By Professor Ashwin Desai
THE seeing eye is never innocent. What we see is conditioned by who we are, where we have been, what we have seen before – Andrew Merrifield
Are we looking at the same game? Have we mistakenly brought blinkers instead of binoculars to the ground?
One of the first black players to knock on the door for Proteas’ selection was Herschelle Gibbs.
A huge public outcry began for at least one black player to be in the team for the upcoming West Indies tour in 1998/9.
Gibbs was promoted into the team for the second Test in Port Elizabeth ahead of the incumbent Adam Bacher. Gibbs was a batsman of fabulous talent.
Yet, his inclusion was seen as “outside” intervention. Rodney Hartman, Ali Bacher’s official biographer, saw it as Adam Bacher becoming a “victim the truth was that Gibbs had to play in order to provide a ‘player of colour’.”
Ironically, Gibbs was in line for the earlier England tour, but lost out to Gerhardus Liebenberg, who proved an unmitigated disaster.
So pivotal was what the English referred to as “walking wicket” failure that Colin Bryden argued that “Gibbs or Ackerman could have made all the difference”.
Despite this assertion, Bryden goes on to qualify that the selection of Gibbs for the West Indies tour of South Africa “was an act of expediency”, while coach Bob Woolmer demurred: “I think it was actually my suggestion that he open the batting, if only because we couldn’t do any worse.”
In light of this, let’s take a look at the stats.
Gibbs played 90 Test matches with an average of 41.95 and a strike rate of 50.26, 248 ODIs with an average of 36.13 and a strike rate of 83.25.
Adam Bacher, 19 Test matches with an average of 26.03, a strike rate of 40.48 and 13 ODIs with an average of 20.76 and a strike rate of 57.57. Liebenberg, five Test matches ending with an average of 13 and 4 ODIs with an average of 23.5.
When Hansie Cronjé was in charge, you could be hopeless and still be included. Nothing exemplifies this more than Pieter Coenraad Strydom.
He played two Tests, scored 35 runs with an average of 11.66, and in 10 ODIs scored 48 runs at an average of 9.60 and bowled 252 balls, taking a haul of two.
Strydom’s lack of even mediocrity was a point made with some humour by Deon Gouws, when it was revealed that Cronjé had approached Strydom during his corruption innings: “Pieter Strydom? Surely not. Why would anyone in their right mind pay him to play badly? He had, after all, been doing that for free ever since he started playing for the Proteas!”
By the 1980s, a range of factors conspired to shatter black cricket. It is understandable that when the Proteas were born, there were no black cricketers worthy of selection.
The mantra, from the economy to the cricket field, was that we needed to be internationally competitive.
Out of this, a bounty would arrive that would fuel the reconstruction and development (RDP) of our country. It was short-term loss for long-term gain.
The RDP soon became referred to as Rumours, Dreams and Promises.
And so we came to live in a time of make-believe. In 1995 the national rugby team, with one black player (excluding Nelson Mandela), was hailed as representative of the rainbow nation. A white Proteas team was normalised.
For a black player to become a Protea, a white player would have to be replaced.
The two trespassers were Makhaya Ntini and Gibbs. Like Gibbs, Ntini exuded talent. Allan Donald, not prone to effusiveness, saw Ntini as “a more complete fast bowler than I was at that age”.
Ntini was the leading Test wicket-taker in the world in 2003, with a haul of 59 wickets in 12 Tests at 26.54 and his career was boundary breaking and history making.
But Gibbs and Ntini would not only always bear the mark of quota players but scabs crossing the wicket line.
Fast-forward a decade and a half later and the narrative of questioning the ability of black players persisted. One of the 2015 SA Cricket Annual Cricketers of the Year was Kagiso Rabada. In the annual, journalist Heinz Schenk wrote:
“The buzzing, right-arm quick bowler has become a beacon of Cricket SA’s renewed transformation drive. It is understandable that South African cricket needs to produce another ethnic gem like Makhaya Ntini, while there’s also an undercurrent of pressure from government Rabada has been central in that drive, being fast-tracked into all of the Proteas’ three squads.
“It’s all very well marvelling at his meteoric rise, but it would be foolhardy not to address what unavoidably is the elephant in the room.”
Is Rabada a man earmarked for political expedience? Was his selection a result of the need to “produce another ethnic gem like Makhaya Ntini” or political expedience or quotas, or was it that Rabada was simply good enough to play for his country?
And do any of the selection motives matter if the result is to unearth such polished achievement? We never really get the answer, but it is startling that a young player handed the accolade of one of the country’s players of the year is confronted with these questions in an article that is supposed to celebrate his excellence.
As if to exemplify the difference in treatment, there are no such questions of the white player, Rilee Rossouw, another cricketer of the year, profiled by Neil Manthorp in the same annual.
This despite Rossouw starting his international one-day career with two ducks. Instead, he is linked with Sachin Tendulkar and Rabada with political expediency.
CSA has played into this narrative by imposing quotas with the target demographic representation.
From some quarters it has led to a call that, of the black Africans selected, at least two must bat in the top four or five and that black Africans must be bowled in the death overs.
It is this kind of social engineering that could effectively take the heart out of cricket; its ebbs and flows and decisions made on the hoof to turn the tide in one’s favour. In cricket, captains continue to be seen as imaginative thinkers.
But having to read from a racial script will hem in this ability. And, what of ability? If a franchise has developed two spinners labelled coloured that have the potential to be world class, a leg and an off-spinner bowling in tandem, learning from each other, must one be farmed out to another franchise?
Must we have half a player of Indian origin in the rugby team and always two whites in the soccer team? What if one of the white players gets injured or loses form? Who will decide the race of a young cricketer? Will the pencil test come back?
During the lockdown, I daily walked past a camp set up for those who are homeless.
Every day, a man bowls a bedraggled tennis ball to a white toddler, who has an uncanny ability to play straight with a misshapen plastic bat.
By the 100th day I had to challenge myself about privilege, about the old chestnuts of race and class, and the policies that will make the Earth flatter for this boy surviving on Catholic guilt.
During the height of apartheid’s madness, the scripture of “same opportunity” was raised by black sportsmen and women.
One can see how these words possessed such an evocative ring. Nearly 30 years after cricket unification, can they bring into sharper focus both race and class privilege?
Can we move from the hollowness of transformation speak, which even the ANC concedes “has been divested of radicalism and reduced to head counts”, to the idea of systemic change?
BLM offers little in this regard reduced to spectacle rather than substance.
The Long Room has a tendency to make you look for quick hits rather than a patient, carefully crafted innings. For these leaders you see, some Black Lives Matter; their own.
They make Hansie Cronjé look like a street corner pickpocket as they leak millions into pyramid schemes.
From the second half of the 19th century, there were those who have sought to exclude and those who sought to liberate the game from the prison of race.
There was a brief sniff of freedom as apartheid was run out of town. But the racial chauvinists of all hues are leading a counter-attack.
The cracks are deepening. But we must keep batting, for as JM Coetzee reminds us, “cricket is not just a game” but “the truth of life”.
* Ashwin Desai is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg
** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media