FILE - Thami Tsolekile at practice during the South African tour to India in Eden Gardens in Kolkata, India in 2004. Photo: Duif du Toit/Touchline Photo
FILE - Thami Tsolekile at practice during the South African tour to India in Eden Gardens in Kolkata, India in 2004. Photo: Duif du Toit/Touchline Photo

SJN Hearings: Graeme Smith didn’t want me in his Proteas team, says Thami Tsolekile

By Stuart Hess Time of article published Jul 20, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG – Thami Tsolekile told the Social Justice and Nation Building hearings on Monday that the former Proteas captain, Graeme Smith never wanted him in the national men’s side.

Tsolekile’s testimony was among the most vivid that SJN advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza and his two assistants, Fumisa Ngqeleand Sandile July have heard. They included Tsolekile talking about how he and a fellow balck teammate slept on a kitchen floor while part of the Western Province under-13 side, while white players had more comfortable accomodation and how he and other black African players suffered discrimination while part of a national training academy squad in the late 1990s.

However it was his testimony about Smith, who Tsolekile captained during the 2000 Under-19 World Cup, that struck a chord, particularly Tsolekile outlining how he believed Smith blocked him from establishing himself as an international player.

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Tsolekile played three Tests for South Africa in 2004, but believes he would have played more were it not for Smith, currently Cricket SA’s Director of Cricket. “Talking from experience, I can tell you, Mr. Smith never wanted me in that (South African) set-up,” Tsolekile told the hearing.

Tsolekile cited interaction with two national selection convenors, Andrew Hudson and Linda Zondi as evidence of that belief.

Referring to the two Test home series against New Zealand in January 2013, Tsolekile said he’d been promised by Hudson that he would play. Earlier in 2012, Mark Boucher had suffered his career ending eye injury in England, with Tsolekile flown over to provide cover.

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On a tour later that year, with Tsolekile part of the squad in Australia, and where he expected to play he was overlooked for AB de Villiers.

It was following that series, that Hudson made the promise that in the subsequent home series against New Zealand, that Tsolekile would get his chance to start another Test. “In 2012 Andrew Hudson came to me and said I would definitely play against New Zealand, the night before the game, Hudson called me and in his own words said that Graeme Smith didn’t want me in his team.”

De Villiers kept wicket in that series.

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Zondi, initially part of the national selection panel in 2013 and later a convenor, told Tsolekile something similar, although the former wicket-keeper wasn’t specific about when that occurred.

Asked by Ntsebeza why there appeared to be such animosity towards him from Smith, Tsolekile said he didn’t know. “Graeme Smith was a great captain of our country. In my opinion that guy was given too much power by CSA and his teammates.”

“Graeme Smith was never a close friend of mine, we were teammates,” Tsolekile said. “I’ve never had personal issues with him. I was his captain (under-19) and I also played against him (domestically). I can’t recall any incident with him, which is why I want to find out ‘what have I done to this guy?’”

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Tsolekile was the leading wicket-keeper in the country on the domestic circuit between 2011 and 2015 and was offered a national contract, although he never played in that period, usually acting as a back up in the Test squad.

Tsolekile cited the example of De Villiers choosing to keep – even though he’d previously expressed reluctance to do so because of a long term back injury and wanting to focus on his batting – as part of the confusing messages that went around for why he didn’t play more for the Proteas.

“AB only kept when I was there (challenging for a spot in the Test side), he didn’t want to keep when Boucher was keeper, he wanted to keep when I was there. You could see what was happening. The most disappointing thing was, there were guys, who were convenors – Linda Zondi a convenor, a black guy – who didn’t say anything.”

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His experiences with the national team left him so despondent, that he would ask the team’s management to return home earlier from tours.

“Everytime I went on tour – the only way I could show my frustration was to tell Dr (Mohammad) Moosajee – then the team manager – ‘we’ve got a few more days to go home, wait until the last game is played, the team gets selected,’ and then I asked to leave. I never, ever travelled back with the South African team. Never ever.”

“England in 2012, the same; I’d wait until the team was picked, and with a few days left I would fly back alone. In Australia (later that year) I did the same. I was trying to pass a message to them that I wasn't happy in that environment, something needs to be done.”

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Tsolekile said his experiences within South African cricket – from his days as a junior until his time with the Proteas – had a debilitating effect on him. “I developed an attitude towards my white counterparts... there was always a bitterness in me, which was a form of defence,” he said.

“This had a devastating effect on my life in and out of the team. Still today I experience flashbacks of bad memories, as a result of being a victim of biasness, discrimination and racism. I had to go to anger management, as I was angry and frustrated at the situation that I experienced.”

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