Cricket and the Rainbow Nation: What has failed South African Cricket?

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South Africa’s early exit from the Cricket World Cup is yet another setback in the team’s efforts to return to the summit of world cricket.  In 2012 the team sat top of the world rankings after a 2-0 victory at Lords against England.  Graeme Smith, their captain for almost a decade at that point had seemingly taken his country from the abyss of cricket under the apartheid regime to world number one. But 7 years on, things have changed.

The South African team failed to get past the group stage this summer’s World Cup.  They suffered poor performance after poor performance, their tournament characterised in only their second game, where after winning the toss and electing to bowl, they lost to a mediocre Bangladesh side.

So, what has happened to the team that emerged triumphant at Lords on that hot summer’s day in August 2012? Well, as with all great sports teams, the star players began to fade.  Graeme Smith, made captain in just his eighth Test Match retired in 2014, following his longstanding teammate Jacques Kallis away from international cricket.  Their replacements while steady have not been able to muster up the same match winning quality, with a 2-1 series win in Australia largely down to the strength of their bowling attack which remains solid.  The loss of players deemed world class has been a recurring problem for South Africa, and with the retirement of AB De Villiers in March of last year, their efforts in this year’s World Cup can almost be considered as unsurprising.

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But there is a graver issue in play here; something that has dogged South African Cricket since the beginnings of Apartheid. Dr Ali Bacher, the former Head Administrator for South African cricket spoke frankly after their World Cup exit. When asked by SportsStar what the future holds for South African cricket he replied.

‘In the next couple of years, we will have a tough time in international cricket’.

His words as gloomy as they sound do not reflect how far South African cricket has come since readmission.  When Bacher was in charge, the times were indeed gloomy. In fact, they were worse.

In 1968 a proposed tour of South Africa by England was scrapped due to England’s insistence that Basil D’Olivera, a black player who had originated from South Africa be allowed to enter the country and play.  South Africa and Prime Minister John Vorster refused and thus began the global boycott against South African cricket.  In 1971, this boycott was further enhanced by Don Bradman, then Chairman of the Australian Cricket Board.  Desperate to ensure that Cricket did not become a political issue, he flew to South Africa to meet Vorster.  However, Bradman became incensed at the openly racist attitude of Vorster who declared black people intellectually inferior and believed they could not cope with the particulars of the game.  Disgusted, Bradman admirably cancelled the upcoming South African tour to Australia,  leaving South African cricket dead and buried.

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Fast-forward 20 years and a ‘Rebel-Tour’ led by England’s Mike Gatting was cancelled.  Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and the African National Congress was unbanned and allowed to enter the political fray. 1992 saw the end of Apartheid and South Africa returned to the sporting global stage.  Just three years later the nation rejoiced as they celebrated a victorious Rugby World Cup campaign.  The rainbow nation was supposedly reborn.

But the issue of race remains.  Since readmission, the introduction of a racial quota system has seen the stagnation of South African Cricket.  Players such as Kevin Pietersen, who made his name playing for England left South Africa due to him feeling he was unfairly treated due to the racial quota system that made it compulsory for four non-white players to play in the starting XI.  He has been followed by Johnathan Trott and Keaton Jennings, who among others have both represented South Africa at under 19 level.

This quota system has indeed played havoc with South African selection.  Former South African Batsman Barry Richards, who saw his international career ended by Apartheid, explained his view of the problem in 2017.  He saw it as a simple case of an unfortunate transformation policy where some players are not considered to be neither white nor black enough to be selected.  He told the Guardian that…

You’ve got this transformation policy where an Indian player like Hashim (Amla) becomes different from a black player like (Kagiso) Rabada in terms of team selection.

In Kagiso Rabada, South Africa currently have the third best ranked bowler in the world and someone who has reached the summit of the list in the last 12 months.  However, in a 2017 Sky Sports Documentary, it was revealed that Cricket South Africa wished to use and promote Rabada’s position as one of the non-white stars of World Cricket to ensure that the sport remains popular within South Africa’s black community.  While this intention is somewhat admirable, it further encapsulates the divide between the black and white community within South Africa.

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Rabada, himself has indeed responsibly expressed his own wish that any Cricket team both at national and domestic level is picked on merit.  To pick the team on merit is surely the only way to end the constant fear of stoking apartheid tensions and to allow the South African cricket team to fully realise its potential.  Whether a player is black or white, as in all sport it should all boil down to one thing: skill.  The work of ex South African player and coach Gary Kirsten is vital in this, as his work with children of all ethnicities is not only changing their lives but ensuring that cricket at grassroots level will provide everyone the chance to reach their potential, no matter the colour of their skin.

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International Editor 2019/20. BA Film and History. Liverpool Fan-YNWA

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