Scattered thinly across South Africa is a clandestine group that dare not speak its name, made up of malcontents, cheroot-smokers, conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers. I write of the "Colin Ingram Appreciation Society", or CAS for short.
Here is a clan that goes about the serious and not-so-serious business of appreciation far from prying eyes, a world of prompts, winks and secret handshakes. Wherever Ingram takes to the crease, the society is in full session: runs are counted carefully, boundaries celebrated with high-fives. Every innings is deconstructed breathlessly. WhatsApp messages, frequently adjectivally heavy, detail his every move.
Ingram once appeared to be of the manner born. His father - remarkably, this is true - was a Protea farmer in the mountains and kloofs north-west of Port Elizabeth, so Ingram had portent-filled beginnings. He was educated at Woodridge High, which also produced Mark Rushmere, another neglected soul. Once out of school, Ingram hauled himself off, of all places, to the fledgling academy in Bloemfontein, to better to understand himself and his game.
Too much administrative fiddling, administrative corruption (featuring black and white) and too much insecurity means that the economically depressed region ploughs on rather than thrives
Seldom can a crisper hitter of a cricket ball have graced the domestic scene, yet Ingram has precious little to show for it. His 31 ODIs came with three catch-your-eye centuries (one against Zimbabwe, two against Pakistan) but at an average of not much above 30 - meagre rewards for a batsman of his apparent class.
Detractors say he didn't have enough of the right stuff, while members of CAS murmur wistfully that he was never given his due. Without anyone really noticing, players cut from similar cloth, like David Miller and Rilee Rossouw, nudged in front and Ingram was left to rue chances not taken. He signed a three-year Kolpak deal with Glamorgan in 2014, so his easy joys are now confined to playing for the Eastern Cape-based Warriors, whom he captains loyally and with unrecognised intelligence.
Ingram is possibly more of a representative figure than folk realise. Once was a time when the Eastern Cape and Border produced proper cricketers. These two provinces never had the playing stocks of, say, a Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal or Western Province, but Justin Kemp, Makhaya Ntini, Daryll Cullinan, Mark Boucher, Pieter Strydom, Monde Zondeki and Johan Botha all came from there or thereabouts, beneficiaries of a good system with good coaches and a long tradition players were eager to honour.
Kepler Wessels, returning from his flirt with Australia in the late 1980s, dragged the then Eastern Province by sheer force of will to the Currie Cup title, and ten years later they were still a force to be reckoned with. Sensing opportunity, Richard Pybus took Border to two first-class finals in the late 1990s. A visit to Buffalo Park, with Boucher pouring all manner of filth into your ear, and Vasbert Drakes and Ntini gunning for you at the other end, was a prospect relished by only the very best.
Nowadays Warriors (an amalgamation of Border and Eastern Province) muddle along gamely without really troubling anyone. Hand in hand with their eclipse has been the decline of player stocks and the slow sinking of schools. Once Grey High (Port Elizabeth), Queens College (Queenstown) or Selborne (East London) steamrollered much in their path. No more. Too much administrative fiddling, too much administrative corruption (featuring black and white) and too much insecurity means that the economically depressed region ploughs on rather than thrives. A neighbouring associate union, Kei, has been dissolved entirely, while just last week Jesse Chellan, resigned after 17 months as chief executive officer of Eastern Province. The franchise appears to be financially stable, but this doesn't mean that there's a trustworthy hand on the tiller or any particular direction in which to head.
Perhaps the most graphic illustration of the region's decline comes in the form of Botha, three years older than Ingram but part of the same feisty generation. Botha, lest we forget, captained South Africa to a 4-1 ODI series victory over Australia in early 2009, taking over from the injured Graeme Smith, who returned home after the Test series because of a fractured elbow. For a year or three he was a shoo-in for the ODI side, Corrie van Zyl, the temporary coach, using him cleverly at the 2011 World Cup. Soon afterwards, though, Botha's charms began to fade, his decline a perfect metaphor for the descent into mediocrity of the region from which he comes.
As for Ingram, he turned 31 a week ago, and his best years might lie ahead. Last year he only played five first-class matches for Warriors, scoring 214 runs at 26.75, but the season before that he scored 852 runs in ten matches at 53.25. In what remains an astounding example of cognitive dissonance, his claims were hardly discussed. He has effectively become South African cricket's invisible man. With everyone bemoaning the current "talent exodus", mainly for New Zealand, no one is asking why players like Ingram and Botha were allowed to drift away because important people at national level were simply too lazy to care.
Then again, CAS continue to hold monthly meetings. They plot, they scheme. With the righteous indignation of true believers, they know that their day will come.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg