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Make a ton, get a tree

At the Wynberg Boys' High School ground in Cape Town, a lot of the greenery has basmen's names on it

Luke Alfred
A view of the poplar-lined boundary at the Jacques Kallis Oval, Wynberg Boys High School, Cape Town, February 2018

How green was my boundary: poplars line the edge of the field at the Jacques Kallis Oval  •  Luke Alfred

Viewers around the world will be familiar with the magnificent sweep of the Newlands backdrop, referred to as Table Mountain's "back table" in Cape Town. No more than perhaps five kilometres away from Newlands is an even better example of the natural beauty in which the city's cricket grounds are set: the Jacques Kallis Oval, located in the sprawling grounds of Wynberg Boys High School (WBHS), Kallis' former school.
Shaped on the site of an old forest and close to the headwaters of a spring, the 1st team oval at WBHS came into use in the 1990-91 season, according to those at the school. The ground is not only closer to the mountain than Newlands, it is sunken into a bowl surrounded by greenery and carefully placed benches, lending it an unusual intimacy.
Monkey-puzzle trees stand on a raised bank on one side of the oval, while a line of wind-bent poplars collapses over the pickets directly opposite. Discard schoolboy cricketers' propensity for mind-bending collapses, misjudged runs and general eccentricity, and a more perfect cricket scene would be impossible to find.
Without realising it, spectators who walk slowly around the ground tend to whisper or talk in hushed tones. The chatter inside the pavilion is often muted. It is muttered approvingly by the local cognoscenti that if you can clear one of the old, slightly stunted oaks at cow corner, you can hit a long ball.
In 1994, inspired by the tradition at Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, WBHS' headmaster Keith Richardson decided to honour achievements on the recently excavated field by planting trees around it. Those who scored hundreds on the ground were entitled to a tree, as were bowlers who achieved seven-wicket hauls.
Richard Levi has 12 trees in his name, while Dominic Telo, a former Cobras player and probably the most naturally gifted cricketer ever produced by the school, has 13. Kallis has only three, all planted retrospectively after he matriculated in 1993. "Jacques wasn't that physically big at school - he probably took five or six 1st XI games to score his first two in front of square," jokes Eric Lefson, a former master and first team coach. "His father, Henry, used to watch from the side and sometimes shout instructions."
Lefson says that only a handful of trees were planted through the nineties, but as the decade approached the turn of the century, so cricket achievements at the school exploded. There are now an estimated 60 trees planted all around, all adding to the oval's greenery and charm.
Of the benches, one of them down in a corner of the field commemorates the double-hundred Kallis finally scored against India - his 201 not out in Centurion in December 2010. Kallis said memorably at the time that the landmark, which he took 242 Test innings to achieve, was less significant than the door it opened - free access to billionaire Johann Rupert's prestigious Leopard Creek Golf Course. "I'm almost more excited about the golf membership than I am about the double-hundred," he joked.
For all the worth of tradition, the school has encountered a recent problem. Normally a singular achievement would be marked with a fresh tree. Underneath the tree would be a small copper plaque, giving details of the feat. So, for example, we see that Levi scored 148 not out against Punt on 25 November 2004. Similarly, Telo - the first player at WBHS to make ten schoolboy centuries, before finishing with 13 - scored 103 not out against Australia's Barker College on 4 January 2000.
In recent years, many of the plaques have disappeared, leading to the scratching of heads. "We think the plaques have been stolen by guys who sell them to scrap-metal merchants," says Oscar Nauhaus, the recently appointed 1st X1 coach. "With the money they get for the copper in the plaques, they buy drugs - mainly tik [known as crystal meth elsewhere in the world] which is a real problem down here in the Western Cape."
With the separation of plaque from tree comes confusion about which tree stands for what feat. Both Nauhaus and Lefson believe that there is a master plan in the school museum somewhere. The school is hopeful that before the summer is out, achievements will be reconciled with trees. "Yes, I've got two maps, so I'll be able to sort that out," says Richardson. "Within the next couple of months we'll have all the plaques back."
The tradition of planting trees for major cricket achievements at South African schools is itself disputed, and it is therefore difficult to say exactly when and where it began. In his autobiography, co-written with the journalist Lungani Zama, Mike Procter says that Highbury Preparatory School in KwaZulu-Natal had the tradition before he arrived at primary school in the early 1950s, which suggests that Hilton College - Procter's high school - might have borrowed the tradition from them.
One of Procter's favourite memories from Highbury was an outsized partnership he shared with Malcolm Glennie against a Transvaal Schools team before he went off to Hilton. "We put on 316 for the opening wicket, with Malcolm notching 100, while I chipped in with 210 not out," says Procter in his autobiography, Caught in the Middle. "Highbury had a tradition of planting trees every time you scored a century, and I had a few by the time I was done. That 210 was my fourth century of the season, and I followed it up with a fifth ton the following Saturday."
It is difficult to get a handle on when Hilton's first tree was planted,but Ant Lovell, a retired master from the school, thinks it was for Derek Crookes, who went on to play 32 ODIs for South Africa. "No tree was planted before 1988 - I have established that," says Lovell. "I've asked around - all I can assume is the custom was discontinued here after the late 1990s."
There is an interesting counter-narrative to all of this. Lefson points out that WBHS' all-time leading wicket-taker with 312 first-team wickets was Dylan Matthews, a boy who captained the 1st X1 in 2015 and left the school later that year. Despite his prodigious wicket-taking abilities, Matthews, who is studying at the University of the North West in Potchefstroom, and made his franchise debut for Lions against Cobras in Paarl last month, never took seven in an innings. As a result, he actually qualifies for inclusion on the school honours board but not for a tree.
A similar story is told about Kagiso Rabada, who only grabbed three- and four-wicket hauls while at St Stithians College in Johannesburg - and so left school with a qualification but no tree. In the Under-19 World Cup semi-final against Australia in 2014, however, Rabada took 6 for 25, an analysis he argued was retrospectively worthy of a tree being planted in his name. In a state of high anxiety - and forgetting the time difference - Rabada phoned his former cricket master, Wim Jansen, from the UAE in the middle of the South African night. He had just bowled South Africa into the final of the Under-19 World Cup against Pakistan and believed (with some justification) he had a claim on a tree. Jansen was slightly taken aback, but promised to see what he could do, given that, strictly speaking, the school only honours hundreds and five-fors achieved at their 1st team ground. In Rabada's case, however, they made a notable exception.
Rabada, the treeless boy, has since bulked up, planted deep roots in the international game and spread his long arms. Tree thoughts are presumably some way away.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg