Transformation in South African cricket
Video by Leila Dee Dougan
Transformation in South African sport has long been a contentious issue – especially in cricket.
In April 2016, South Africa’s Minister of Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula, made a radical announcement. Following the failure of netball, rugby, athletics and cricket to “meet their transformation targets” the minister banned the four sporting codes from hosting and bidding for “mega international events.”
The announcement caused much consternation and division among the sporting public. Some welcomed the move, saying the targets the sporting federations had set had been set by themselves, so there was no excuse for the failures. Others branded it cheap politicking, with Mbalula once again washing his hands of government’s responsibility to aid transformation in the country and using lip service to score cheap points in an election year. Overall, it was hard to disagree that South African sport has failed to transform at top level — but this was hardly news.
For the sporting bodies, the sports minister’s decision has had some potentially mitigating knock-on effects. Rugby might not be able to bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Some of Cricket South Africa’s stakeholders and potential sponsors have also become a bit wary, while the governing body has been left frustrated at the seemingly shallow approach taken by the minister to assessing the transformation progress.
Cricket’s political association in South Africa stretches way further back than froth spewed forth by a loud-mouthed minister, though. From Basil D’Oliveira to the notorious Rebel Tours, cricket – arguably more than any other sport in the country – has always gone hand in hand with politics.
This rocky relationship has had its ups and downs and this latest saga is just an extension of a relationship that stretches back to the late 1800s.
The sport’s numbers, in the national team at least, have made for grim reading. That in 20 years there has been just one regular black African Test cricketer is cringeworthy. But is this down to lack of will, a lack of effort or simply because cricket’s very core is inherently elitist, making it very difficult for those from a disadvantaged background to climb up its ranks? And, if it is so exclusive, what is being done to break down those barriers?
In this special feature, Daily Maverick Chronicle explores the work being done by Cricket South Africa at grassroots, visits the heartland of black cricket in the country and gets a close-up look at how high performance and transformation go hand in hand.
In the Beginning
It is impossible to discuss or understand sporting transformation in its current context without also understanding South Africa’s history. Oppression in the country – and the race-based denial of opportunities – stretches back much further than apartheid, even in sport.
The earliest documented case in cricket dates back to 1890. Armien “Krom” Hendricks was a South African cricketer considered “the fastest bowler of the country” and was described by some players of an MCC side from England touring Cape Town in 1892 as one of the fastest they had ever seen. Hendricks was playing for a Malay XI at Newlands and, although his figures were excluded from the tour averages, the touring side was so impressed that they insisted he be included in a tour two years later, because he would be a “drawcard”.
But these were the bad old days of colonialism and Cecil John Rhodes, and pressure from him swayed South African cricket administrators to exclude Hendricks, with William Milton, the selection chairman at the time and a close ally of Rhodes, saying that Hendricks’ inclusion would be “impolitic”.
This was not the first or last time Hendricks would be denied such an opportunity, and legend has it that Rhodes went as far as to say England would “have expected him to throw boomerangs during the luncheon interval” if he were to be included. Over the next few years, the white press would even make Hendricks a poster boy for the need for greater social segregation.
Right from the start of South Africa’s dark past, sport has been inextricably linked to racist ideologies. Click To Tweet
There are probably other players like Hendricks who never even had their stories told. Because, right from the start of South Africa’s dark past, sport has been inextricably linked to racist ideologies and policies. Sport would also, conversely, go on to play a part in dismantling the system. It is therefore impossible to suggest that sport and politics should not be mixed. The two have been bedfellows in South Africa for centuries.
Little is known about Hendricks after 1897, when, following years of being barred and excluded, he became a phantom. We don’t know how many others like Hendricks existed or what kind of humiliation they might have had to endure while pursuing their passion for the game. Thousands of talented cricketers’ names will never be known because of the barriers put up by those who racially segregated the country.
The notion that “people of colour just aren’t interested or just don’t play sport X” is a fallacy. We cannot possibly know that, because the concerns and issues players of colour had in the colonial and apartheid days were never brought to light. Many didn’t – and still don’t – have access to facilities or to often prohibitively expensive equipment.
At its core, cricket is inherently elitist and exclusive, because it requires such a vast investment in equipment and time to master it. In South Africa this is even more apparent, because, for over a century, the top echelons of the sport were reserved only for an elite, white few.
In fact, the game in which Hendricks first came to prominence in 1892 was the only time a touring side played a team of colour until apartheid ended.
Players of colour weren’t just denied opportunities in the national team, but denied access to resources, too. Black and coloured players were always on the back foot and could never keep up with white players because the government did everything it could to deny them equal opportunities – from land dispossession to being banned from playing on certain fields.
This history is important to understand, because the ushering in of democracy could not simply undo decades of oppression. The engineering of elite systems to benefit the elite exclusively will take centuries to dismantle, which is, in essence, the crux of transformation.
But this history also directly affected the people who are now working within the system – not just in their sporting careers, but personally, too.
“My earliest recollection of apartheid was when I was a kid on the beach. We were all in the water, my dad came into the water and came to pull us out because we had to leave the beach and we had no idea why,” recalls Vincent Barnes, former South Africa bowling coach and current High Performance Manger of Cricket South Africa.
“My dad said, ‘you see those guys in blue there? They don’t want us to be on the beach.’ We had to leave. At the time, I couldn’t understand why.”
Like countless other players of colour, Barnes never had the opportunity to represent his country, because of the racial laws that forbade him from playing for the national team. These days he is the quintessential transformation success story – a person of colour who was given an opportunity to be excellent.
Transformation is not just about representation in numbers; it needs to ensure that every single child in the country has an equal and fair opportunity to make it to the top and become the best person he or she can be.
Transformation is about ensuring South Africa becomes a true sporting powerhouse. Click To Tweet
Transformation is about broadening the talent pool and ensuring South Africa becomes a true sporting powerhouse. To do that, many things need to happen, but one of the most critical aspects of understanding transformation is understanding the history that resulted in there being such a dire need for it.
This history is uncomfortable and cannot be changed retrospectively, but it can be acknowledged, and that is the first step in making a tangible and lasting change in the future.
“I don’t care what colour players are — if they are good enough they must play,” is a go-to favourite in the public discourse when discussing transformation. This might fly in a normal society, but South African society is far from normal. Mismanaged quota systems haven’t exactly done the public’s understanding of transformation much good, but they have at least forced unions and other stakeholders to wake up and force change.
And now, here we are. Over two decades into democracy, and the dark shadow of apartheid’s legacy still hangs over many communities in the country. It is evident in the footwear of the players at the mini-cricket fields, who almost always wear school shoes instead of the proper trainers. Torn pants, washed out shirts – possibly handed down from one sibling to the next – and bats that have seen better days, are commonplace.
Still, these challenges do not diminish the passion for the game. But this legacy is a gut punch to anyone who can be bothered to visit communities so often forgotten about. In the rubble and ruins, in the painful hangover, there are many inspiring stories of hope, change and progress, with lives and communities being transformed through the love of cricket.
From the youngsters in the rural Eastern Cape Hills, whose echoes of “walk in!” reverberate through the vast landscapes as a young mini-cricketer runs into his or her delivery stride, to the 23-year-old Tshepang Dithole, who was told he’d never make it to pro but has just signed a contract with the Dolphins; cricket is changing and slowly breaking down the barriers instilled by Cecil John Rhodes and his successors all those years ago.
Header image: Africana / BidorBuy.co.za
Question: Who was the first South African cricketer to represent a different country? Answer: Not Kepler Wessels. It was Basil D’Oliveira, or Dolly, as he was affectionately known.
D’Oliveira’s legacy now lives on through the bilateral series played between South Africa and England, named after one of South Africa’s most famous sporting sons. His grandson, Brett, continues to play for Worcestershire, the club where Basil ended up after what has to be one of the most phenomenal sporting stories in history.
Dolly was lucky. He had the opportunity to play professional cricket. Countless others didn’t, and that is something far too often overlooked. When the impact of quota systems and the sporting boycott of South Africa are discussed, names like Clive Rice, Barry Richards, Kevin Pietersen and Grant Elliot crop up.
When discussing the careers of players like Jimmy Cook and Graeme Pollock, the words “unfortunate” or “unlucky” are often used, bemoaning the fact that so much of their careers was eclipsed by apartheid. Yes, it was unfortunate, but no more or less unfortunate than any other player who was denied the opportunity because of the colour of his or her skin.
“Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock — these are the guys who are mentioned when we talk about guys who didn’t play international cricket. And all due respect to them, they were great players, but the number of cricketers I played with who were immensely talented, who were not coached? Basically we had to teach ourselves by speaking,”recalls Vincent Barnes.
“Some of the players I played with never got the recognition they deserved,”
That D’Oliveira never represented South Africa remains a blight on the country’s sporting history. Click To Tweet
That D’Oliveira never represented South Africa remains one of the biggest blights of the country’s sporting history, and he was just the first in a long line of mistreated and overlooked players.
By the time unification came in the 1990s things had to change, and quickly. The man who would ignite that change and inspire two generations of young black cricketers would turn out to be a Xhosa cattle-herder from a tiny village in the Eastern Cape. Cricket had been a popular sport in the area for years, and on one afternoon in King William’s Town, a young tearaway would make such an impact that another phenomenal story would begin.
Makhaya Ntini, who bowled in flapping takkies, would go on to become one of South Africa’s most successful cricketers. But his road to the top was thorny.
“Raymond Booi had brought him through to King William’s Town and I saw him bowling for the first time at Dale College. He was a very talented young cricketer, but bowled all over the show,” explains Greg Hayes, the man widely credited with being behind Ntini’s evolution. (Hayes now works as a development consultant for Cricket South Africa and refuses to single-handedly take the credit for Ntini’s discovery.)
His broken takkies would soon be replaced by boots Hayes bought for him. Ntini would struggle to get to grips with the cricket boots, but when he eventually did, he refused to take them off. A process that included a bursary to Dale College followed, but it was still far from easy.
“They thought I was mad,” says Hayes.
Mad, because a 14-year-old kid from a rural village who could not speak a word of English would surely never adapt to the stern requirements at Dale. But Ntini did adapt, and, chances are, if you ask youngsters from this area who inspired them when they were growing up, they’d all coo: Makhaya.
“Makhaya needs to take all the credit for that. There are a lot of people who have played a role in his life and developed him. But above all, Makhaya is the guy to take all the credit because so many cricketers you find nowadays, not all of them are actually as hungry as he was,” says Hayes.
Ntini would turn out to be a one-off during the early years of unification. To date, he remains the only black African to have played more than 10 Tests for South Africa. Players like Mfuneko Ngam and Monde Zondeki, both from the rural Eastern Cape, had only brief spells in the international limelight. Ngam, who grew up in the tiny village of Middledrift, was struck down by persistent injury — initially put down to malnutrition — but something he has since come to understand as over-training. His professional playing career will always be marked by what could have been, especially for a man who, by his own admission, “never thought he would make it” when he was growing up in a rural village.
This theme of promising black African Test players emerging and then disappearing became a recurring one, for myriad reasons. Until 2015.
Rabada and Bavuma look set to carry the hopes and dreams of the next generations on their broad shoulders. Click To Tweet
Two new poster boys have taken over the transformation relay from those who came before them. Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma look set to carry the hopes and dreams of the next generations on their broad shoulders. Both are acutely aware of just how important their presence in the South African Test side is. Speak to either of these young men about their significance, and they will tell you that what they are doing “is not just for [themselves].”
Like Rabada and Bavuma, Ngam would only later realise just how significant his Test debut alongside Ntini was in 2000. “I got a lot of calls, but I was just focusing on the game,” he remembers. These days, Ngam helps the next generation of promising cricketers at the Fort Hare Academy, not far from where he first started his career as a mini cricketer.
While much has changed since the days when D’Oliveira was forced to pack up his life and move to England for a fair opportunity, this journey is far from over, and the next generation is paving a path to success that was mapped out by revolutionaries past and present.
Header image: Backpage Pix
Quotas & Targets
The word “quotas” is arguably the most divisive in South Africa’s current sporting discourse. Through the years the system has evolved, but public perception of it seemingly has not. Perception is frequently negative and is far too often associated with something that causes a decline in quality rather than something that creates opportunities. But is that really the case?
Currently, Cricket South Africa has “targets” in place for all its domestic teams, including those at semi-pro level. The question nobody seems to be asking – or does not want to ask – is why these targets even have to exist, more than two decades into democracy?
Nearly 55% of white players went on to play for a franchise, versus just 32.3% of black players.. Click To Tweet
We know it’s a myth that interest in sports falls along racial lines. But what of the theory that there aren’t enough black players? Cricket South Africa crunched some numbers last year and found some interesting stats.
During the 2012 Kaya Majola Schools Week, 31% of the players were black. The transition from schools to provincial cricket since then has been pretty equal, with 20.5% of the white players going on to represent their provincial teams and 21% of the black players doing the same. But when it comes to making the step up from provincial to franchise level, the numbers are more worrying. Nearly 55% of white players went on to play for a franchise, versus just 32.3% of black players.
Is the talent gap really that big, or is too little being done to ensure that everyone has a fair and equal opportunity to fulfil his or her potential?
Part of the thinking behind Cricket South Africa’s so-called “targets” is that they will force those who have become complacent with a system that has churned out so many great players to do better.
It also forces the system to create opportunities for players who might not have the luxury of hanging around and waiting for their first pay cheque from cricket to come in. A 20-year-old black player’s socio-economic background might require him or her to look for a job to support a young family.
CSA are constantly trying to find a way to overcome these gaps and one of their efforts draws on the help of the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca). In the latter half of 2015, CSA contracted Saca to implement its Player Plus programme to a number of identified players at Provincial Academy level. This made sense as it took care of the personal development of players, one rung further down the cricket development pipeline.
SACA and CSA agreed on a set Life Skills curriculum, code compliance education (anti-doping, anti-corruption & code of conduct), Dual Career assessment & support as well as personal wellness support (mental and financial wellness) for all identified players. Despite some difficult teething problems, implementation progress has been good.
Player Plus is responsible for the personal development of players while CSA’s academy system itself is responsible for conducting a scientific needs-analysis on all their identified players and provide relevant support (allowance, accommodation, travel cost, bursary, equipment, medical etc) based on the individual’s needs and means. The Academy is tasked with looking after the performance (coaching, matches, selection) and financial support whilst Saca provides personal development, education and support services under Player Plus, thus providing a holistic approach to ensure that players have the best possible chance to further their careers.
There is no blueprint for success – for those involved, it’s trial and error, but the important part is that those involved are not afraid to make the leap, even if they ultimately fail.
But striking the right balance is something that cricket has been trying to do for years. Dr MS Taliep from the CPUT Sports Management department spent 10 years examining the effectiveness of cricket transformation and increasing the representation of black cricketers at provincial level. In a paper published in 2009, he found that:
- The number of white players decreased and the number of black African and coloured/Indian players increased between the 1996/1997 and 2007/2008 seasons
- White batsmen had significantly higher batting averages than black Africans, but were only better than coloureds/Indians in the 2001/2002 season
- Coloureds/Indians had better batting averages than black Africans in all seasons, except 2001/2002 and 2004/2005
- There was a significant improvement in the batting averages of coloureds/Indians, but not of whites and black Africans over the 12 seasons
- White bowlers had significantly better bowling averages than coloured/Indian bowlers for seasons 2002/2003, 2004/2005 and 2006/2007
- There were no significant differences in the bowling averages between white and black African players and between coloured/Indian and black African players over the 12 seasons
- There was a tendency towards a decreased bowling performance for coloureds/Indians, whereas there was no significant decrement in the bowling performance for whites and black Africans over the 12 seasons.
He concluded the following: The increase in the number of black cricketers performing according to standard suggests a reasonably successful transformation process. However, the representation and batting performance of black African batsmen remains a concern.
Ten years on, the absence of black African batsmen is still a concern. Click To Tweet
Ten years on, the absence of black African batsmen is also still a concern. Across all franchise competitions in 2014-15, there was not a single black batsman in the top five.
Things are slightly, but not much, better at semi-pro level with a black African batsman in the top five run scorers in the T20 competition and three-day competition. At the Schools Week 2015, there was one black African batsman in the top five run scorers. It took until 2015 for South Africa to produce its first Black African Test centurion.
A simple answer to why this is the case could be that batting equipment is expensive and most poor players simply cannot afford it. Also, Makhaya Ntini inspired a whole generation to be bowlers – which is where the argument for adequate demographic representation becomes important.
If a young player sees somebody he or she can identify with, the inspiration will flow from that person as well as from the wish to follow in his or her footsteps . This is why Temba Bavuma’s century at Newlands last year was so significant.
Demographic representation cannot be the beginning and end of the argument, especially when considering the broader sporting context.
The AFL in Australia had 9% of players listed as being aboriginal in 2014. Yet they represent only 2.5% of the Australian population. Aborigines suffered gross mistreatment in Australia and, while the two countries are not necessarily comparable, it is a notable statistic.
During the 2014 Soccer World Cup, the squads were incredibly diverse. For example, African-Ecuadorians make up just 6% of the population but constituted almost the entire squad. Algeria’s squad was almost entirely born in France, while the Swiss team was almost two-thirds migrant descent, with players of African-German and African-Spanish roots.
The countries mentioned above cannot be compared like-for-like with South Africa, but these stats are important to consider when simply arguing for representation alone.
But even when requests for adequate representation are ignored, some still can’t divorce transformation from the implication of a “drop in standards”. In the 2015-16 season, franchises were required to field at least six players of colour and at least three black Africans in all competitions. There have been accusations that the standard of the domestic game has declined as a result.
The question is, then, how do we define a “drop in standards”? Is it directly equitable to runs scored and wickets taken, or is it possible that there is an element of passive racism underpinning the notion that players of colour being given an opportunity means weakening the side?
Statistically speaking, the 2015-16 season wasn’t that different to the 2013-14 season. The average innings total for the 2015-16 season was 220; in 2013-14 it was 224. Interestingly, though, the 2015-16 yielded 69 more wickets than the 2013-14 season. It’s a notable statistic, because the average number of runs did not decrease by a large margin. Statistically speaking, then, we can argue that the standard has not changed much.
