Proteas

Temba Bavuma: A Rock In A Hard Place

TembaEarlier this year I noticed a strange cricketing trend: over the last decade, the Test teams most likely to be shot out for under 100 were not underachievers like the West Indies or relative minnows Bangladesh. Instead, the most implosion-prone batting lineups on the planet were South African and Australian.

I examined this peculiar statistical blip in an article for The Cricket Monthly, and, unsurprisingly, found a few culprits: when a team crumbles for less than 100, a lot of things have gone badly wrong. But one of the most common factors I found was a weak link at No.6 in the batting order.

In this era of fluid batting orders and big-hitting all-rounders floating around between No.5 and the tail, it’s easy to forget that, for most of Test history, No.6 has been a specialist position. That’s because the player who walks out at four down needs an unusual combination of gifts: the shots and aggression to accelerate and drive home a winning position, but also the technique and restraint of an opening batsman as he sees off the second new ball. Or, in the case of a nightmare collapse, the first new ball…

During sub-100 implosions, I found, South African and Australian No.6’s weren’t even trying to play conservatively, instead throwing the bat at everything in their half. The results were dismal.

Of course, we’re not talking about huge numbers of Tests: the Proteas have collapsed for under 100 on only four occasions since readmission. But the accelerating frequency of those collapses – one in 2006, then 2011, then 2015 and 2016 – seemed to hint at a trend.

Since I wrote that piece, the Proteas haven’t crumbled to a sub-100 total again. And yet the last eighteen months have been fraught with top- and middle-order collapses. Stiaan van Zyl, Stephen Cook and JP Duminy have all been axed precisely because the Proteas have found themselves at 50 for 4 far too many times in recent series.

So why haven’t the Proteas slumped to the humiliation of a double-digit total since then?

The answer, I believe, stands 5-foot-and-change, has the heart of a heavyweight boxer, and, when needed, a bat as wide as a barn door.

a proper Test batsman

I’ve been a fan of Bavuma’s since his debut. As cricket is slowly eroded by a preference for can’t-be-arsed T20 tonkers with iffish technique and the attention spans of goldfish, Bavuma is a proper Test batsman: calm, organized, patient, and possessing some beautiful shots he keeps under strict control. In the field, he sparkles with the same magic that illuminated Jonty Rhodes, reminding us that this is all supposed to be fun while still giving the impression that a miracle catch or cobra-strike run-out are never far away.

The trouble with comparing him to Rhodes, however, is that you also have to acknowledge one unflattering similarity: like Rhodes, Bavuma doesn’t score enough runs.

This week, when he scored his 1,000th Test run, many of his admirers were quick to point out that he had reached the milestone in 35 innings, one fewer than it had taken the mighty Jacques Kallis to reach the same tally.

They meant well, and I know what they were trying to say, but Bavuma can do without those sorts of compliments. Kallis had perhaps the worst start to his international career of any South African batsman in Test history, and they’re really not doing Bavuma any favours by pointing out that he has almost exactly replicated the Kallis trainwreck. They’re also not easing the pressure on him by cooking up statistical comparisons: Kallis reached his 2,000th run in his 55th innings, so if Bavuma is going to keep pace with the illustrious run machine, he will need to score 52 runs in every one of his next 19 innings.

look at the recent past, not the future

I understand why Bavuma’s fans are reaching for Kallis’s legacy. Even his most loyal supporters have to admit that his record looks weak. An average of 31.75 after 36 innings is low, no matter how much future greatness you invoke.

But here’s the thing. If you want to find evidence for why Bavuma should be penciled into every Proteas Test XI, you don’t need to speculate on some vague, imaginary future. You can simply point to the recent past and one undeniable fact: when South Africa is under the hammer in a Test match, Bavuma is already a star.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s watched any cricket over the last 18 months.

The Proteas are 32 for 4 in their first innings at Perth when Bavuma walks in. His 51 nurses them to 242. The Proteas stay in the game, then win it.

Ten days later, in Hobart, South Africa have shot out Australia for 85 but they’re also folding fast, losing 4 for 33 to find themselves on 76 for 4. Bavuma puts his back to the castle door, grips his axe with both hands, and survives for 204 balls. The Proteas win.

