Kingsmead’s wicket tales of wins and losses

THE cover of Professor Ashwin Desai’s latest book, Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead.

THE cover of Professor Ashwin Desai’s latest book, Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead.

Published Dec 10, 2023


Durban — Prolific writer Ashwin Desai hit a six with the timing of his latest book on cricket, launching it just hours before South Africa takes on India in a T20 match at Kingsmead today (Sunday).

Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead is a rich memoir of the game brought to life by the sights and sounds of Durban and shows how cricket played a pivotal role in forging communities during a painful time of political segregation.

The memories are endless given that Kingsmead scored a century in January this year.

Desai illustrates that it’s not just a place where games are played; it’s where fans bat for the underdog, where dreams are built and smashed and lasting memories are cemented into the psyche.

“This book is a homage to those cricketers whose sublime, gladiatorial feats at the wicket stirred up in boys like me heartfelt gasps and cheers. More enduringly, the feats of these champions galvanised an ambition to be good at something too, when we would grow big,” says Desai.

Those gladiatorial feats will be on show tonight in the first match between the Proteas and India since the Cricket World Cup where India lost to Australia last month. The KFC T20 International kicks off at 4pm at the Hollywoodbets Kingsmead Stadium today (Sunday).

Here is an extract from Desai’s book, which costs R280.

THE cover of Professor Ashwin Desai’s latest book, Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead.

Extract from Of ‘Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead’, by Ashwin Desai

Tormented Hope: The Swirling, Spinning Dervish of Springfield

The Group Areas Act had a devastating effect on non-racial cricket in the mid-1960s. As the President of the Natal Cricket Board (NCB) reported in September 1965, “the settled population is forced to shift in different directions. Old friends are being lost. Durban and its Districts are the hardest hit”.

Stalwart unions like Mayville and the South Coast were decimated and withdrew from the NCB. But as people arrived in the barren townships, they slowly built cricket clubs again. In Chatsworth, a cricket union was formed in 1965. A cricket pitch of grit was laid out in Road 217. The Council allowed two more grit wickets in 1968. There were no covers, so the slightest rain made the pitch unplayable. But cricket flowered, and by the beginning of the 1960s, eleven clubs were registered in Chatsworth.

Through this period, the main centre of non-racial cricket was the Springfield Grounds.

It was here that Baboo Ebrahim, one of the greatest left-arm spinners I have seen, held wicket. The ball landed with deadly accuracy, spun off the mat like a whirling dervish, then cutting in or out, keeping low or holding up, a batsman could but only guess. As former Natal opening batsman Enver Mall put it, because of a “relatively lower arm action, he was skilful at ‘undercutting’ the ball to make it skid”.

Baboo enticed “batsmen out (of their crease) after bowling a series of big turners, followed by the ‘undercut’ which would catch them out by skidding straight through”. Long before Ajantha Mendis, Baboo had perfected the carrom ball.

Baboo’s joy for the game was infectious. No swagger. A full-toothed smile. He could as well be sharing an Eet-Sum-Mor biscuit with the batsman. But behind the grin was a fierce competitor not averse to some sledging from gully.

Comparisons between White and Black players of the time are difficult. The gulf between the world of Springfield and Kingsmead, a few kilometres apart, was huge. For those who still sniff that it does not matter the kind of wicket, “class” will always bear out, the view of one of the pioneers of the turf wicket at Kingsmead, HL Crockett, is instructive. He reveals that because “the ball gets a certain amount of grip” it more often than not goes “over the top ... the off-drive ... on matting ... is almost a lost art ... owing to the sharp rise and turn of the ball from the mat”.

Now tie this analysis in with batting on a mat twenty years old, softened with rain and then hardened with the scorching Durban sun, fraying at the edges, hammered into the ground with nails and you get a sense of what batsmen faced at Springfield.

Motivated by this experience of a tale of two worlds, I once wrote that 40 runs by Yacoob Omar at Springfield could be compared to a century by Barry Richards at Kingsmead. The statement was met with derision by white journalists. Probably rightly so. But how else can one sensitise people to the difference in playing fields, all the obstacles “Non-White” players had to confront before they even took their guard, not to speak of the crummy wickets on which they eked out performances?

Do they not realise the desire to celebrate cricketers you could touch and feel, who bowled you a few balls, who you bumped into on the streets of the Casbah, people you recognised despite their absence from the media and record books?

For a moment, think of the adjustments Barry Richards would have had to make if he was summoned to Springfield overnight? The front foot cover drive to be replaced by a punch on the back foot. The famous dance down the wicket to a spinner would have to be abandoned or see the great man topple over like a spectator at Castle Corner.

There is however, an eyewitness comparison I can directly make. Not to demean but to affirm those whom history has made less visible. This is between the white spin bowler, Pelham Henwood, who played 79 first class matches, taking 212 wickets between 1965 and 1980, and Baboo. I watched Henwood many a time for Natal. No great spin, but he was miserly, and finished his career with a shopkeeper’s economy rate of 2.39. As a batsman, he struggled with an average stubbornly in the single figures despite a few not-outs: 9.75 was the tantalising tally. Pelham was also a man you hid in the field. He wasn’t going to skid a throw in just above the wickets.

Even someone with a jaundiced eye would acknowledge Baboo as a superior cricketer. Added to everything, Baboo was agile and acrobatic (after all, he was a goalkeeper in the soccer season), snapping up catches at gully. And when he felt like it, he could wield a willow.

Here’s a cameo. There was a moment in which Baboo came up against the mighty Rohan Kanhai at Curries Fountain in the 1973/4 season when the West Indian played for the Transvaal. In 79 Tests, Kanhai scored 6227 runs at an average of 47.53, including 15 centuries. His approach was “to destroy the opposition as quickly as possible. Once I’ve got the fielders with their tongues hanging out, I aim to run them into the ground”. Against him, Baboo was magnificent. Try as he might, Kanhai could not get on top. Baboo did not get his wicket, but he contributed to Kanhai’s demise. “Baboozled” I wrote.

WEST Indian legend Rohan Kanhai playing for Transvaal in 1973/74. Notice the matting wicket still in use for top provincial games. | SUPPLIED

What would Biko make of my own racial gaze that I waited for hours to get an autograph of Pelham but could not be bothered with that of Baboo? I saw, but I never understood. Here was a man I saw walking down the street, who threw me a few balls at Springfield, besting a man who bludgeoned his way into Test cricket and had already wreaked havoc in South Africa. Kanhai was not some over-the-hill batsman. He would go on to be a World Cup winner in 1975, scoring 55 in the final against Australia. Baboo’s life would skid and slide, undercut by changing political forces, trespassing boundaries and earning the anger of his old teammates.

Baboo, unlike many of those he played with, had an exacting day job. His bosses demanded more than just a pound of flesh. He did not come from the line of Grey Street shop owners. But on weekends, he levelled all class distinctions, rudely ending the illusions of those sons of the merchant class armed with new bats and shiny pads, who thought they were the next Yacoob Omar.

In 1976, apartheid and nonracial cricket briefly united. A joint selection committee included the respected cricket administrator SK Reddy: teacher, a man of moderate tone and quiet dignity. When SK Reddy mentioned Baboo’s selection for the provincial “A” team, his suggestion was pooh-pooed with the words that there were “seven White spin bowlers better than Baboo in Natal”. The same response was given for a plea to include him in the “B” team.

The unity phase crumbled as quickly as the Natal batting line-up once Barry Richards was out. Liberal outreach was hesitant, and rules liable to change according to the whim of the hosting white club. Pubs and change rooms were prohibited to “non-whites” on some grounds. At Kingsmead, Black people were still fenced off; different entrances and spaces like Castle Corner were reserved for apartheid’s designated Royalty. Like Meghan Markle, we could not even get to be Queen for a day.

Why is Baboo not celebrated as the exceptional cricketer that everybody who played with him or watched him often, sotte voce, acknowledge? Baboo, you see, fell foul of the South African Council of Sport’s (SACOS) double standards rule of 1977 which, as it pronounced, also denounced.

In his 1979 Natal Cricket Board’s (NCB) Presidential address, Krish Mackerdhuj warned: “Those who by choice betray the fight for the principle of non-racialism in sport must not be allowed to tread with us… The greatest contribution we can make is our self-denial.”

On the pitch, the game had deteriorated beyond recognition. Sponsors had dried up, the “club men” who carried the burden of keeping things going were in the winter of their lives, and talented cricketers were giving up the game. But even if the game existed in the shadows, its influence was global. It was a powerful weapon in the international sports boycott, as it showed the continuing impact of apartheid in cricket, despite all the counter-propaganda.

Double standards, though, allowed for vindictiveness and pettiness. And as we know, in witch-hunts, the net spreads, and soon even the genetic line needs to be culled. Children of those who transgressed were banned from using practice nets. Eleven-year-old Yunus Ebrahim, Baboo’s nephew and Mia’s son, who also played in the “white” Natal Cricket Association, was prevented from playing junior league cricket. And so we kept guard with Kafkaesque nit-picking and Orwellian denunciations.

In April 1976, Baboo Ebrahim showcased his quality to the world when he took 6–66 for South Africa in the second innings of the match against the International Wanderers at Kingsmead, managed by Richie Benaud. Compare this to the much vaunted English spinner Derek Underwood who returned figures of 3-63. Among Baboo’s prized scalps were Greg Chappell and Mike Denness.

Baboo Ebrahim, the spinning legend who features prominently in Professor Ashwin Desai’s latest book,Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead. Supplied.

For Benaud, it probably brought back memories of his own bowling feat at Kingsmead in a 1958 match against Natal. His figures 6/88 in the second innings.

As my father and I turned our backs on Kingsmead with many backward glances, we spent more and more time at the Springfield Grounds. I was destined to play in the lowest possible league. My career bore an uncanny resemblance to JM Coetzee’s Boyhood:

He hardly ever scores runs. If he is not bowled out at once he can sometimes bat for half an hour without scoring, irritating everyone, including his teammates. He goes into a trance of passivity in which it is enough to merely parry the ball.

Five cricket games were played simultaneously on ancient matting wickets according to rules written in the eighteenth century. There were no sightscreens, and irregular boundaries were marked by misshapen whitewashed stones. Clumps of grass and molehills hid crevices that Tested the most flexible ankles.

In retrospect, playing cricket ran between tragedy and comedy. On a Saturday afternoon, you would arrive and fetch the mat from a wood and iron shed. The mats were mouldy and came in grotesque shapes. They were pockmarked with holes and crustier than a Wodehouse Lord. Equipment was in short supply.

As one batsman left the field, he would start changing so the next batsman could grab pads and “the guard”. Guards were placed under your underpants; one size fits all. The first time I went out to bat, the guard kept slipping to my knee cap. It did not help my concentration that my father had ordered me to take KS Ranjitsinhji’s advice of 1897, that “Boys are in the habit of putting on belts. This is a mistake, since the noise the belt makes may at times be mistaken for a catch at the wicket”. So, there I was, one hand vainly trying to hold up my pants, guard slipping down to my knee, a pad that fell over onto my ankles, and a stance akin to a poodle finding relief against a tree.

For all the humiliations of a Hindu priest hiding behind a car to change, the school principal having a wee behind a tree, and a provincial cricketer sending me to borrow a bat from a far-off field, there was something beautiful in those late Saturday evenings as darkness snatched at shadows and your father consoled your third duck in a row.

Ashwin Desai is SARCHI Chair in Social Change and Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg

Sunday Tribune