Both those seasons – two with notable milestones for the quota system at domestic level – were distinctly better than the last season (2012-2013) without them. The average runs per innings back then was only 209 and even with such low totals, the bowlers managed just 850 wickets across the season in total.
Also notable is that the fight for the four-day title went to the last day with three teams in the running. Out of the 30 games, five were won by an innings or more. Compare this to its Australian counterpart – on which the South African domestic system is modelled – with four wins out of 29 decided by an innings or more — and you might say that South Africa’s domestic cricket is on par.
Admittedly, these are just numbers and these averages are determined by myriad factors; and while there were no “clutch-wins” (a term often used to describe a hard-fought victory), it might all just be part of the usual ebbs and flows of cricket.
A fact often overlooked when discussing the state of the domestic game is that South Africa’s international stars rarely play four-day domestic cricket, something Vincent Barnes, CSA’s High Performance Manager, feels strongly about.
'I get upset when senior franchise players don't play for their domestic teams.' Click To Tweet
“I get upset when senior franchise players don’t play for their domestic teams,” says Barnes.
“I will always tell the story of JP Duminy walking to the wicket on debut for the Cobras. The person who got out was Herschelle Gibbs. The person who joins him in the middle is Gary Kirsten… the guy comes in after him is HD Ackerman… then Ashwell Prince… then Neil Johnson… if you think of these type of players that play around him, the difference it makes to your career, and how they can fast-track your career… Compare that to coming to the wicket as a young cricketer and there’s another youngster and another couple of youngsters,” he adds.
Corrie van Zyl, general manager of Cricket South Africa, agrees.
“One of the key facts has been in the past that all of the international players played domestically. The moment you have the outflux of those players, you could have a drop in standard,” he says.
Barnes says even during his time with the Proteas, before the mushrooming T20 leagues really took off, players were reluctant to go back to play four-day franchise cricket.
With so much money on offer from T20 leagues around the world, it’s going to be damn near impossible to convince South Africa’s top stars to play in front of empty stands in the middle of nowhere, when they’ve just had a tough season of international cricket. This is a battle currently faced globally — it cannot be put down to targets.
The state of the game will forever be going up and down. For all the huff and puff over the concept of transformation, the irony that the players of colour have emerged as some of the brightest shining lights during the dark days on the field seemingly has been lost.
Often ignored is the fact that the South African Under-19 side, who won the World Cup – the first ever South African team to win a Cricket World Cup – had nine players of colour in a 15-man squad; five of whom were black Africans.
It will take years before attitudes towards targets and quotas are truly transformed, but for now, they remain a necessary part of the journey to changing the landscape of South African cricket.
Header image: Gallo Images
There are few places in the world as beautiful as the Eastern Cape. Its rolling hills are punctuated with imposing mountain ranges that tower over the endless valleys and deep river beds. The clouds always seem to hang lower and more heavily than anywhere else, and turn bruised violet as they grow tired of staving off the weight of the African sun at the end of a long day.
These vast landscapes, where the closest town is often a good few hours’ drive away, aren’t exactly what you would associate with burgeoning cricketing talent. Yet, more cricket fans will be able to tell you about the village of Mdingi in the Eastern Cape than Vredenburg, a major farming town down on the country’s West Coast.
Makhaya Ntini, the first black African to represent South Africa, was for years known as the Mdingi Express. The tiny village isn’t even a speck on the map – it doesn’t even its own road sign – yet it produced one of South Africa’s most successful bowlers.
The Eastern Cape has long been the heartland of black cricket and the game has been played here for more than a century. Introduced by Scottish missionaries, and by some of the workers who returned from the mines, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the country where there is such an ingrained love of and passion for the sport.
Even during apartheid, cricket thrived in the rural villages of the Eastern Cape. Click To Tweet
Even during apartheid, cricket thrived in the rural villages. Players would level out fields where cattle roamed and roll out old, worn-out matting wickets to set up games. The Eastern Cape has hosted the “Slaughter of the Sheep” festival for years now – a tradition which continues to this day. Both teams bring a sheep as a prize and the team that wins gets to keep and eat one-and-a-half sheep – usually shared on the spot.
In this heartland, you are unlikely to spot soccer nets on the side of the road. Cricket nets and rugby poles dominate the landscape.
While cricket is indeed an inherently elitist sport in that it is immensely expensive, people in these rural communities have always found a way to play the game they love, even if it’s meant playing with a plank and a tape ball. The rollout of mini-cricket programmes has helped many black cricketers pursue their dreams.
But not all is rosy with cricket development in the province. In Mdingi, the field and nets built here many years ago have gone to ruin. Lack of leadership at the top has meant that the game has all but disappeared from the hilltops here. It seems a shame that the legacy of Ntini has almost been forgotten, even if anyone you ask in the village can still point you to his granny’s house, where he was raised.
Even at his former school, Dale College, there is hardly a hint of the fact that the school played such a significant role in producing one of the finest cricketers South Africa – and possibly the world – had ever seen. Considering what Ntini symbolised, it seems strange that his jersey and that picture of him kissing the turf at Lord’s isn’t screaming at you as you walk through the entrance halls. We had to squint and scour to find a picture of Ntini in his playing days at the school.
Despite that, Makhaya Ntini, who now coaches the Zimbabwean team, has clearly left a lasting impression on a whole generation of South Africa’s youth, and it seems a great shame that his legacy is not being preserved or honoured as one would expect it should.
But not all hope is lost. About 50km from Mdingi, Middledrift is thriving as a powerhouse of cricket development. Mfuneko Ngam, who now heads up the coaching at the Fort Hare academy, is from here. So is Ayabonga Khaka, the South African women’s player. The club regularly produces players for all of Border’s age group levels and recently won the league, losing one and drawing one out of their 30 fixtures. The players who leave and go to other schools also return as often as they can, not just to represent their club, but to share their skills. On the day Daily Maverick Chronicle visited, Mamanya Xexe, who now goes to school at Dale, was in the nets, bowling and giving his teammates tips.
At Ntselamanzi Cricket Club in Alice, about 20km away from Middledrift, the sign reads, “welcome to the land of cricket” and even in winter, there are over 100 boys and girls gathered here for a mini cricket outing.
