The return of South Africa, cricket's prodigal son, 1993

African sunrise

In 1992 cricket's prodigal son, South Africa, came back fully to the game's global family through the World Cup competition and the first-ever Test matches against West Indies and India. After decades of isolation from real international competition the South African cricketers had two main points to prove - that South Africa was still among the top cricketing nations and that its team represented a new South Africa, in which apartheid was replaced with positive action to make up for past wrongs.

In theory the new South Africa ought to develop even stronger teams than the powerful combination which crushed Australia in seven of the last nine Tests before the curtain of isolation dropped in 1970, when the batting was so strong that Mike Procter went in as low as eight or nine. The hope is that the new South Africa will in time draw its Test stars from all the cultural groups of the nation instead of only the English-speaking whites, who number no more than six per cent of the total population. Until comparatively recently most of the whites, the Afrikaners, were so alienated from cricket that those few making it to Test level were regarded as anglicised and somehow not truly of the Volk. So great was the cultural chasm between the two white groups that when Springbok captain Dudley Nourse introduced his players to the Afrikaner Prime Minister Dr Daniel Malan on the eve of the 1951 tour to England, Malan told the astonished Nourse that he hoped the team would enjoy their visit to South Africa.

Batsmen such as Andre Bruyns of Stellenbosch, who would probably have been a Springbok captain had there been no isolation, led a new wave of young Afrikaner cricketers to prominence in the mid-1970s. Their deeds in the domestic Currie Cup competition caused such a spread of cricket popularity among Afrikaans schools that by the time of the 1992 World Cup no fewer than four members of the South African team, Cronje, Bosch, Wessels and Donald, came from Afrikaans-speaking homes.

But the main recruitment in the new South Africa will have to come from those previously excluded from all hope of representing their country at cricket: the 84 per cent of South Africans formerly classified under the apartheid lexicon as non-white, the Africans, so-called Coloureds and Indians- until recently subjected to 317 racial laws. If the nation's cricket comes to represent its demography accurately, this black majority of some thirty millions will in due course supply about threequarters of future South African teams. Fortunately for the future of South African cricket there is among this black majority a longer tradition and greater depth of cricket involvement than there was for many years among the Afrikaner whites, so that the integration of black players into the national playing structures should be a somewhat easier process than the integration of Afrikaners. As far back as the turn of the century there was a black fast bowler, Krom Hendricks, good enough to be chosen for South Africa against England, and his omission was the first of many surrenders by white South African cricket administrators to the racial considerations of their political leaders. This system of meddling was described as keeping politics out of sport.

During the years of segregation young white South Africans idolised their cricketing heroes from Faulkner and Schwarz to the Pollocks and Richards, while young blacks in the country preferred to identify with Nicholls, Salie, Roro, Majola, Malamba, Ntikinca, Barnes, D'Oliveira, Bhamjee, Ntshekisaand Ebrahim- all black players as unknown to their white compatriots as they were to the cricket world at large. They may not have been national figures but they were local and regional heroes, especially in the Cape Province. All the time many whites liked to assume blacks were not interested in cricket. Meanwhile, the only white cricketers cheered on by black cricket fans were those playing against South Africa. When Neil Harvey played his epic match-winning innings of 151 not out for Australia against South Africa at Durban in 1950, every scoring stroke he made was cheered from the seating area reserved for blacks, not least by a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela.

How good were the black players of those years? D'Oliveira was the only one given the international opportunity to prove himself, but there is evidence that a number of them were worth Springbok places. Taliep Salie was a googly bowler regarded by Clarrie Grimmett as good enough for any Test team in the world. Among the Africans were Frank Roro, who scored 20 centuries in black inter-provincial cricket, Khaya Majola, Ben Malamba, Edmund Ntikinca and Sam Ntshekisa, all of whom showed skills far above average despite adverse pitches and playing conditions. Tiffie Barnes and Baboo Ebrahim would have been stars in any first-class cricket arena, and as wicker-keepers Chicken Bhamjee and C. J. Nicholls were regarded by some sound judges as being at least as good as their counterparts in the white cricket world. So there was a lot to be sorry for in South Africa's cricketing past; a lot of lost time and opportunity and a lot of wrong to acknowledge and put right as the first-ever South African team chosen consciously on merit only was assembled for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

