How much do black cricketers matter?
Aaron Phangiso speaks without hesitation in response to whether he would support the #BlackLivesMatter movement since the death of George Floyd in the US last month.
Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, died as a white police officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death has sparked protests around the world with sportspeople being among the most prominent calling for social change.
“I don’t know if you remember but I was part of that letter that was written by ‘Black Cricketers in Unity’ to Cricket South Africa (in 2015) even though I was still in the Proteas team. We got guys to sign and got everyone to buy into it. I am all for change,” the former Proteas left-arm spinner said from his home during lockdown.
Rewind to 1996. South Africa’s infant democracy is still in nappies. It is at this juncture that the barely teenage Phangiso leaves the shelter of his family home in Garankuwa to begin his extraordinary journey at Boksburg’s Christian Brothers College that ultimately climaxes at the pinnacle of the game. A road littered with so many potholes which to this day have not been filled entirely.
“I don’t actually know how to explain it. You know when you walk into a completely different world. You don’t know what to expect. Nobody has actually prepped you in terms of how things are done. I remember the first time I went to lunch at boarding school, and you know when you have to line up and all of that before you walk into the hall. I walked in without my shoes! My mind was still eKasi mentality. Yassis boss! I got detention for all of that. It was a whole different world. It took me three years to adjust,” Phangiso said.
“I think the hard thing I found was the fact that I was judged a lot. We were called scholarship boys told that we don’t belong because we didn’t even pay to be there. I found that very tough. There were a couple of teachers and boys that would come hard at you in the way they talked to you when you made mistakes. You know what it’s like if you respond they soma tune you ‘I am going to give my dad a call’. We didn’t have those powers.”
Powerless. Alone. Even afraid.
These are feelings that have smothered Phangiso for most of his career despite Cricket SA’s commitment to transformation since the turn of the millennium when provincial teams were mandated to field four black players. It has since been increased to six in the current franchise era with a stipulation that at least three have to be black African.
Implementing numbers when people are involved is seemingly a much more complex exercise. And even though Phangiso graduated from the same SA U19 class of 2003 with AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander, his transition into professional cricket with the Titans franchise gave birth to a great deal of insecurity.
“I felt as an African I needed to prove myself all over again (at the Titans). We had all sort of progressed together, but it was like starting at the beginning, telling myself that I never made SA U19 because of the colour of my skin,” he said.
“At the Titans there were a lot of times where I felt I was only playing because of the numbers. I felt that a lot at the Titans. It was something that was always there. I am not the only black guy that would say something like that. There are a lot of guys who would feel the same way. If you speak to the African guys that played at the Titans, you could feel that it was an Afrikaans environment.
“I only got chances at the ‘B’ level. I never felt that my skill was needed. It was almost the fact that I knew I was batting at No 10 and bowling three overs in a match. That didn’t make sense. I played with Johann Myburgh and all of them. Those guys weren’t being picked to be spinners, but you would find that they bowled more than you. Even Roela (Roelof van der Merwe) was converted from a wicketkeeper to a spinner. I never felt that I ever played a role to change the match situation. That’s exactly how I felt at the Titans.”
Phangiso required an intervention. It came in the form of his former SA U19 coach Dave Nosworthy, who by then was the neighbouring Highveld Lions mentor.
“Noz called me up and said 'I am looking for quality black African players'. He said ‘I will give you the opportunity to play’. It was there that my mindset shifted. For the first time I felt like this guy is not using me. He was straightforward. He never bulls***d me. The word ‘quality’ eish that word meant something.”
Under Nosworthy’s tutelage Phangiso’s playing career flourished. He played regularly for the Lions and developed into one of the premier white-ball spinners in the country. But yet he remained a troubled individual. Although the Lions were showing signs of a team reflecting the greater demographics of the country, Phangiso still felt that “I couldn’t be myself”.
“I was living in a white man’s world."
Searching for an outlet, Phangiso turned to alcohol to numb his troubles. It was a problem that never left him despite the career trajectory that by now progressed all the way to the national team, heralding a Proteas T20I debut against New Zealand in December 2012 in East London, followed by an ODI bow a few weeks later.
However, instead of his Proteas career being a celebration of the sacrifices and prejudices he had to endure to get there, it was simply yet another barrier placed before him. In fact, one senior scribe described Phangiso’s 37-game period with the Proteas as a “test of patience”.
None more so than the 2015 World Cup in Australasia. Phangiso was the only member of the 15-man squad not to feature in a game - a fact highlighted later by the “Black Cricketers in Unity” in their grievance letter to Cricket SA.
“I actually just want to forget about it (the World Cup). I went through so many emotions. Everything you think you have done, leading up to the World Cup, thinking you are good enough to play and compete at that level was taken back to the beginning. It was like I was back at school. It’s like a cycle.”
Frustrated. Angry. Disappointed. Perplexed. Undervalued.
Phangiso was all that and more. The crowning moment of his career had been stolen from him.
This provoked an even greater trust in the bottle, leading to a tumultuous few months which included an arrest for drunken driving in Soshanguve shortly upon his return from the World Cup, unable to board a flight from Dubai to Johannesburg due to drunken behaviour and being caught by television cameras pretending to snort a substance off his leg while sitting in the Proteas dugout during the second T20 against England.
Herschelle Gibbs was yesterday’s news. Phangiso was now the media’s new “bad boy” of South African cricket when in reality he was the most misunderstood. He was crying out for someone he could confide in. He needed “a brother” that he could relate to.
His name was Geoff Toyana, who was Nosworthy’s successor at the Lions, and had also come through the Titans’ system as a player.
“I don’t even know how to put this in words, but I know how I am feeling. It’s like with Geoff it felt like I was home. I am grateful to Noz for giving me the opportunities, but playing for Geoff was a feeling like you were playing under your brother. He understood all the cultural dynamics. He understood me not just as a player, but as a person. A human being!
“He comes from the same struggle. He understood that I made mistakes on and off the field. He knew how to approach you as a black African and tap into you culturally to get the best out of you. I knew I wasn’t playing just because I was a darkie.”
Toyana was also a bastion of support when Phangiso faced arguably his greatest challenge when his action was deemed illegal in a domestic One-Day Cup semi-final at the Wanderers. The timing could not have been worse with the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup in India on the horizon.
“Obviously Phangi was really worried. It was his career on the line,” said Toyana, who went with his player to meet the match officials after the game.
There is a silver lining this time around though. Following intense remedial work with former Proteas bowling coach Vincent Barnes, Phangiso’s suspension was lifted just in time for him to board the flight to India.
He repaid the effort by claiming the Man of the Match award against Sri Lanka in Delhi just a month and five days after originally being called. The performance included what many believed to be “the ball of the tournament” when Phangiso clean bowled Lahiru Thirimanne with a stunner that turned sharply to slice through the gate and knock over the left-hander’s stumps.
Phangiso has not played for South Africa since February 2018. Now 36, he is unlikely to do so again.
He’s not bitter though due to “knowing I was never dropped for lack of performance” and now focuses largely on nurturing the younger players at the Lions.
“My boy loves the game. He is 7 years old. The last thing I want is to see him go through what a lot of black African players have gone through. If there is an opportunity to effect change, I will definitely strive to do that,” Phangiso said.
Independent on Saturday