The Cricket World Cup opens on Thursday with the Proteas facing their old enemy, England. For a change, South Africa is not perhaps one of the favourites, but all cricket lovers will be whispering to themselves: ‘This is the one. We won’t mess this one up.’
Even without AB de Villiers, who revealed himself as the most treacherous South African since Marthinus van Schalkwyk when he announced his decision last year to retire from international cricket, the Proteas will still be quietly confident. They have an inspirational and steely captain in Faf du Plessis; the explosive genius of Quinton de Kock; David Miller, the power hitter; Kagiso Rabada, already one of the best fast bowlers in the world at the age of 23; and the calm heads of veterans Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn.
But perhaps one of the biggest stories of South Africa’s World Cup emerged well before any ball was bowled in anger when Thabang Moroe, the CEO of the sport’s governing body, Cricket South Africa (CSA), announced in April that there would be no ‘targets’ in selecting the World Cup squad. By this, Moroe meant that teams would be selected with no consideration of political factors, which is to say, teams would be picked without having to meet demographic criteria.
This has been a vexed issue in South Africa for a long time – more than a century, in fact. It goes all the way back to late-Victorian era star H ‘Krom’ Hendricks – acknowledged at the time as South Africa’s fastest bowler, and nicknamed ‘the red-hot trundler’ – who was dropped from the national touring side to Britain in 1894 due to interference by Cecil John Rhodes. In the decades thereafter, the South African national cricket side was (with the exception of Buck Llewellyn) an exclusive preserve of white South Africans, right up until the 1990s, when Paul Adams, the unorthodox spin bowler made his debut as an 18-year-old against England.
However, as apartheid receded into history, it became clear that having a national representative side that was all-white was not palatable in post-apartheid South Africa. Along with development efforts at lower levels, from the late 1990s an unofficial quota was established for South Africa. In fact, however, very few of the players picked did not deserve to be there. An argument could be made that players such as Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince, and Makhaya Ntini, were picked before they were ready for international cricket, but they proved themselves to be great servants to South African cricket – and, in the case of Ntini, an indisputable all-time great.
The imperative to ensure that the demographic mix of the Proteas side is correct ended in farce. Percy Sonn, the former President of CSA, intervened in the selection in 2002 when he declared that the (coloured) Justin Ontong had to be picked over the (white) Jacques Rudolph. Similarly, a late-night SMS was sent by the then CEO of CSA, Haroon Lorgat to Russel Domingo, then the coach, the night before the semi-final against New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup. Domingo was instructed to play Vernon Philander ahead of the in-form Kyle Abbott. South Africa narrowly lost that match. The meddling in selection cannot have done much for the players and their mental states.
Hopefully, this kind of meddling will now be a thing of the past, following Moroe’s announcement last month.
And yet, when it comes down to it, any South African team selected during this World Cup will be one of the most diverse yet. While the more blatant race nationalists will cry that the team is not representative because it does not perfectly reflect the country’s racial demographics, each of South Africa’s communities will be represented in the side. There is now simply no need to implement quotas at the national level – the Proteas are a diverse team, with all players picked on merit.
And this is how South Africans want their national sides to be picked. New research conducted by the IRR to be released this week shows that the vast majority of South Africans do not want quotas to be implemented at the national level. Of the over 1 000 South Africans surveyed, 83% said that they believed quotas should not be used to pick national sides. Over 80% of black and coloured respondents thought only merit should be used, with 90% of white respondents, and three-quarters of Indian respondents, saying merit should be the only criterion.
There is probably an argument to be made for the use of quotas at lower levels of professional sport, but it is more difficult to argue for them at the national level. And, as is now clear from the composition of the team, picked on merit, quotas are unnecessary. The entire Cricket World Cup squad is one of our most diverse yet, with no question mark hovering over the ability of any of the players selected.
And should South Africa manage to finally win this elusive trophy at Lords in London on 14 July, only the most race-obsessed South Africans will give a second’s thought to the colour of the hands raising the trophy aloft.
* Marius Roodt is head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.