On performance grounds alone the South Africans had a good World Cup, reaching the semi-final after beating teams as powerful as West Indies, Australia, India and the eventual winners, Pakistan, and in their first Test matches thereafter they were far from outclassed, despite the long years of isolation. More importantly, however, they showed an intelligent level of acknowledgment of the point of the boycott in a manner which their rugby compatriots failed to emulate. The key to this acknowledgment was the trust developed between Dr Ali Bacher, managing director of the then South African Cricket Union, and Steve Tshwete, chief spokesman on sport for the African National Congress. Their relationship was the tip of an iceberg of more widespread commitment throughout South African cricket. It was also expressed through what had become a genuine commitment to the development of cricket among black children in the townships. Initially the Township Development Programme had been a limited and exploratory project which, if not entirely window-dressing, was nevertheless paternalistic, lagging well behind the desired return to international cricket in the priorities of most of the white cricket administrators.

The catalyst for real change was the last rebel tour, led by Mike Gatting in 1990. The extent of the opposition to it stunned many people in the SACU, who had ignored the warnings of anti-apartheid activists and expected the tour to pass off as peacefully as the previous six. But there were indications even beforehand that some formerly blinkered administrators had begun to realise that the kids in the townships were showing exciting abilities and that the best priority for South African cricket was the mission to black youth. The tour was something of a throwback. Suddenly, almost without realising the transition, Bacher and his colleagues were thinking as real South Africans for the first time in their lives. This was all that Tshwete and his associates had been waiting for, and they responded with generous enthusiasm. From the moment white officials began to view the youth scheme rather than tours as the main priority, the ANC made the tours possible again.

Soon the SACU merged with its old rival, the South African Cricket Board, the new United Board was admitted to ICC and South African cricket began to be riven instead by the same disputes that characterise the game elsewhere, mostly over the eccentricities of the selectors. This argument reached its peak when Jimmy Cook and Clive Rice were left out of the World Cup squad. But Cook, Rice, Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten are all in or approaching their cricketing old age. There is a new generation of stars to find as representatives of the new South Africa. It was significant that Bacher and his colleagues were now bandying about names like Masemola, Mahuwa and Mabena. These are black cricketers still in their teens, but already showing talent to excite their elders. Walter Masemola is a fast bowler of rare pace and promise, Kenneth Mahuwa is a left-handed opening batsman and Billy Mabena is another exciting batting prospect. As the township coaching scheme develops and spreads wider afield such prospects will presumably multiply.

What else will come out of Africa? Perhaps Namibia will develop surprises for other cricket countries as it has already for some rugby countries. And Zimbabwe? After years of going it alone with dwindling supply sources the embattled Zimbabwean cricket administrators suddenly acquired a valuable fan of the game with unusual influence. President Robert Mugabe was excited at the prospect of how cricket development could help both national unity and the international regard for Zimbabwe. The growth of the game in Zambia and Kenya also serves as a reminder of the probability that a future political federation of southern and central African states could bring in its wake a further development of cricket as a subcontinental sport there. Whether South Africa will offer the cricket world new stimuli other than television umpiring remains to be seen. But political reconciliation in Southern and Central Africa could yet give cricket its greatest geographical boost. As young blacks increasingly excel at the game, and as growing numbers seek to emulate them, we may yet see Test matches one day played as far afield as Lusaka and Luanda.

On a final conservationist note, here is a suggestion to save the Springbok emblem. If the blacks are generous enough to let the previously white symbol remain, the whites should be imaginative enough to add black to the green-and-gold Springbok colours. Green-gold-black are the traditional colours of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress and the original Inkatha-kaZulu and black liberation groups generally. They also happened to be the colours of the rugby Springboks up until the mid-1920s. Useful change allied to tradition makes a powerful claim.

Donald Woods is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He was editor of the Daily Dispatch in South Africa until he was arrested for anti-government activities in 1977. At the time he was the only white member of the governing council of the South African Cricket Board. He fled the country in 1978.

© John Wisden & Co