The Eastern Cape even has its own answer to Dharamsala cricket ground. Between the hills of Alice and Fort Beaufort in Healdtown sits Ngumbela Park, named after sport philanthropist Mthetheleli Ngumbela, who funded it. It’s a picturesque cricket field, dropped in the middle of nowhere. Ngumbela built the ground out of his own pocket after years of trying and failing to get assistance from government, which shouldered the blame for the lack of facilities, saying it was up to the municipalities to provide infrastructure. The wealthy businessman even has a cricket festival named after him. Founded in 1989, the Ngumbela cricket festival often draws up to 2,000 people to its finals, something South Africa’s domestic games can’t boast.
The passion for cricket in these rural areas, despite the obstacles that the youngsters here face, is obvious. Sport provides a distraction from the stark realities of life — only around two-thirds or 65,1% of Eastern Cape households stay in formal dwellings and in 2016, the poverty headcount came in at 12.7%, according to Stats SA. Nearly half a million households in the Eastern Cape say that they ran out of money in the last 12 months to buy food, while over a fifth missed a meal. But sport also offers a pathway out of poverty. Bursaries to better schools, funded by Cricket South Africa, university and eventually a contract, are the end game for many of the youngsters who first begin playing softball cricket at the age of six.
Economic inequality continues to hinder the progress of players from rural areas. Click To Tweet
But kids from rural areas still face serious challenges. Expensive equipment and even basics, like being able to afford three meals a day, hinder the progress of players from rural areas. While many players do earn bursaries to so-called elite schools, some students struggle to adapt when moved from a rural to a more urban environment.
And therein lies the crux. While Cricket South Africa, along with its sponsors, is doing all it can to provide opportunities to the cream of the crop, many could be slipping through the net because the education and cricket programmes in rural areas are not what they should be. These are issues for the Department of Education to address, especially when you consider that about 70 schools across the country have accounted for the 150 international cricket players in the country since readmission. A holistic approach to developing South Africa’s young people is desperately needed, not just for transformation in sport, but in order for the country to thrive.
Header image: Daily Maverick
The small town of Alice is located about an hour and 40 minutes’ drive from the nearest city. While few would be able to point it out on a map, many will have heard of Fort Hare University.
Fort Hare, with its iconic old tower watching over all that happens on its campus, is alive with history. As the first university in South Africa to offer tuition to people of colour and boasting Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, Desmond Tutu and Chris Hani among its alumni, this sprawling campus is a revered place for its nurturing of some of South Africa’s most notable leaders.
The university is also home to one of the premier development programmes in South African cricket. The Fort Hare Academy – a Joint Venture Rural Academy Project between Fort Hare, Cricket South Africa and Momentum – has become the premier breeding ground of the country’s black cricketers.
Since its inception in 2009 the academy has produced over 25 semi-pro and franchise players. Click To Tweet
The programme is headed up by former South African fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam and Greg Hayes, who was central to the fast tracking of Makhaya Ntini. Since its inception in 2009 the academy has produced over 25 semi-pro and franchise players of the 50-odd who have come through the system. Those who don’t make it as cricketers might still find another job within the sport.
Nandile Tjale, the fitness and conditioning coach at the academy, realised while completing his degree in Human Movement Science that playing professionally wasn’t for him – but used his degree to find a career within the sport.
Fort Hare is at the top end of the development scale. Players stay on campus in Molefe house and are taught life skills, including nutrition and cooking, as well as money management. The academy is also considering making it compulsory for players to obtain their driver’s licence in the three years they spend studying. They work closely with Melonie Gobel, a well respected life coach, to help them navigate the challenges that come with moving from a rural to a more structured environment. Players can study either at Fort Hare University or the MSC Business College (Cape Town) and the students are selected from across the country. But talent identification for the broader Fort Hare Academy begins as early as six years old.
The junior talent identification programme works closely with players in the mini-cricket system. It identifies talent from the hubs in Alice, Middledrift, Healdtown and Fort Beaufort. Youngsters join the senior players at the academy for skills sessions, while also working closely with Gobel on life skills programmes on a bi-monthly basis. The academy would like to make these training sessions more regular, but transport cost and logistics remain a huge challenge in the area.
In order to ensure quality of opportunity and development, the top talent from the Under-11 and Under-13 age groups are also involved in Saturday fixtures against top schools like Selborne, Dale and Queen’s; however, maintaining these games financially – especially from a transport and nutritional aspect – remains a huge challenge. These youngsters are eventually placed in focus schools like Hudson Park, Dale College, Queens College and Selbourne High. Once players leave school, the idea is that they will come full circle and return to Fort Hare to complete their tertiary studies.
It sounds like a blueprint for success, but to get here has not been easy. While the cricket field, indoor centre and hostel here now look lush and professional, it’s been a long, hard slog for Hayes and Ngam.
When the programme was first dreamed up over seven years ago, the Eastern Cape’s proud history of cricket had been neglected and the field at Fort Hare was a far cry from the ground that hosted England during their 1999 tour of the country. On that day, about 3,000 people gathered to watch, cheering for every single move Makhaya Ntini made.
Following that match, the facility began to degenerate and it wasn’t until 2008, when the idea of a development academy was born, that it would begin to revive itself.
The indoor centre had become a bird aviary, a white elephant due to the lack of funding, and the field and nets had become unrecognisable.
But Hayes and the team were not daunted by the challenge. Upgrading started after a memorandum of understanding was signed between CSA and Fort Hare and the facility got a facelift before the official opening in 2009.
Hayes decided a better option would be to build the pitch himself. Click To Tweet
It wasn’t easy, but development never is. The programme is now busy renovating the second cricket field – one Hayes personally built. After getting quote after expensive quote – in the region of R1-million – to build a pitch and do the renovation, Hayes decided a far better option would be simply to do it himself.
If that doesn’t explain the passion – or possibly the partial insanity – of the man, nothing quite will. But beyond the superficial madness is a man who cares deeply about developing people, something which is evident through his interaction with the young students he has helped place at a number of these focus schools.
