South African cricket: build or become croquet

nelson-mandela-soweto-michael-atherton_3402391Twenty years ago, everything was different. Twenty years ago, everything was the same.

In the summer of 1995, South Africa was a country consciously, self-consciously, trying to build something better. These days it’s become fashionable to dismiss that period as a naïve fantasy – the worst thing a white liberal can be accused of these days is “rainbowism” – but for all its faults and delusions, it was a time of genuine hope and effort. We spoke about the past and the future, instead of hunkering down in the endless, cynical, eroding now. We tried.

No one tried harder than Nelson Mandela, head of state, brand builder, and fantasist in chief. That was why he was at the Soweto Oval in late October that year, meeting a star-struck England team. The paint was still tacky on the picket fences, the outfield a work on progress, but nobody minded. That was the point. We were building something. And Mandela was coming to check that the work was going to schedule.

The English were impressed by the missionary zeal of South Africa’s cricket administrators, even if they didn’t understand very much of what they were seeing. In Wisden, veteran correspondent Scyld Berry explained that Ali Bacher and his team were trying to “create from scratch an interest among the African population”. Even now, few South Africans know the history of black cricket in this country, so perhaps one could forgive a visitor for getting it so wrong. But I also I think Berry was misled by the zeitgeist of the country: back in 1995, everything felt like a building site. We were all starting from scratch.

The Soweto fixture and the spontaneous meet-and-greet by Mandela were good political theatre, but they were also an important statement of intent by South African cricket. England, inheritors of the oldest and richest cricketing traditions, would play before the people who would inherit the new South Africa. It felt honest. And when Lulama Mazikazana held the South Africans’ tail together with 44 in the second innings – the second highest score after Hansie Cronje’s half-century – one could imagine that this was more than window-dressing. This was the start of a plan.

Twenty years later, that plan seems to be mouldering. England’s itinerary says it all. Twenty years ago, every fixture resonated with historical or political significance. First, a social outing against a Nicky Oppenheimer XI at a private oval: a nod to the Randlords who initiated the first cricket between England and South Africa. Then, a one-day warm-up against Easterns at Springs, a no-frills neighbourhood for a raw franchise looking to inject some mongrel into the domestic scene. Then Soweto. Then, a four-day game against Border in the heart of the Eastern Cape, the spiritual home of black cricket.

Today, England’s itinerary has all the political will of a soggy cucumber sandwich. First there’s a thing against some guys at somewhere called Senwes Park, a meaningless name for a forgettable stadium in a place of no cricketing consequence. Next is a kerfuffle at Pietermaritzburg’s City Oval, a cricket ground famous for nothing except having the most literal name on the planet. And then? The most ridiculous fixture of all.

But first, a small digression.

Cricket is dying. That’s not me being pessimistic. It’s a measurable fact. Melburnians and Capetonians still pack their respective stadiums every Boxing Day and Tweede Nuwe Jaar, but attendances are plunging pretty much everywhere else. Worse, a lot of those absentee fans haven’t decided to stay home so they can watch the game on the telly: according to the Times of India, Indian television audiences for cricket dropped by 40% between 2008 and 2014.

I’ve seen no statistics about the local situation but my gut tells me that interest in cricket in South Africa is gradually waning. Now and then I see a cardboard cut-out of AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis marketing some brand or another, but it’s a far cry from the 1990s when you couldn’t walk ten paces without seeing a cricketer hawking energy drinks or running shoes or, in the case of Jonty Rhodes, “fashion trousers”. And it wasn’t just cricketers. Remember how we went ape over Elana Meyer? Josia Thugwane? Baby Jake? Penny Heyns? Today, De Villiers dominates his sport more than any of them ever did; yet his most loyal and vocal fans are in India. And I’d bet more South Africans would recognize Hansie Cronje than Dean Elgar or Imran Tahir in a line-up.

In this climate of general ambivalence, November’s letter to Cricket South Africa (CSA) from disgruntled black players, in which they asked CSA to stop using them as bench-warmers and window-dressing, should have sounded like the crack of doom. Whether or not CSA was sympathetic to their complaints, it should have sprung into a public flurry of fence mending and brand-building. Black stars are the end product of the entire transformation machine, and if they’re miserable enough to risk their careers by writing letters to administrators, then it suggests the machine is broken. More importantly, it suggests that CSA has a crisis of perception on its hands. If black players or whispering about being overlooked or sidelined, then black fans are going to be shouting about it. And South African cricket cannot afford to lose a single black fan.

If cricket in this country is to survive another twenty years, it needs to become a sport played, loved, watched and argued over by the majority. It must become a home for black excellence and black pride, where black superstars play the game without being defined by white teammates or predecessors. Our domestic and national teams must become mostly black. The crowds watching them need to be mostly black. Demographics and economics demand no less.

