January 2005

Other side of the rainbow

It is 10 years since Nelson Mandela ushered in a bright, new, post-apartheid dawn

It is 10 years since Nelson Mandela ushered in a bright, new, post-apartheid dawn. In that time South African cricket has struggled with controversy - racial quotas, match-fixing, domestic crisis and international failures. Richard Calland looks back at how far the country has come and where it is headed now

Gerald Majola: PR and communications are not his strong points © Getty Images
Newlands is about to undergo a facelift as substantial as it is symbolic. On the first day of the third Test against England the grass embankment - Newlands' own version of Sydney Cricket Ground's `Hill' - will be renamed The Basil D'Oliveira Oaks. In due course the names of former cricketing greats will be attached to other parts of the ground. Some are famous (Eddie Barlow), others are black cricketers largely unknown because their talent and achievements were buried by apartheid (Hassan Howa, Ben Malamba).

The renaming of the stands at Newlands is the strategy of the new chief executive of Western Province cricket, Andre Odendaal. Although he is himself white, Odendaal is part of the new broom that is sweeping through the game in South Africa. Author of The Story of an African Game, Odendaal is a historian who believes that cricket must face its past in order to move forward into the future with confidence. "Everyone has been terrified to call a stand anything other than a North or South Stand but it is sign of how far we have come and the self-confidence that we have acquired in South African cricket that we can now do so."

What is the state of South African cricket? The UCB's spokesperson, the former broadcaster Gerald de Kock, says: "All things considered, six out of 10 at the moment." But most would struggle to give such a precise answer: it is contested ground and deeply interwoven with the social and political tides of the day. Such is the feverish nature of the national sporting mood that it swings almost daily, like the weather of the Cape bouncing from one extreme to another.

To assess where South Africa is now one has to consider where it has come from. In politics President Thabo Mbeki is having to forge his intricate legacy in the shadow of Nelson Mandela. In cricket a new leadership is operating in the only marginally shorter shadows of Hansie Cronje and Ali Bacher. It is not that either bears any comparison with Mandela but rather that they had each accrued massive amounts of largely unaccountable power in the dressing room and in the boardrooms of South African cricket. Gradually the power vacuum that followed the respective demise and retirement of each man is being filled with new leadership and a fresh, enlightened way of doing things.

Omar Henry, until recently South Africa's convenor of selectors, has drawn a comparison between the selection of Graeme Smith and the selection of Will Carling as captain of the England rugby team at the similarly tender age of 22. According to Henry, the selectors were setting out their stall: this was the man to lead South Africa into a new era free of the racial baggage of the past. Smith had grown up during a different time; to him it was entirely normal to have at least half of the changing room comprised black players.

Speaking this October, Henry clearly still wanted to believe in Smith but after 11 defeats in 12 one-day games his conviction had been shaken. "He has done a fantastic job but he is at a crossroads. It's been a hell of a time as captain - the good, the bad and the ugly. The question for him is `what have I learnt?' He is clearly a brave oke [bloke] and I think he will come through OK."

That discussion with Henry took place at Newlands as he watched a provincial game between Western Province Boland (WPB) and the Free State Eagles, as they are now called. It was exactly a week since the coach Eric Simons had paid the price for a terrible one-day run and only three hours after Gerald Majola, the UCB chief executive, had told the parliamentary sports committee that the selectors "must be more adventurous in picking the team ... and, if those selectors are failing, then we must do something about that selection panel".

Majola was briefing Parliament on his six-point strategic plan, based on broadening the appeal of the game, supporting club cricket and enhancing the commercial and playing capacity of provincial cricket with the creation of six new teams - or "franchises" as they are termed. As with the reform of the County Championship, concerns about the quality and lassitude of the provincial game have inspired a "strength versus strength" format.

Majola's statements in Parliament were his most potently articulated public utterances on transformation - and not before time say some. Majola is a skilful, modern manager, schooled in the art of consultation and inclusiveness, but PR and communications are not his strong points, in contrast to his predecessor who was an artful and effective spin doctor.

Majola said that he would be "very surprised to see fewer than five black players" in the side to tour India. Lawson Naidoo, a loyal member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and a former senior official in the new democratic parliament, as well as an astute observer of the game, reacted with the view that "this smacks of the language of quotas, which is an outcome but not a process".

"What process," asked Naidoo, "is there to fast-track black players into the side? Affirmative action is indicative of having a process but they appear to be scared of affirmative action." Henry himself had described the issue of finding a national wicketkeeper as "an on-going process" - wicketkeeping and spin bowling being, in his opinion, the weaknesseses of the side - and a week later Mark Boucher was omitted from the touring party to India for Thami Tsolekile, WPB's talented keeper. Majola told Parliament: "Tsolekile deserves to be wicketkeeper for South Africa and not because he is black. Our current wicketkeeper is not performing. Thami should walk into the team on merit." But, asked Naidoo, why had Tsolekile not been given an opportunity to play in some of the meaningless one-dayers in the previous three months? "From an outside perspective one does not see this process. Henry says he knows where he wants to get to but I can't see it."

On the face of it a perceived lack of batting prowess is what prevented Tsolekile taking over the position earlier, though the reasons are far more nuanced. Tsolekile's agent, John Young, also a respected writer and historian of the game, claims that "Thami is far ahead as the best wicketkeeper in the country and has been for some time". He resents the idea that Tsolekile cannot bat and it incenses him that the myth has been allowed to grow, propagated by what Young calls the "merit brigade" of old, white players - Pat Symcox, Fanie de Villiers, Clive Rice most vocal among them - that, until recently, included the new coach, Ray Jennings.

Young is a master at pricking myths with the nimble use of statistical analysis. He did it before to disprove the idea that Paul Adams was expensive and had a poor strike rate. With Tsolekile his analysis has shown that on the rare occasions when the recently very strong WPB batting line-up has permitted him to bat up the order he has averaged nearly 40. As a member of the touring party to England in 2003 he had only one first-class innings, scoring 90 against Derbyshire.

Thami Tsolekile: picked on merit © Getty Images
When Tsolekile was appointed as vice-captain of his provincial team this season, the press reported it as a "surprise". Not only was this inept but, in a subtle way, also racist. Tsolekile has captained sides all through the age groups and throughout his cricketing life. Given the youthfulness of the new WPB line-up, it would have been surprising had he not been made at least vice-captain.

But there are other considerations. Many point to an enduring failure of the senior group of players to show leadership in the national side. When Hershelle Gibbs was out for 183 shortly before the close of the first day's play at the final Test at The Oval in 2003, he expected that after such a commanding exhibition of strokeplay he would be jubilantly welcomed back into the changing room by his colleagues. Instead he was greeted by heads-down silence; there was universal disappointment that he had not shown the maturity to see out the day's play. That disappointment was well judged; 345 for 3 became 484 all out, which was not enough to prevent a series-tying England victory by nine wickets four days later.

De Kock says that Makhaya Ntini now plays the "Jonty Rhodes role - ebullient and energetic" and Pollock has responded well to the "very serious knock of losing the captaincy after the World Cup". But he accepts that the fact that neither Jacques Kallis, Gibbs nor Ntini was considered for the captaincy is illustrative of the "power vacuum" that followed the end of the Cronje era. Boucher helped the team - and its management - cope with that vacuum by playing the role of cheerleader. Until his sudden dropping two months ago he was a strong and influential presence in the team and generally a positive one. He was, therefore, hard to leave out; dropping Boucher meant more than just dropping a wicketkeeper.

Majola told Parliament that it was a "watershed" year for South African cricket. But it is always a watershed year for South Africa - whether in governance, the economy or sport - such is the intensity of its transition and social transformation. With a new study showing that 8.2 million South Africans - drawn from all race and class groups - watch the game on television, cricket has the potential to be not only the second most popular sport after football but the most truly national.

Majola also told Parliament that there are 130 black people playing first-class cricket this season, up from 85 last year. Most of the provincial sides meet their `targets' - they are no longer `quotas' - of including at least four black players. These targets are monitored personally by Majola, who is faxed the team lists the day before the game starts. Only three times last year was he forced to rule on the validity of a failure to meet the target. In the first two games of this season the WPB side contained six and five black players respectively and, according to Odendaal, "we could easily have as many as eight black players and it won't be a drama". A recent survey suggests that Ntini is the second most popular sportsman in the country behind the Leeds United defender Lucas Radebe.

Odendaal's view that cricket's trajectory "is not just broadly positive but is ahead of the overall rate of transformation in South African society" is not merely his innate sense of optimism prevailing. He admits, however, that it will need to be sharp in its strategic positioning in the run-up to football's 2010 World Cup in South Africa lest the support of the Johannesburg corporate sector migrates away. Majola is installing some basic good corporate governance principles into the management and administration of the game. Bacher ran it largely as a personal fiefdom, with a stronghold on the corporate sector, and there are concerns that sponsors such as Standard Bank, who are rumoured to have contributed £89,000 towards Bacher's biography, will slowly ebb away, such was the savvy operator's control over them.

When Barlow was told that a stand at Newlands is to be named after him he broke down in tears and one can only assume he will now play a constructive role in the future. Odendaal's strategy of making Newlands a welcoming home for all is not just sentimental symbolism nor an academic correction of historical record nor making it more of a home for black people. It is also about preventing different camps from dividing, and strengthening the marketability of South African cricket.

In the past 10 years South African politics has been marked by pragmatic compromise as well as the idealism of a nation reborn. What could be more pragmatic than the recent merger of the party of apartheid, the National Party, with the ruling ANC? In cricket, too, new leadership is allowing new identities to settle. What will be apparent to any open-eyed tourist accompanying the England tour is that, irrespective of whether England permit the Proteas to recover form and confidence, there are many other things happening in South African cricket of equal importance. What happens on the field of play is barely half the story.

Richard Calland is a political analyst based in Cape Town at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. His new book, Anatomy of Power in South Africa, will be published early in 2005

This article was first published in the Januaryissue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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