Luvo Ntsekwa and Athenkosi Mfazwe are both from Middledrift and are now at Hudson Park, where they are thriving. Both say they struggled to speak English when they first made the switch. Both are playing first team cricket – with Luvo also playing first team rugby while Athi is a hostel prefect. For both these teenagers, and many others like them, cricket has been a vehicle to change their lives and it will continue to be the driving force for better opportunities.
So, when the question is asked: does the programme work? – the answer is a resounding yes, and sponsors like Momentum deserve credit for buying into the long-term vision of the people who run it.
Fort Hare might not be churning out Test player after Test player (yet), but it has provided a launch platform for a number of careers. After all, their mandate is to produce players of semi-pro quality, to be handed over to provincial sides for further development.
For many youngsters, these opportunities would not have existed if it weren’t for cricket, and the cycle of struggle and poverty would have continued in their lives.
The people involved in this programme work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, battling challenges that are overlooked by those who think professional cricketers are just magicked from South Africa’s elite schools. While that does happen, it is not the best way to foster a culture of excellence that will make South Africa one of the best sports teams in the world.
Hayes and Ngam are two men hugely passionate about what they do, both with a unique understanding of what is required to help a youngster from the most rural areas of the Eastern Cape make it to the top. They make a mean team.
Hayes has spent most of his life fighting for equality in parts of the country where it’s far too easy to forget about the people who live there. It is difficult not to be enchanted by his passion – not just passion for cricket, but for developing people. He doesn’t care who gets the credit for his work that often flies under the radar. If he could be cloned and a version of him placed all around South Africa, sport would be in a far better place.
As with Basil D’Oliveira, the Fort Hare programme is about so much more than just cricket. Click To Tweet
As with Basil D’Oliveira, the Fort Hare programme is about so much more than just cricket. It’s about hope in a world where there often is none. It’s about resilience – both of the men who run it and the players who come through its ranks. It’s a parable for rectifying some of the grotesque injustices of the past.
And while cricket might indeed be an inherently elitist sport, the story of those who come through this system after growing up on dusty township streets or remote rural hills are becoming increasingly common thanks to this programme’s existence. These young men and women are mapping a pathway for others like them and programmes like these need all the support they can get.
People like Greg Hayes and his team should be taken as the blueprint for programmes in other parts of the country, not just in cricket, but in all South African sport, to ensure tangible and sustainable transformation in South African society.
Programmes like these – and people like Hayes – ensure that a beacon of hope still exists in a society that is constantly having its lights knocked out.
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In 2014, Cricket South Africa (CSA) launched its improved national excellence programme with a strong underlying message: we’re looking for more black African talent.
At the time, the governing body said it was looking to “unlock all the talent available in our country, especially black African,” and upped its investment in facilities across the country from R8-million to R17-million, in a bid to do so.
The idea behind the programme was to bridge the facilities gap where government was failing. The Hubs and Regional Performance Centres (RPCs) are each responsible for providing coaching to schools in their catchment area. In 2014, the number of Hubs and RPCs sat at 46 and, in 2015, CSA signed an Operational Agreement with the Departments of Basic Education (DBE) and Sport and Recreation South Africa (SRSA) to increase that number to 58.
The idea behind the Hubs and RPCs is that players would not only get access to regular, quality coaching, but would also be offered the opportunity to play against some of the country’s top schools.
Broadly, the system is functioning, but the players in these RPCs and Hubs are still not playing enough matches and the quality of matches is often poor. This is something CSA has identified as an issue to rectify.
A child in sport is a child out of court, or so the saying goes. Click To Tweet
Daily Maverick Chronicle visited four of the Hubs in two provinces – Mamelodi in Pretoria and Middledrift, Ntselamanzi and Healdtown, all in the Eastern Cape Region of Alice and Fort Beaufort.
At the hubs, the message from all the coaches and players is clear: well organised cricket structures and facilities help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds stay out of trouble. A child in sport is a child out of court, or so the saying goes.
Almost every single young player we spoke to said that playing cricket offers them hope, not only for better opportunities, but as a distraction from the challenges that come with living in poor communities. The threat of drugs, alcohol and other challenges is almost eliminated, because cricket requires such a time investment.
But transport, expensive gear and lack of facilities remain obstacles. While the sport’s governing body is doing its best with limited resources, it simply cannot absorb all the costs involved in levelling the playing field.
It is here where the South African government needs to come to the party to ensure that the facilities that do exist are properly maintained and that new ones are built. Once these structures improve and a child from a rural area has the same chance of making it to top tier cricket as a child from a more affluent suburb, there is no reason why South Africa should not become one of the best cricketing nations in the world.
Because, despite all these challenges, cricket is thriving.
About 20 minutes away from the opulence of Cricket South Africa’s High Performance Centre in Pretoria, Mamelodi Cricket Club lies in stark contrast to the gadgets and comforts of the academy. But passion and love for cricket weave their way right down the N4 highway that takes you there.
If you did not know there was a cricket club here, you’d pass it every day and be none the wiser. There are no fancy floodlights, and the changing rooms are modest facebrick rectangles, hidden behind concrete slabs. Just down the road looms the towering Lucas Moripe football stadium, which the club has to compete with for interest from the local community. Its expansive stands tower over the pitch like a colosseum, in contrast to the modest cricket club. This is just one of millions of contrasts that makes up the South African story.
While people swarm to watch Premier League winners Sundowns — even when they play 20 minutes away at Loftus Versveld and not just down the road — the people at Mamelodi Cricket Club struggle not only to get (and keep) kids in the programme, but to win over the community’s interest, attract sponsors and support.
Still, their passion is unwavering and has been since 1993, when the club was founded on a rubbish dump – quite literally. Back then, during the early years of unification, rolling out sport to disadvantaged communities was high on the agenda. Mamelodi had been one of the first beneficiaries of mini-cricket’s mass participation drive, but as their players started graduating, they realised that they needed something a bit more substantial. An old rubbish dump was cleared, grass planted and a pitch laid. Back then, the dressing rooms were two shacks.
An interactive map showing all the cricket hubs in South Africa. Graphic credit: Johanna Chisholm.
The facility has received an upgrade since and, while facilities are still modest, even on a winter’s afternoon in June the grass is surprisingly lush for this time of the year on the Highveld. The cricket club is a hub of activity. Young boys and girls aged six to 18, with gear obviously way too big for them – are nonetheless gathered on the field for their drills, as part of the elite group of players at Mamelodi.
Thabang Khumalo, head coach at the club, and Keletso Tjiane, the club’s administrator, beam when they talk about how far they have come.
“We’re not grooming only cricket players, we’re grooming individuals. We’re grooming future lawyers… you can be anything. The discipline that goes into that is very important. The amount of time you spend here eliminates the time you have to loiter around. By the time you’ve got into your system, it’s second nature,” Khumalo says.
As one of the few women administrators, Tjane hopes to transform the girls’ cricket programme. Click To Tweet
For Tjiane, the challenge is somewhat different. As one of the few women administrators working in cricket, she hopes to transform the girls’ cricket programme at Mamelodi. Herself a cricket player, she hopes to inspire a new generation of players to take up the sport and carve out a career in what has traditionally been considered a “man’s game”. But she faces the challenges of girls losing interest and dropping out because of social pressures; and disappearing from the system.
But Mamelodi Cricket Club has one thing that could help break down the barriers. It has twice hosted the Ekasi (meaning township in isiXhosa) Challenge, an annual event between the Lions and the Titans. The idea of the eKasi Challenge is to bring professional cricket to local, township ovals to encourage a new fan base. At the very heart of the eKasi Challenge is the intention of developing the sport at a grassroots level and using sports as a tool for initiating life-skills training and inspiring township youth.
This tournament, which takes cricket to communities that might never have the opportunity to see international stars in action, is something CSA views as a critical part of its future development, and something Corrie van Zyl, CSA’s general manager, would like to see expanding.
Khumalo and Tjiane have contrary views on the benefits of the tournament. Tjiane does not think that the tournament has brought many new local members to the game, while Khumalo says it “brings cricket closer to the community”.
“It will help if we have guys who play in our franchise team… they serve as ambassadors for township cricket… they come here and watch a guy who grew up next to them,” says Khumalo.
That message of hope and inspiration is a common thread with the hubs in the Eastern Cape, as are the challenges. They are scattered all across the province and even in one of the country’s most remote villages – Healdtown. Nestled on the hilltops between Alice and Fort Beaufort it is a hub filled with enthusiastic cricketers.
But no amount of enthusiasm can eliminate the fundamental challenges of lack of equipment, transport and, in many cases, nutrition. Kids who come from such desperately poor backgrounds often turn up to practice hungry. These very real issues, coupled with the logistical nightmare of arranging for regular, quality fixtures, is one of the biggest challenges facing development of black talent in the country.
Exposure to the game at a young age is crucial to igniting a lasting interest in the sport — and the game of mini cricket has done a tremendous job of reaching thousands of little kids everywhere in the country. Most current South African players will probably tell you that’s exactly how their career started, too.
But mass participation still only provides a leg up for a few lucky players, and overcoming the vast inequality that curbs the development of all talented young cricketers is something CSA cannot do on its own. The problems these programmes face go hand-in-hand with the broader societal challenges in South Africa. Overcoming those will take more people or businesses like Mthetheleli Ngumbela in Healdtown, and, most critically, it will take a widespread effort from government to invest in the people far too often forgotten about in a country that is so vast.
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Becoming an elite sportsperson takes an exceptional amount of work – unless you are AB de Villiers or Kagiso Rabada. Even if you are one of the freakishly talented ones, the path to the top — and staying there consistently — can be brutal.
Bridging the gap between schoolboy, semi-pro, domestic and eventually international cricket is a challenge all teams face. Think, for instance, of English player Mark Ramprakash, who scored 35,659 runs at 53.14 in 461 first-class matches, but averaged just 27.32 in his 52 Tests. Australia’s Shaun Tait is another example. He took 198 wickets at an average of 28.59 in 50 first class matches. He only ever played three Tests and took just five wickets. He continues to perform in T20s, but could never make the transition to the longest format of the game.
Cricket is littered with such examples, but all teams have now realised that bridging that gap takes a holistic approach.
The High Performance Centre is nestled on the University of Pretoria Campus. It is everything you might imagine a High Performance facility to be. The abstract building – whose closest relative in shape can surely only be a block of cheese – houses some of the most high-tech equipment available to modern teams. And it is here where many of the young players who have come through the hubs, the focus schools and even the Fort Hare Academy come to refine their craft.
“The National Academy and the Centre of Excellence are important tools in ensuring that we remain relevant. It’s a place where we can expose talent that’s never been exposed to the type of technology, facilities and infrastructure to help them become the best they can be,” explains Corrie van Zyl .
CSA’s mandate is not to build facilities around the country. Click To Tweet
It was a pricey project, costing in the region of R30-million to construct. It’s a sum that will make you squirm, especially when considering how many basic facilities are still lacking around the country. But CSA’s mandate is not to build facilities around the country. Instead, its to produce a winning team, and the finishing school here is an integral part of that process.
Every year for three months, the academy takes in a number of cricketers identified as the next crop of players. For those three months, players are drilled day in, day out. Their mornings start at 6am with a 5km run, followed by yoga or Pilates. After breakfast, players move on to lectures given by former players and current coaches and then progress to either gym or skills sessions. The programme carries on until late in the afternoon and then starts all over again the next day.
“The National Academy programme is aimed at looking at the holistic development of a player, so it looks at all aspects, and not just cricket-related skill and tactical awareness, but also the physical aspects, the psychological aspects of the game, the medical screening and then, more importantly, what other support a player needs in order to get to a level where he or she can perform at professional and international standards,” explains Van Zyl.
“So we talk about a performance lifestyle of a player, what is his social background, what is his economic background and how does that affect his ability to perform at the top level. Those are the types of gaps that we want to close through this programme, which gives that kind of support to the players,” he says.
Players also receive assistance with financial planning and, once the academy stint is completed, people like Vincent Barnes monitor the players’ performances at their provincial and franchise teams.
Rabada is the academy’s most famous graduate, proving that even if you possess the freakishly talented gene, a finishing school goes a long way in helping prepare you to make the transition.
But the Centre of Excellence also plays a critical role in Cricket South Africa’s transformation framework. By the time players arrive here, they usually have a fair amount of experience under their belts. Most have gone to some of South Africa’s top schools through the CSA bursary programme, and many have even attended the Fort Hare Academy.
While the centre focuses on all players – not just black and black African players – it does aid the continued holistic development of players from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is critical.
The thinking around transformation and what it actually means is finally starting to shift. Yes, it means change, yes, numbers help, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of the system. Equal and fair access to resources and opportunities for all of South Africa’s budding sports people is the cornerstone of making transformation a word that doesn’t send fear-mongering white people running for the hills.
Far too often it is assumed that excellence is not synonymous with transformation and that transformation means compromising excellence. Some go as far as to suggest that black players simply aren’t as good as their white counterparts, period. If that sounds too far-fetched to comprehend, trawl through Facebook comments on the subject matter and you’ll see people publicly airing these racist views.
The incessant babbling of the Sport and Recreation Department – which has failed in its mandate to offer adequate facilities for sport development – means that the transformation battle will remain an uphill struggle for the foreseeable future, but some are pottering up that hill for as long as it takes and Cricket South Africa’s Centre of Excellence is firmly positioned at one of the crossroads along the way.
When sporting governing bodies start thinking about transformation and High Performance being mutually exclusive, South Africa will become a side as fearsome as the West Indies from the 1970s and 1980s, and the Australians after them. Here is where the Centre of Excellence plays such a vital role.
Andile Phehlukwayo, who was part of the 2016 academy as well as the 2015 Under-19 World Cup winning team, joined the South African A team on a tour to Zimbabwe after his stint at the academy and claimed his best ever figures in a first class match (seven for 82) as he helped bowl South Africa A to an innings and 81 run victory.
“I don’t think a lot of people have access to such facilities in South Africa. I’m lucky enough to be selected to be part of this,” he says of the intensive training programme.
Phehlukwayo is a prime example of what happens when talent is identified and given an opportunity. The son of a domestic worker, growing up in Margate Phehlukwayo was not exposed to cricket until he met his mom’s employer.
“Once I had learnt the basics of cricket, I would just go into the garage, throw the ball against the wall and hit it. Growing up in Margate, we all played mini cricket, but we did not really have the structures or infrastructure to play that much,” he adds.
But eventually he would get his opportunity. As a budding young sportsman, he was given a scholarship to Glenwood High for hockey, but the school would soon discover his aptitude for cricket. By the time he was in Grade 11, he was representing his country at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup. In the 2015-16 season, he finished as the leading wicket-taker for the Dolphins in both the T20 and one-day competitions.
The academy was then a natural progression of his journey and, while he shies away from discussing the word transformation too much, he admits:
“It helps us get opportunities that other people never got. But at the same time, we’re just here to play sport,” the 20-year-old says.
How many other players like Phehlukwayo have we missed because of the lack of transformation? Click To Tweet
The question then is: how many other players like Phehlukwayo are out there, and how many have we already missed because of the lack of transformation? Mass participation through mini-cricket has been immensely effective in identifying some youngsters, but there must be hundreds, even thousands of players in rural areas – an as yet largely untapped talent pool.
While the Centre of Excellence will help bridge the gap at the top level, the challenge of combining high performance at grassroots level across the country remains. This is a challenge Cricket South Africa cannot solve alone. They need buy-in from all the government stakeholders and corporations in order to help identify that talent.
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What became clear during the course of investigating this story was that Cricket South Africa is doing more than most people want to believe in the area of transformation. While Daily Maverick Chronicle only visited a small fraction of the current projects, the unsung heroes of development are happy to plough on behind the scenes while the discourse unravels.
The most notable aspect of the future of South African cricket is that many players who were denied opportunities by a dehumanising regime are now thriving in leadership and mentorship roles, helping the new generation navigate the still complex paths to the top.
That does not mean the system is perfect. Adequate management of the hubs and RPC programmes, as well as the monitoring of quality of coaching at all cricket programmes – including the franchise teams – will always be a challenge, especially with the lure of foreign currency on offer to SA’s best coaches. The latter in particular has become starkly apparent in recent weeks.
In the final weeks of researching this piece, no fewer than three South African officials left for jobs in New Zealand, and Allan Donald, South Africa’s former bowling coach, is now with the Australian team. More often than not these moves are an inevitable part of the globalisation of sport. When an engineer or a teacher leaves the country to work overseas, it is seen as a natural progression, but we are far more sensitive about our sports people leaving, even if the reason is something as simple as being able to earn a better income.
The financial challenge of the weak Rand is going to become a far bigger obstacle than transformation in the near future, which makes it even more critical that South Africa taps into the wealth of talent lying in wait.
But there remains a serious challenge in terms of access to opportunities and resources.
Mamelodi, housing about 500,000 people, has just one cricket field, which means players who are interested in the sport have to travel from far and wide to access the facility. Cape Town’s Bishop’s College, Herschelle Gibbs’ Alma mater, has eight fields, including one under floodlights. The case is the same for many other top South African schools.
It is only once these discrepancies are overcome that we will be able to say that we have truly achieved transformation. We have said it already: these problems will not be solved until the government starts fulfilling its mandate to provide equal opportunities for all. Transformation, after all, should not be about ticking boxes, but about changing the South African landscape .
Overwhelmingly, everybody Daily Maverick Chronicle spoke to was positive about the future of South African cricket, yet these feelings often do not resonate with the public .
At the time of writing, the Test team ranked sixth – the lowest ranking in more than a decade – and the limited overs side had been dumped out of the World T20 group stages earlier in the year. The Vernon Philander/Kyle Abbott selection debacle of the 2015 World Cup is also still fresh in the memories of fans.
The upcoming 2016-17 season will become a defining one in South African cricket. Teams have now had more time to recruit and develop young, black talent, and have to find a way to strike a balance with targets in mind – all while Cricket South Africa’s commercial arm has to think about how they can make their T20 competition generate more money. The national team face tough tours against New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka and will be preparing for the Champions Trophy in England, as well as a Test series in the country. All eyes will be on a team still firmly embedded in a transitional phase.
American writer William Arthur Ward once said, “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records.” South African cricket could certainly do with breaking a few records over the next few months. DM
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