The Story Of An African Game

By Michael Doman Time of article published Jul 31, 2003

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The Story Of An African Game

Author: André Odendaal

One of South Africa's greatest sporting myths has been debunked. Black African men not only can bowl fast, bat elegantly, field athletically; they have been doing so for 150 years - as long as white men have been doing so in this country.

Cricket is not a recent innovation in black African culture, it flourished in the late 1800s. By 1888 representative teams were being selected in Kimberley and Port Elizabeth and two years later regular inter-town tournaments were established.

Thirty years earlier cricket was already being played in Cape Town, but it took hold among Africans only later with the establishment of mission schools whose aim was to bring "civilised values to the heathen".

The history of African cricket in South Africa has not always been obvious. There were, after all, no statistics, no photographs and no famous figures from the past. In a time of rigid segregation it was also assumed that only the English played the game, forgetting the rich cricket tradition of the Cape Malays and other groups including Afrikaners, Indians and coloured people.

Now, in a seminal work that ranks alongside the great sports books of our nation, historian and prominent cricket figure André Odendaal has put black African cricket in its rightful historical perspective.

With material accumulated over 25 years' research, Odendaal has two narratives in one book. The first is a broad social history of black African cricket covering 100 years up to the 1940s. The second is the discovery of a hero, Khaya Majola, and the story is about the Majola family who were to black African cricket what the Pollocks have been to the white history of the game.

Odendaal, who played first-class cricket in England and on both sides of the segregated system in South Africa, is a historian who became the first director of the Mayibuye Centre for History and Culture at the University of the Western Cape and the first director of Robben Island Museum.

He resigned from the museum earlier this year and has since been working on The Story of an African Game. Its completion and publication is the realisation of a dream.

The book has been a labour of love for Odendaal, who played for Boland, Transvaal and Western Province sides, and was also a blue for cricket by Cambridge University.

Ever since, while researching an earlier book more than two decades ago, he came upon reports and scorecards in Xhosa of cricket matches played in the 19th century by black Africans, he has been determined to share his discovery. Even just days before submitting the final draft of the book, Odendaal was uncovering new material for the book.

In a tale of divergent family fortunes dating back to the mid-1800s, Odendaal details how Chief Mhala of the Ndlambe branch of the Xhosa people was consigned to Robben Island after being convicted on trumped up charges.

One of his sons, who anglicised his name to to Nathaniel Cyril Umhalla, was then among a group of 35 "princes and princesses" transported to Cape Town in the 1850s as part of a scheme by governor Sir George Grey to enrol them in a school to "civilise" and "assimilate" them into the colonial economy and structures.

The eventual location of the college was on the former wine farm Zonnebloem, on the edge of District Six, from where Umhalla could observe his father's place of incarceration.

Umhalla featured in Zonnebloem's cricket teams, before going to study in England for two years. In November 1870 he played in a team containing several ex-Zonnebloem pupils in a match against the white Queenstown club, with the Queenstown Free Press recording that the former Cape Town students were far from disgraced in having the worst of a drawn match.

The newspaper provides a full scorecard of the match, almost certainly the earliest detailed example to show the love for the game among Africans.

And although it notes that "some intelligent men" surprisingly shook their heads at the notion of the match, it adds: "We cannot see it and must attribute such feelings to the abominable prejudice which would raise impassable barriers between one race and another."

Umhalla captained the Champion Cricket Club of King William's Town in the first inter-town match against Ngqika Cricket Club from East London in 1883 and the next year he led his club to victory in the first inter-town club competition for black clubs in the Cape.

Immediately afterwards Champion CC challenged and beat the local Alberts Cricket Club, one of the earliest and best known white clubs in the colony.

In 1889 a report described Umhalla as among the best players and worthy of consideration for a proposed "Anglo-African" team to tour England, a status which, Odendaal suggests, allowed one to contemplate according him the epithet of the "African Ranji".

In the 1880s, after 10 wars of dispossession, hundreds of thousands of Africans had become British subjects.

Cricket spread by virtue of its established tradition in hundreds of mission schools, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

Lovedale College near Alice, run by the Presbyterians, became the most famous of these schools (the book features the first known cricket action photograph of black cricketers, in the "1890s or earlier", taken at Lovedale).

Lovedale and Healdtown, as the main nurseries for African cricket, developed an intense rivalry around inter-college matches, much as did the local white boys' schools such as Queen's, Dale, Selborne and St An-drew's colleges.

In 1891, Lovedale beat Dale, more than a century later the alma mater of Makhaya Ntini, by 15 runs. Such a result shows how well developed the early black cricket culture was.

The book traces cricket developments in various communities, exploring events which took place in the SA Coloured Cricket Board, the SA Bantu Cricket Board, and eventually the SA Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) and SA Cricket Board, which made moves towards non-racialism.

The book has a foreword by former president Nelson Mandela and is billed as a tribute to the late Khaya Majola, older brother of the present United Cricket Board (UCB) chief executive Gerald Majola.

Khaya Majola was one of South Africa's most important black cricketers and an important administrator once the various cricket bodies unified as the UCB in the early 1990s.

The 343-page text is enriched by hundreds of photographs, and reproductions of newspaper articles and scorecards.

The latter two-thirds of the volume reflect the story of South African cricket, from the 1950s, by following the progress of one player and his family.

The player in question is Eric Majola, father of Khaya and Gerald, who both gained national colours for the South African Cricket Board in 1987 - the only brothers and only Africans to gain this distinction in the SACB.

Father Eric had been a double "Bantu Springbok" in rugby and cricket, as a sporting legend of the 1950s and 1960s, and is still referred to by older sports followers as a flyhalf in the mould of Hansie Brewis, Keith Oxlee and Cliff Morgan of Wales.

The details which emerge from this narrative provide an intimate picture of African sport, seen against the background of apartheid, introduced in 1948 as formal state policy.

The impact of the game on other areas of life, and the broader influences that shaped cricket in the African community, are explored minutely.

Prominent figures like Eric Majola's bosom friend and schoolmate (and eventual neighbour in the PE township of New Brighton) Dan Qeqe, a well-known player and administrator, feature prominently in this section of the book.

Majola and his peers often played in Christmas tournaments, run by specially created boards in the rural areas they originated from. One such structure was the Zondeki Cricket Board, founded in 1939 at Izeli by the grandfather of SA international player Monde Zondeki.

Khaya Majola played first-class cricket for 17 years in the 1970s and 1980s, attaining the notable feats of playing in a record number of first-class games and ending up one of three all-rounders in two decades to score more than 2 000 runs and take 200 wickets.

He died prematurely of cancer in 2000 and his contribution as player and administrator to the game nationally was recognised when the national under-19 schools cricket week was named after him.

  • Odendaal is also a co-editor (with Krish Reddy and Christopher Merrett) of a UCB-sanctioned two-volume Official History of South African Cricket, 1808-2003 due to be published next year.

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