feel that was happening the other way around."
Though Prince did not play ODI cricket after, he remained part of the Test team until he broke his thumb in Australia and was replaced by JP Duminy. Despite the policy that a recovered incumbent would get their place back, Duminy's stand-out performances in the 2008-09 series and the team balance at the time meant Prince did not find a way back until he opened the batting in the return series against Australia at home in March 2009, and not everyone was happy to have him back.
"There was a franchise match before the third Test match and I was opening the batting. We had four or five Titans come in and try to intimidate me and having lots of words at the end of every over. It soon broke out to three players in particular who had words to say and they called me a quota player," Prince said. "I told one of them I am really glad we are having this fight today. As players of colour this is what we always assumed you guys think of us. This is what we always assumed you would talk about. Now that we are on opposite teams and it's kicking off in the middle, I am happy I know who sits next to me in the national team. Now we know where we stand."
Prince went on to score 150, opening the batting, in his comeback Test. "I raised my bat to my parents, then to my wife on the other side of the stadium and then lastly and reluctantly, I raised my bat to my team-mates," he said. "If I had a choice, I wouldn't have raised my bat to them. We weren't a team."
He went on to enjoy a successful county career with Lancashire, which he described as more enjoyable than playing for the national team, and to coach the Cobras. Prince still believes there are problems with the way CSA approaches transformation, specifically by having different targets for black African players and other players of colour, and appealed to the administrators to "think of better ways to select cricket teams."
The SJN hearings have been extended to August 6, and could go on beyond that, before the ombudsman, Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, compiles a report for CSA.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent