Ray Mali: a unifying influence, a soother of savaged breasts © UCBSA
Ray Mali is to Percy Sonn what milk is to moonshine. Their shared nationality and lives in cricket aside, two less connectable figures have never existed.

Sonn, whose tenure as ICC president ended when he died on May 27, was an acerbic fighting cock of an administrator. Cricket South Africa president Mali, who will serve the last 13 months of Sonn's term as acting ICC president, is an affable countryman of gentlemanly demeanour.

City slicker Sonn thrived on a potent mix of politics and cricket, and in his spare time he was a hotshot lawyer and crime fighter. Mali, who rose to prominence from the dust of the Eastern Cape, where he became a teacher, wears a broad, benign smile unless he has reason not to.

Sonn spoke a high-octane dialect that dipped often into a deep well of profanity. If Mali knows any four-letter words, he has yet to be heard using them. And, no, Mali is not in the slightest danger of falling prey to a wardrobe malfunction.

In his time as president of the United Cricket Board (UCB), Sonn was a standard-bearer for active transformation and woe betide anyone who stood in his path. Mali is a unifying influence, a soother of savaged breasts. Try as they might, fires fail to ignite in his calming presence. Perhaps Mali is simply a product of his own time and place as much as Sonn was.

So, to gain a clearer understanding of who Mali is, a trip to a town called Alice would be instructive.

In economic and social terms the Eastern Cape has been left behind in South Africa's surge to democracy. This is an acrid irony considering the Struggle was most fervently fuelled by men, women and children who call this impoverished province home. Among them are Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. But the streets and buildings of Alice, which is in the heart of the Eastern Cape, resemble an inner city slum more than they do a small town on the cusp of long awaited and deserved prosperity. Fort Hare University, the alma mater of Mali and Mandela as well as Robert Mugabe, sprawls along the road leading into the town.

Alice itself slips into the review mirror mercifully quickly, and then the hills present themselves to be climbed. These hills sing of ancient sunsets, soaking summer rains that bring forth the perfume of the earth, and of the kind of smile Mali can't help beaming.

They also sing of cricket. It is here that British missionaries and mineworkers who returned from digging South Africa's wealth out of the ground brought a strange game more than a century ago. In time each hill became home to a different club, and they competed fiercely among themselves.

Not many hills away, in the Middledrift district, they still play the Amacalegushe tournament - the Slaughter of the Sheep tournament. Ten teams take part, and nine of them get to watch the winners devour their barbecued prize.

Raymond Remember Mali was born into this rich tradition 70 years ago. He grew up playing cricket and rugby - he was a strapping number eight until a shoulder injury ended that career - and discovered a passion for administration.

When South Africa was re-admitted to international cricket, Mali had become prominent enough to made manager of the national under-19 team that toured the West Indies alongside Kepler Wessels' side in 1992. Eight years later he became president of the Border Cricket Board, and three years after that he succeeded Sonn to the presidency of the UCB.

Mali may seem to be the epitome of the old-fashioned committee man, but it was during his tenure as UCB president that South Africa made the leap from a moribund provincial structure and into the brave new world of franchise cricket. He has also been an enthusiastic proponent of 20-over cricket, which is destined to save the game from a fate worse than croquet.

Whatever else Mali achieves, he will remain proud of turning a bumpy patch of land that nestled among Alice's hills into a cricket ground fit for international teams. Ntselamanzi, or Place of Water, was aptly named, what with the Ncera River oozing alongside it. But before Mali convinced Ali Bacher to spend money on the place in the early 1990s it was just another green, vaguely oval shape with a dusty rut for a pitch somewhere near its centre. UCB funds paid for irrigation and ground maintenance, and touring teams became regular visitors. It was as if Mali was giving back to Alice, and to cricket in Alice, what he had been given.

Stand by for more of the same over the next 13 months.

Telford Vice works for the MWP agency in South Africa