Considering the current challenges confronting cricket in SA

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The composition and leadership of both Cricket South Africa and the national cricket team, the Proteas, has been under much scrutiny in recent weeks. The intensity of the discussion on transformation feels like we are in the immediate years after 1994 when the country was grappling with the meaning and implementation of transformation in sport, and in particular cricket. The disastrous performance of the Proteas at the last World Cup in England and the utter embarrassment suffered at the hands of the Indians at the end of 2019 are catalysts for some serious reflection on the state of the sport in South Africa.

Yet again, as striking as this moment seems, the reality is that we have been down this road before. The Proteas loss to New Zealand at the semi-final stage of the 2015 World Cup was another moment in history when we had to contend with the race vs merit debate. In his book, AB: The Autobiography, AB de Villiers recounts the decision to select Vernon Philander over Kyle Abbott for the semi-final match against New Zealand. De Villiers makes a striking comment that they considered themselves as “genuine new South Africans” who were blind to race and colour. To him and his colleagues their primary concern was putting forward the strongest possible team to represent the country; whether three or four black players were selected was immaterial as long as the starting eleven represented the best.

This is striking because this sentiment was repeated by the current Proteas captain, Faf du Plessis, responding to why batsman Themba Bavuma was dropped from the starting eleven in the second test against England last week. In Faf’s words, “We don’t see colour and it’s important that people understand that. Opportunity for any colour is important‚ so when I mention Rassie‚ it’s about consistency when it comes to the giving and the backing of opportunities and being fair in terms of giving players a chance”.

Who is the “we” that Faf speaks of and on behalf? Certainly, he cannot be speaking on behalf of Cricket South Africa who are the custodians of the policies developed over the past 25 years aimed at transforming the dominance of one race on and off the field. These policies are a clear indication that CSA does see colour and race and appreciates that this is a reality that must be changed. So, if the “we” that Faf refers to is not CSA who could he be possibly be speaking on behalf of?

An educated guess is that both AB and Faf are conveying the views of a particular group in cricketing circles. Who are the members of this group? What are their beliefs on important matters such as transformation in sport and the implications of these beliefs to the agenda of change?

The past decade and a half produced an elite group of South African cricketers who have registered their names in the annals of cricketing history as some of the best the country has produced. Their cricketing feats have seen them take the Proteas to the very top of international cricket, with success endearing them to the nation. Among those who constitute this generation of players are the likes of Jacques Kallis, who represented the Proteas between 1995 and 2014, Graeme Smith, who represented and captained the Proteas between 2002 and 2014, and Mark Boucher who represented the Proteas between 1997 and 2012. There are of course many other prominent players of this generation, including with the likes of AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis emerging as key individuals and senior statesmen of the team towards the mid to latter part of the last decade. This core group of players have come to be very powerful in the Proteas dressing room. Their performance and successes amplified their voices, granted them certain privileges and conferred an unspoken power when it came to the management of the team.

The educated guess is that the “we” that both AB and Faf represent and talk of is this group of players, not in their individual capacities but in their collective form. The collective form represents a culture, ethos and comradery in the team that was formed under the leadership of this powerful group of players and transmitted to new team members through an established system. So, the “we” represents this institution of the Proteas team that has evolved into what it is today under Faf.

From the comments of Faf and AB that they do not see race in a largely race-based society one can start putting together the general outlook of the “we” who have controlled the dressing room for over a decade. But there’s more evidence that builds a picture of the views of this “we”. Remember Jacques Kallis’ callous comments in 2016 when the then Minister of Sport announced he would veto any bid by the cricket, rugby, netball and athletics bodies to host multinational events as they had missed racial “transformation targets” designed to redress apartheid-era inequalities?  Kallis took to social media telling the world he was embarrassed of being a South African because in his view the decision of the Minister was politics interfering in sport. What was telling, was Kallis’ lack of understanding on the transformative contribution of sport to South Africa’s efforts of building a new national identity. His views effectively created a divide between politics and sport. It exposed his limited world view and understanding of the history of sport and politics in South Africa, and one that is premised on privilege.

As for Smith, a former captain of the Proteas for over a decade, he had the gall to say that he still needs to get a ‘grip’ on transformation as the Director of Cricket South Africa. He was at the helm of the Proteas set up for more than ten years, so we are well within our rights to ask what he was doing for a decade if he still needs to get a ‘grip’ on transformation today. What one is able to deduce from his statement is that transformation was not a priority for him and certainly not an issue that gave him sleepless nights during his time as captain.

From the above, we are able to deduce the outlook of the main figures of the Proteas dressing room and by implication the culture they contributed to embedding in the team. It’s clear, Certainly, in their view, race is not an issue and there is no place for politics (and by politics this means transformation) in cricket and certainly, transformation should not be a key pillar in the long—term strategy of cricket in this country. Effectively that is the “we” of Faf, AB, Jacques, Boucher and Smith. It is an institutional “we”. The institution of the Proteas they rightly believe they took to the top of the world and falsely believe only they can take it back to where it belongs.

In his assessment of the current reality of South African cricket, Prof Chris Landsburg argues we are witnessing a classical Coup d’état. A well-established faction has effectively taken over the running of cricket in this country and the most dangerous thing about them is their views on transformation. To add insult to injury, we have a board of South African cricket that is highly discredited, and by implication, its voice is relatively weakened because they are at the mercy of the knights in shining armour who have come to save the game.

The board’s weakened position means that they are in no position to take a firm stand and affirm their own policies of transformation. They are in no position to negate the myth advanced by Smith, Boucher and Du Plessis that race and colour do not matter in the selection of players for the Proteas. The national team is as bound to transformation policy and targets as much as the franchise system. Non-adherence to transformation policies and targets at a national level expedites the creation of a glass ceiling for black players in the country.

The recent run of poor performances by the Proteas has resulted in wholesale changes in CSA administration, including the introduction of the faction friendly Jacque Faul as Interim CEO and the removal of the coaching staff that took the team to the World Cup and the tour to India. Don’t be fooled, from the side-lines you may want to applaud this as a system that holds people accountable for poor results. But what about one of the key members of the faction; the captain Faf du Plessis? Despite the poor performance of the team under him, his position as leader remains intact. It seems it is up to him to relinquish when he decides to go on retirement. Remember when Pollock was sacked as captain after a similarly terrible showing of the team under his leadership in 2003? Well, this certainly can’t happen to our dear Faf. This is yet another demonstration of the well-orchestrated changes that have taken place in South African cricket which have sought to strengthen the hand of the ‘We” in the changing room and the boardroom.

What is striking about the outlook of the faction in charge today is that their views have a very strong resemblance with the ahistorical politics of the Democratic Alliance when it comes to the issue of transformation. A so-called equal opportunity scenario in a society of historical and contemporary inequalities.

Fixing South African cricket on a sustainable basis will take much more than getting the right batting or bowling coach or fitness coach. At the core of it, the challenges run deep especially if you consider transformation as one of the critical pillars that the sport must be developed on. In this regard, the role of Director of Cricket requires someone who is not just sensitive to transformation but a person who has a genuine will to see the face of cricket change. One of the serious limitations that CSA and the cricketing fraternity in the country need to change is the over-reliance on the traditional and elite cricketing schools in the country as feeders of the system. If one considers the black talent we talk about today they all are products of elite schools in the country. For example, Andile Phehlukwayo is a Glenwood product, Kagiso Rabada is from St Stithians, Themba Bavuma attended St David’s, Khaya Zondo is a Westville Boys’ product, while Lungi Ngidi hails from Hilton. We need a system in cricket that does not reduce the rise of a Makhaya Ntini to a once in twenty to thirty-year occurrence. Until we are able to achieve this, we will forever confront the challenge we have now. When one black batsman is dropped, we have no other in the system to replace him. This requires a strategy that creates cricketing opportunities across the entire system and for this it will require a leadership of cricket that understands the nexus of politics, development and sport.

Unfortunately for all of us, the crop that has taken over does not have an appreciation for these issues nor the will for such change.

Authors:  Msingathi Sipuka and Ayanda Jam, who are both former cricket players.