So. Given that the global game is shedding fans, and that the future of South African cricket depends entirely on finding new black converts, you might have assumed that CSA would have used the opening Test of an historic series to create some sort of buzz. You’d assume that it would draw parallels between this tour and the one in 1995, evoking the memory of Mandela or Steve Tshwete or Khaya Majola, and reminding us that we started a job back then that isn’t anywhere near completion. You’d assume that it would understand the value in awarding a historic, politically important first Test to Port Elizabeth, and get Makhaya Ntini or Professor Andre Odendaal to recall the mighty deeds of African greats like Frank Roro and Eric Majola, and remind us that, in the 19th Century, St George’s Park was the first venue to host a Test played outside England and Australia, and the last to host a Test before South Africa went into sporting isolation in 1970. You’d assume that that, in the week before the Test, members of the England and Proteas squads would play with local cricketers in a one-day exhibition match at the Dan Qeqe Stadium in Zwide.

So has CSA planned any of that? No. It’s decided that a potentially historic, empowering series will start in a city that doesn’t give a damn about Test cricket.

I have nothing against Durban. Some might claim that the sun sets early there because it’s just too bored to stay in the sky, but not me. Durban is a lovely place to view from a passing airliner. But Kingsmead, ah, that’s another story.

Kingsmead, you might recall, is the place where Jacques Kallis played his last Test. Actually, you probably don’t recall, because there is absolutely nothing memorable about the place. That’s mainly because it’s always empty. Always. Because of its large Asian population, Durban invariably gets Tests against Asian tourists, but it really doesn’t make a difference. No matter who’s playing, Durbanites can’t be arsed. In 2013, just 4700 of them bothered to pitch up to watch the greatest South African cricketer of all time take guard in his last innings.

By the close of the day Kallis was on 78. The next day – the day on which he would score a final hundred – was a Sunday. A cricket-loving city like Cape Town would have filled the 25000-seater ground half an hour before play started. Hell, Bloemfontein probably would have managed 10 000. But not Durban. That Sunday, just 7000 people dribbled through the turnstiles. And that wasn’t even an anomaly. Opening days at Kingsmead rarely see more than 12 000 people show up, and the remaining days usually only get between 3000 and 7000. In short, Kingsmead is an irrelevant backwater, and anyone who tries to tell you that Durbanites love their cricket is flat-out lying to you.

Thankfully, England travel with a large contingent of fans, so Kingsmead will probably only be half empty instead if the usual two-thirds. But the fact remains that by launching the series in Durban, CSA has wasted the opportunity to make it mean something. Itineraries are statements, and this one reads like a corporate report, a bland affirmation of business as usual. It needed to be a simple, honest statement: “This is a special series, and because it is special, we will use to remember why we’re doing this. We will remember our determination, 20 years ago, to make this a game for all South Africans, not just something we shunt into townships when the Sports Minister is on our backs. And, in the spirit of 1995, we renew our intent to make cricket an African game.”

But that’s not what’s happened. And so the series will play out, and we’ll all have a great time, and then we’ll return to the confusing recriminations and wrathful sound bytes of the so-called “transformation debate”, which is not really a debate, and which revolves around something nobody seems to have defined clearly.

Certainly, there is still no intelligent input from the man pushing the “debate”, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, whose genius for rhetoric allows him to sound both belligerent and completely helpless. Transformation, he crossly insists, isn’t happening – implying that it is some sort of organic process that can only be encouraged but never enforced. A moment later he waxes stern, vowing that he will make it happen – now implying that it is merely a question of the right legislation. It’s a surreal Sméagol-Gollum double act: claiming on the one hand that it’s all terribly complicated and on the other that the time for excuses is over. Bizarrely, Mbalula often ends up threatening himself.

Then again, I don’t blame the Minister for not having easy answers. I don’t know if quotas force open the doors for young black players and give black kids instant role models, or if they demoralize players who feel they’re not there on merit and who are duly crushed by a lack of self-belief. I don’t know if talent can magically spring up in the veld, or if it needs time and money and food and care. Maybe all are true. Can transformation be a gradual process, its slowness preventing alarm but also allowing it to be endlessly deferred? Or must it be a drastic intervention, say, a decision that the Proteas will field only two white players in every Test, hoping that upheavals in the short term are an investment in a long-term future for the game? Would the International Cricket Council allow such a move, or would it see it as political interference and ban South Africa all over again? I don’t know.

But I do know that the South African game needs new blood, new passions and new histories, or else it will atrophy. It will become a historical curiosity, played on festival days alongside jukskei and croquet. And I know that in order to find new blood, it needs to leave the boardrooms and the manicured outfields. It needs to get out into the dust and heat and vast spaces of our country. Once out there, it needs to seduce hearts and thrill minds. It needs to remember the spirit of 1995. It needs to think deeply about why Mandela walked down that line of blushing English players and shook their hands.

It needs to build.

*

First published in Business Day Sports Monthly

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