Wellington: the Black Caps have put up 268 in their first dig, not a great total but still, it seems, a winning one as the Proteas fold to 79 for 5. Bavuma does a Gandalf (“You! Shall Not! Pass!”) and makes a patient 89. The Proteas post 359, and go on to win the Test.

Even Monday’s grim loss at The Oval might have been grimmer without Bavuma.

At 47 for 4 in their first innings and with England making the ball do obscene things under grey skies, South Africa were in real danger of being shot out for under 100 and forced to follow on with three days still to play. But Bavuma’s unflustered rearguard stands with Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel took the Proteas to the relative calm of the next morning with its blue skies and easier conditions. Dean Elgar has been rightly praised for his heroic, bloody-minded hundred, but it was Bavuma who took the Oval Test into a fourth and fifth day.

why is he averaging just 31?

Clearly, Temba Bavuma is a man with the temperament and the technique for hard-fought, bare-knuckle Test cricket. So why is he averaging just 31?

I had a look at his stats and I was surprised by what I found.

In the last decade, in all Test matches, the fourth wicket has fallen, on average, with the score on 166. This fairly middling number would probably feel right to most fans: if your No.6 is taking guard at 160 for 4 in the first innings, you’d be hesitant to put a lot of money on the result either way. It’s fairly solid, but 160 for 4 could become 160 for 5…

Not surprisingly, the fourth wicket falls earlier for losing teams and much later for winning ones. In the last ten years, losing teams have found themselves, on average, at 112/4, while teams that have gone on to win have averaged 207/4.

So, using the figures above, let’s extrapolate a variety of match situations that your average No.6 might walk out into at the fall of the fourth wicket:

0/4 to 60/4: a complete disaster; heroic defence, hard work and plenty of luck required to avoid a major defeat.

70/4 to 130/4: deep trouble. Requires intense discipline; defeat still the most likely option.

140/4 to 180/4: solid; probably safe for now; can’t afford mistakes but potential to kick on and start dictating terms.

190/4 to 230/4: safe, en route to a winning total. Batsmen who apply themselves can make plenty.

240/4 and up: dominance, very little pressure on batsmen. Help yourself.

You’d expect Bavuma to have experienced all of these situations in more or less equal measure. But that was the first surprise.

rampant or wretched

Of his 34 innings in the middle order (he’s opened twice), just six have started with the Proteas in that “average” range. Which means that, in general, Bavuma walks to the crease with his team in one of two positions: rampant or wretched.

The second surprise was how Bavuma responds to those two match situations.

The history of Test cricket is pretty clear about what we can expect in both scenarios. It’s Batting 101. If you come in at 50/4, you’re facing fresh, fired-up bowlers, a hard ball and enormous pressure. Scoring runs is going to be difficult. Conversely, if you come in at 300/4, the bowlers are exhausted and demoralized, the ball is a hacky-sack, and there’s no pressure. It’s a buffet. Tuck in.

According to the fundamental physics of batting, Bavuma should be struggling when things are tough, and piling in when the going is good. Except he isn’t. Present him with a buffet, and he gets instant indigestion.

Bavuma has taken guard in a number of favourable match situations, ranging from 136/3 right up to a fantastically luxurious 439/4. His average in those innings? A paltry 23.66.

But even that figure is flattering, bolstered by just one innings: the unbeaten 102 he carved off an exhausted England at Newlands in 2016. Remove that outlier, and his average in cushy match situations plunges to an appalling 15.

So why do I remain a Bavuma fan? Simple. It’s because of what he does when things are falling apart and otherwise steady men are losing their heads.

Bavuma has taken guard 15 times with the Proteas either turning their canoe towards Shit Creek (70/4 to 130/4), or with them far up it, sans the proverbial paddle (69/4 and worse). In a couple of those he was batting at 7, moved down the order by night watchmen, but the situation was no prettier: his innings at No.7 have started at 136/5 and the ludicrously terribly 79/5.

His average in these trainwrecks?

44.61.

That’s a healthy Test average anywhere, in any game situation. But when the team is facing certain disaster? Pure gold.

Test cricket’s name is not idly chosen. The most elevated, difficult and complex form of the game is a test of technique, of psychological strength and of character. And when the questions being asked are at their toughest, Temba Bavuma stands tall and answers them with a straight bat.

I don’t know why Bavuma isn’t scoring when the table is laid and he is invited to gorge on runs. It’s possible that he believes that his role in the team is a fundamentally defensive one, and that when the top order has done its job he is somewhat surplus to requirements. Perhaps, when the stakes feels fractionally lower, he lets his focus slip, or isn’t sure how to pace an innings when he doesn’t have to fight for every run.

Whatever the reason, Bavuma is too good and focused a player not to find a solution. Every Test he plays, he understands his game a little better and comes closer to figuring out how to accept bowlers’ charity. And when he learns how to turn his cool, methodical mind and method towards domination as well as defence, he could yet be something very special indeed.

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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.

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First published in Business Day Sports Monthly

Steyn has nothing to apologize for

An average Bangladeshi Test pitch

An average Bangladeshi Test pitch

Dale Steyn has dished out some short and nasty stuff over the years, but this week he was on the receiving end. Granted, it was only moderately nasty, but it was very short: 140 characters, to be precise.

The South African giant turns 32 next month, and on Monday hinted in an interview that he might want to sit out a couple of games on the upcoming tour of Bangladesh since it didn’t make sense to “waste” any of the few thousand deliveries he believes he has left in his body.

Bangladeshi Twitter wasn’t impressed and started steaming in off its long run. Steyn, however, has always shown courage and technique when attacked, and he quickly went back and across, got into line, and tweeted a solid apology. “Waste”, he said, might have been the wrong word.

I understand his apology. No public figure wants to alienate a country with a population of 156 million. But those of us with less to lose, like, say, columnists, can still call a spade a spade – or a pointless series a pointless series – and point out that Steyn has nothing to apologize for. Every ball he bowls at a Bangladeshi is one fewer he’ll bowl at an Australian or Indian or Englishman. And that is a waste.

Bangladeshi fans would insist that their team, although weak, is trying. I agree. Bangladesh is extremely trying. The pitch they prepared for the first Test against Pakistan recently was a crime against cricket, producing 1515 runs, 26 wickets, and five days of tedium. If their fans want to get angry with someone they might start with their groundsmen. But really, as supporters of a team that has won just 7 of its 90 Tests (and 5 of those were against Zimbabwe), they should probably just sit down and be quiet and let the nice man decide for how long he wants to grace their country.

In the same interview, Steyn explained the logic behind rationing his bowling over the next few years: he wants to win a World Cup for South Africa. It’s a noble ideal but I suspect one that is well out of reach. A year ago I predicted that his international career would be coming to an end more or less now. He’s proved me wrong, but I still hold that he’s been mismanaged and over-bowled. He’s already flung down hundreds (and, in some instances, thousands) of balls more than elite speedsters like Waqar Younis, Michael Holding and Jeff Thomson managed in their entire Test careers. The cumulative strain on his body is unimaginable.

Still, there are more attainable glories to be achieved. Steyn is just four scalps away from becoming only the 12th bowler to take 400 Test wickets. He’s implied that he wants to sit out the One-Day Internationals on the upcoming tour, but surely his host of fans would want him to skip the Tests? That would allow him to reach the magical number later this year against much worthier opposition, either India or England. Against Bangladesh? That feels like a bit of a waste.

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An edited version of this was first published in The Times and TimesLive

Don’t quota me on that

Sports ministryThe bombshell landed with more of a thud than a bang. The country had other things to worry about.

Trevor Noah had just become the most influential South African in pop culture. Eskom had just fired the guy who replaced the guy who replaced the guy who dropped the bolt into the machine that wasn’t malfunctioning because there isn’t a crisis. Maybe we were just all cried out over the World Cup semi-final.

For the die-hard fans, though, it was a shocker. Within hours of the Proteas touching down at OR Tambo International, reports citing unnamed sources inside the team were claiming that the suits had panicked about the paleness of the semi-final team, and had forced AB de Villiers and Russell Domingo to include the out-of-sorts Vernon Philander in the starting XI.

The rumours were angrily denied by Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s Minister of Twitter and a man who sometimes moonlights as our sports minister. He knew exactly which racist ‘dinosaurs’ had invented the story, he claimed, and urged South Africa to look in the other direction and not do pointless things like ask questions or do any thinking.

The names of these counter-revolutionary Jurassic crackers? Well, Razzmatazz was less forthcoming about those. But as Cricket South Africa boss Haroon Lorgat weighed in with his own denial, it looked as if a veil was being drawn over a non-scandal that was quite possibly the work of racists looking to pin a World Cup exit on a coloured bowler and a black sports minister.

The problem, though, was that the pesky story refused to die. The next day an Afrikaans news website reported damningly specific details: that Lorgat had sent Domingo a text at midnight; that De Villiers and Philander had been so angry they’d threatened to sit out the semi-final, but they’d been compelled to play.

At the time of writing that was all we knew. It’s possible more of this story will leak out over time, like oil seeping to the surface from a submerged shipwreck. The truth will be interesting. Either our suits were lying, or someone senior in the team was, or a journalist was.

Truth. It’s a tricky thing when it comes to World Cup exits. For a few hours after that fateful evening in Sydney, a few people tried to insist that the truth was the Proteas had choked. When the SMS story broke, some South Africans claimed the true villain of our exit was Philander. The fact he had conceded far fewer runs than the hugely disappointing Dale Steyn didn’t seem to register in their version of reality.

But the one truth that seemed to unite most commenters was that sport and politics should not mix. Ever. Not if the last two people on the planet were a politician and cricketer. Never.

It’s a widely held belief in South Africa. It’s also a naive one, and it reveals we don’t really understand what sport is. We cling to a childish notion that sport sort of just is. We seem to think it somehow ticks along like a perpetual motion machine, lubricated by passion and shouting and corporate sponsors. Basically, we believe in sports fairies who make the whole thing run on green and gold magic.

Like missile tests and Eurovision, sport is a way for countries to assert themselves

No wonder, then, that many think politics and sport shouldn’t mix. Why on earth would you let politicians with their sordid materialism intrude on this fairy kingdom of gees and honour? How could politicians possibly be of benefit to a self-running system that automatically sorts the men from the boys, the sheep from the goats, and the metaphors from the better phrases?

The trouble, though, is that not many fans even get this far in their thinking. For many, the ‘truth’ that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is simply received wisdom, a hand-me-down factoid that feels true  because it confirms their suspicions about politicians. It’s not backed up with any real knowledge of what sport is, or why it runs the way it does. Because, of course sport is politics; a nationalistic ritual that helps prop up the idea of the nation state. Like parades, missile tests and Eurovision, it is a way for countries to assert themselves in the community of nations; somewhere between trans-border cock-measuring contests and a sweaty sort of diplomacy.

This is why countries spend hundreds of billions of dollars on developing excellence in odd sports like gymnastics or badminton or rugby; why Australia and China ploughed a large chunk of their GDP into winning gold medals at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics. It’s why the apartheid government of South Africa made all the little white boys want to be rugby stars instead of physicists. It’s why Indian fans burnt effigies after their semi-final defeat. Nationalism is macho to its core, and sport is the ideal way to act out its ambitions and values. Keep politics out of international sport? You’re basically demanding that petrol be kept out of cars.

This is why I get annoyed with those who claim that transformation in South African sport will happen ‘naturally’ or ‘organically’ without ‘meddling’ by politicians. It’s as ignorant as believing that a poor black child in a shack will become upper-middle class if you just leave her alone for long enough.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that politicians should pick teams. Far from it. If the reports are true and some stooge texted the team at the precise moment they needed to be united and focused, it was yet another appalling bungle by our bungling political cohort. But I absolutely believe that politics belong in sport. Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of South African cricket understands the debt it owes to politics, whether it was Steve Tshwete risking his political life to negotiate with white administrators in the late-1980s, or Indian politicians deciding that South African cricketers were no longer sporting polecats. For me the question is not whether they should be linked. The question is how they should be linked, to ensure the greatest benefit to the sport, the fans and the country.

In theory, those questions are easily answered. Politicians should build fields, provide team minibuses, employ administrators to keep account of funds and facilities and leagues. They should act as a bridge between nationalistic sport and private corporate money, persuading sponsors of the branding- and nation-building benefits of parting with their cash. In practice, though, it’s a different story.

transformation now consists of text messages, denials, and threats

I concede that transforming South African sport is difficult. The economics alone are terrifying, as the government tries to give poor people access to activities that need middle-class incomes, time and facilities. And, of course, there’s white resistance to many of those who do crack it. Sometimes it’s overt racism. Sometimes it’s just the insularity of coaches or players who favour their mates (and their mates just happen to look like them …).

But even the most disinterested observer would have to admit that the transformation of cricket in South Africa is a pantomime of foot-dragging, buck-passing and name-calling. Indeed, if the latest debacle is anything to go by, transformation now consists of midnight text messages, denials, and threats by the minister about revoking national colours. That’s not transformation. That’s complete dysfunction.

Four black African bowlers have played Test cricket for South Africa. Four. In 25 years since readmission. Batsmen are expensive and difficult to produce, but to produce bowlers all you need is a ball, a set of stumps, a usable run-up, a concrete pitch, and a coach. I understand the complicating factors. I know that poor kids often don’t have the luxury of parents who can ferry them to practice. I understand that proper childhood nutrition is needed if you’re going to bowl fast at elite level. And yet … four? In a quarter of a century? To me that doesn’t suggest a broken production line. It suggests a non-existent one.

It’s a crisis that needs efficient, hard-working politicians. And yet our minister seems more interested in Twitter than in his much-vaunted mandate of transformation. Instead of making tough decisions and unpopular speeches, he emits a cloud of jokey rhetoric that obscures one damning truth – that Fikile Mbalula could transform cricket (and rugby and all the rest) overnight if he wanted to.

Why does he simply not name, shame, and transform cricket?

The ruling party got a gigantic majority in the last election. Very few politicians in the world could even dream of having such a strong mandate. So if his efforts  are being blocked by racists like those he claimed fabricated the Philander story, why does he not provide details so that all South Africans can unite in our condemnation of those shadowy conspirators? He is a minister in a government whose entire international image is built on the fight against white racism. Why does he simply not name, shame, and then transform cricket in line with his vision?

The answer, perhaps, is because there are no names (at least, not in the Philander fiasco). There’s no vision. And there’s no plan, other than reacting to short-time crises with bluster and finger-wagging. Yes, we need politics in cricket. But we do not need these kinds of politics in cricket.

There are so many conversations we need to be having but aren’t, precisely because the wrong kind of politician is arguing with the wrong kind of fan. Basically, the debate has been hijacked by the people least equipped to have it.

But we need to talk; not only about fine points of policy but about basics too. For starters, what does transformation mean? Are we talking about creating a team that reflects the racial demographics of the country, or is there also some vague attempt being made to improve the lives of the very poor through sport? If it’s the latter, does anyone know if this is a practical idea? Are we sure all this time and money and political intrigue is worth it? And can we try to remember that when we talk about ‘transforming’ cricket, we’re actually talking about a ludicrously tiny niche – ultra-fit, highly co-ordinated young men between the ages of about 15 and 30. About 120 of them play first-class cricket. How large is the pool that keeps those 120 men at the top of their game? Perhaps 5,000? So are we aware that the debate about democratising and opening up this sport is aimed at perhaps 0.01% of South Africa’s population? That’s a lot of politicking and money and arguing over something that affects almost nobody.

Nobody, that is, except the fans who want their team to win. And that’s the next tough conversation we need to have: quotas. It’s another that’s been hijacked by non-producing ideologues on the left and racists on the right. It’s a pity, because if we could only have this talk, calmly and openly, we might be able to come to some sort of consensus over what quotas are for and whether they work in achieving those ends. I don’t know what we’d decide. We might all end up agreeing that they are a long-term experiment in social engineering with a real shot at good results in 20 years. We might agree that they don’t do much for the players involved but help lure millions of eager new converts to the sport. I don’t know.

Of course, it’s unlikely we’re going to have this chat any time soon, because it would require both sides to accept facts they find unpleasant. The politicians would have to accept that it is not racist to believe that quota players weaken a team. This isn’t a subjective judgement call. It’s basic logic: if you are good enough to play in a Test match, you’re not a quota player. Quotas and merit are mutually exclusive, and any politician who tries to sell the two as the same thing is selling you a crock of horse manure.

Those opposed to quotas must also accept that our national teams are just that: national teams. They are constructions of nationalist identity. The specific demographics are negotiable, but they cannot deny that we are an African country, and we need an African team. In non-fudging language, that means we need a team that looks – that is – predominantly black African.

But what we need most of all is intelligent, efficient leadership. We need it right now. 2040 is too long to wait to see four more black bowlers.

*

First published in Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly and SACricketmag.com

2015: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Pic: Sunday Times LifestyleI know how West Indian bowlers feel. I tried to pin down AB de Villiers for a week and got absolutely nowhere.

My brief was straightforward. Do an in-depth interview with the mercurial middle-order star. Show us the man behind the legend, the bloke behind the scoring machine who reached 7 000 runs in One Day Internationals faster than anyone in history. I emailed the Proteas media liaison with the naïve enthusiasm of a young Caribbean bowler running in to bowl the first over of the morning: with a bit of luck, I thought, this could be in the bag by the first drinks break. The liaison was optimistic that we could find twenty free minutes for a phone-call.

And then De Villiers bludgeoned, walloped, spanked, thrashed and cudgeled 149 off 44 balls in Johannesburg, and overnight went from being a beloved golden boy to an untouchable golden god. Optimistic emails became hedged, then apologetic, and then nonexistent. I wasn’t going to talk to AB after all.

At first I was disappointed. There was so much I wanted to ask him. Where does he go from here? 150 off 43 balls? How does his impossible niceness affect his ability to sledge? (“Call yourself world-class? You’re merely one of the top three talents in your beautiful and culture-rich country!”) But as I watched South Africa steamroll the West Indies into a small maroon puddle in the ODI series, a new thought occurred to me: AB de Villiers deserves better than a sports interview.

We’ve all endured them.

Q: You won the game. How are you feeling?

A: Ja, a lot of credit to the guys, they dug deep and gave 110 percent.

A lot of pressure on you to win the next match?

Ja, a lot of pressure on us to win the next match, for sure.

How are you going to win the next match?

We’re going to dig deep and give 110 percent.

What keeps you motivated?

I like digging deep. And obviously giving 110 percent.

No. Someone who can score at three runs a ball shouldn’t be tied to the laws of journalistic reality. It would have been a crime – vivisection by cliché – to impose the banality of interview on a man whose batting is pure fantasy. And so I decided to conduct an interview with AB de Villiers in a parallel universe in which sports writers can ask anything and sports stars are free to speak their minds. This, then, is the interview I never had with a South African superstar.

TE: Let’s first talk about your incredible record.

ABdV: Thanks, but it’s not really a record, just some songs on YouTube. But the fans seem to like them.

I was thinking more of your status as cricket’s current superstar. Your average over the last few months is mind-boggling.

Thanks, but I don’t really know what that means.

You don’t?

“Average” isn’t in my vocabulary.

So what do you call your records?

I don’t call them. They just come to me.

Oh very good!

Thanks.

On current form you’re the best batsman in the world, but how did it all start? How did the boy become the superstar?

Ag, you know, it was a pretty standard start. My planet was dying and my parents stuffed me in into an escape-capsule, punched in the co-ordinates for Earth, and the rest is history. Well, except that the capsule disintegrated around me as I came through the atmosphere and the heat kind of burnt off my exoskeleton, so that’s why I look human.

We saw you play some outrageous shots during your amazing knock at the Wanderers. The World Cup starts in a fortnight. Can we expect any new shots?

Absolutely. I’m working on something called The Shank, where I leave my crease slightly, well, a lot, actually. Basically I run down the pitch, snap the bowler’s leg, remove his tibia, whittle it with my teeth into the shape of a bat, and then run back into my crease to loft him back over his head for seven.

Six, you mean.

Hey guy, don’t ride your defeatist small-picture thinking into my mental hacienda.

Sorry. But doesn’t the bowler see you coming? And how can he bowl a ball with no shin-bone?

It all happens really fast. You’ve heard the expression “quick hands and feet”? That.

I must apologize in advance for the next question. I’m sure you and the team are all tired of answering it, but it’s something that’s haunted South African cricket for years now.

“How does Faf get his hair to stay so perfect even when he’s been sweating under a helmet for hours?” I know, it’s weird.

No, I mean the issue of choking at World Cups. I’m sorry to bring it up, but it’s something that’s going to be talked about a lot over the next month. So what are your thoughts on choking?

Ja look, it’s a metaphor I don’t really understand because I don’t ever choke.

I know, you always deliver under pressure and you’ve hauled the team out of some really bad –

No, I mean, I am physically unable to choke. My throat can expand to seventeen times the diameter of a human throat. On my home planet this adaptation allows us to feast on the giant eggs of the Eagle-Iguanas that haunt the high plains of X’arrqh, but it’s also great in cricket because it means I can inhale 3000% more oxygen than anyone else. But having said that, yes, the Proteas have a patchy record in World Cups and we’re working hard to remedy that.

Any specific game plan?

Derp. Score more runs than them. Flip man, sports writing is sheltered employment hey?

Sorry I asked. It’s just that a lot of fans are wondering how you cope with being both the mainstay of the batting effort and the wicket-keeper. It must be incredibly demanding on your body. How do you keep so fit?

Actually the problem is staying less fit. My metabolism is very – OK, look, the physiology is complex, but in a nutshell I’m powered by a small neutron star. If I trained like normal athletes the star would explode, destroying all matter, and frankly I’m saving that outcome for in case we ever get into a corner in a Test series against Australia. So essentially to play international cricket I have to spend a lot of time eating pizza and cookie dough and lying in front of the TV.

Any favourite shows?

Game of Thrones. It’s basically a 40-hour batting clinic.

But isn’t it just graphic violence and – oh, I see. Right. Who’s your favourite character in Game of Thrones?

Faf du Plessis.

He’s not in Game of Thrones.

Have you scored 16 000 international runs and the fastest ODI hundred of all time?

OK, sure, now that you mention it, I really liked Faf in Season 3. Moving on. I know the fans are eager to know more about your life off the field, you know, the man behind legend? On your personal website you list a few favourites. Could we talk through them to give the fans a bit more insight into AB the man?

Sure.

So first up, you famously received a medal from Nelson Mandela for a school science project.

Ja, it was a miniature volcano I made in Standard 6.

Oh those are awesome, where you make the cone out of papiermâché and then make it fizz with –

No, it was an actual miniaturized volcano. I carved granite into the shape of a caldera and then injected it with magma at vast pressure. Madiba was very impressed.

You say your favourite movies are Gladiator and A River Runs Through It. The common theme in both is, of course, flies, whether on fishing lures or open wounds. Would you say you enjoy a lot of fly-related art?

No.

OK, let’s move on. Apparently you’re scared of snakes. What exactly about them scares you?

Their teeth. Who did you say your work for again?

Sorry, that was a silly question.

Yes. Yes it was. Maybe ask questions I haven’t already answered on my website.

OK. Um. What’s you’re favourite book?

Hm. I think my favourite book is the rule book. I like to set it on fire with a flame-thrower as I ride past on a grizzly bear.

And when you’re not eating pudding to keep you in shape or actually playing? How do you like to unwind?

I’m actually quite a conventional guy, so I guess I like playing golf with mates, catching up on some series, maybe reading a thriller, playing my guitar, sword-fighting, kite-surfing on the backs of manta-rays, you know, stuff like that. Oh, I also really enjoy cage diving with sharks.

I haven’t done it but apparently it’s a rush.

Totally. They put some Great Whites in a cage and then I dive into the sea next to them and try to get into the cage using nothing but my teeth. It’s rad.

If you could travel back in time and talk to 10-year-old AB, what would you tell him?

I’d say “Calm down, little AB! Stop screaming! I know it’s freaky that a grownup version of yourself just materialized in your bedroom from the future, but I’m here to tell you important facts about the mid-1990s, mostly TV spoilers about what happens to Ross and Rachel and why The X-Files runs out of steam towards the end.”

What are your favourite qualities in a human being?

Forgiveness. You should always forgive people. Except if they are bowlers. Then you must destroy them and sow salt into their run-ups as you listen to the lamentations of their women. Oh, and hope. I love hope. I love to watch it draining out of the eyes of the fielding team as I reverse-paddle a fast yorker for seven over the ‘keeper’s head.

Where do you go from here?

Into space.

No, I meant it more as a rhetorical –

I don’t deal with rhetoric. I deal with facts. And my next mission is to go into space. Do you know how far you can hit a cricket ball in a zero-gravity vacuum? I’ve carved a little message onto a cricket ball with my teeth. It says “Stay away from Earth if you value your shin-bones.” Stephen Hawking estimates there could be billions of life forms out there and not all are going to be friendly.

So you’re…you want to…protect the Earth from, what, predatory extraterrestrial bowlers?

You learn fast.

And how are you going to get into space?

Ag, you know. The normal way. Put on something warmish, a fleece or a jersey or something, and then jump.

Jump. Into space.

Ja, a standing jump.

That seems unlikely.

That innings at the Wanderers seemed unlikely, and yet here we are.

Touche. AB de Villiers, it’s been a pleasure. You are not only a superstar but a gentleman too. Long may you…AB? Hello? Hello AB?

*

First published in Sunday Times Lifestyle.

The third man

Barring any major disasters, at some point in the next couple of months Hashim Amla will shatter Viv Richards’ record of – no, wait. ‘Shatter’ is too violent a word for Amla, a player who seems to embody the lightest and silkiest delights of the batting arts. Let us say, rather, that at some point fairly soon Amla is going to glide past the Antiguan as the fastest man to 5 000 runs in One-Day Internationals. A record set 27 years ago by the epitome of square-jawed, up-yours batting is going to be blown away like dandelion seeds on a breeze by the most unassuming of artists.

As Amla reaches the milestone of 100 ODIs and gets ready to usurp the Caribbean king, it seems appropriate to pause and have a little gush over South Africa’s unflappable superstar. But this isn’t a puff piece. Oh, hell no. Because if we’re going to be honest about Amla’s ODI career, we can’t hide from the fact that he’s pretty rubbish at four things.

The first of those things goes by the name of Mohammad Irfan and bowls pace out of his left hand for Pakistan. You will recall that Irfan is exceptionally tall, but exactly how tall he is remains a mystery: apparently Pakistani measuring tapes are as flexible as Pakistani birth certificates used to be, with the result that Irfan has been measured at 6ft 8in, 6ft 10in and 7ft 1in. But one man who hasn’t got the measure of him is Amla. Perhaps it’s the height (the ball is delivered from somewhere between the top of the sight-screen and the upper atmosphere, and comes down like a leather-covered meteorite), or perhaps it’s that pesky angle, sending the ball across Amla’s outside edge or turning him slightly chest-on. But whatever the reason, Amla seems to fall to Irfan uncommonly often. Indeed, as the giant seamer turns at the top of his run-up one might be forgiven for quoting another giant: ‘Fee fi fo fum, he smells the blood of a South African. Be Hash defending or on the attack, Irfan will soon be sending him back …’

The second problem Amla has is with run chases. I’m not saying he’s rotten at them, but at the time of writing he’d made 16 ODI hundreds and just three of them had been during chases. We know he doesn’t have a problem with pressure, so perhaps this is simply some unconscious petulance creeping into his game – the result of having the terms of his innings dictated to him by the game situation rather than walking out with 50 beautiful overs dangling in front of him, ripe for the plucking.

Thirdly, he’s not great against Australia. South African ODI stars of the mid-1990s would have killed to average 34 against the old foes, but by the somewhat bloated standards of the modern game, it’s a weak average.

OK. I admit it. Those first three flaws aren’t exactly fatal. After all, Irfan’s dominance over Amla might have just coincided with a wobble in the South African’s form. As for the weakness in chasing, well, the part I didn’t tell you was that he still averages 40 when chasing. Sure, it’s less than the 60 he manages setting a total, but you’d still take a guaranteed 40 most days. And the insipid record against Australia? That’s just a South African tradition.With the exception of Graeme Smith, South Africans have always saved their most hesitant cricket for series against Australia. So business as usual there …

The fourth weakness, however, can’t be glossed over. It is glaring, and involves something Amla seems completely incapable of doing. What is it? Taking credit. Stepping into the spotlight. Acknowledging our collective applause as he takes his place as the best ODI batsman since Sachin Tendulkar. For years it was Viv and Sachin. Now it’s Viv, Sachin and Hashim.

If you think I’m gilding the lily, consider the following: after 98 ODIs (Amla’s tally at the time of writing) he had scored 700 runs more than anyone else at the same point in their careers. Richards lay a distant second, Virat Kohli a close third, and then, almost 1 000 runs behind, Brian Lara. Tendulkar was nowhere, not yet having perfected his method at the top of the order. I know statistics are deceptive. I know ODIs in Viv Richards’ time were unrecognisably different from those played today. But you can’t get around the fact that, after 100 ODIs, Amla has scored at a rate unparallelled in the history of the game. It’s not as if he’s just squeaked past the likes of Richards and Lara. There’s Amla, then daylight, then everyone else.

What cements Amla’s class for me is the striking similarity between his method and that of Tendulkar. Like the Indian, Amla is an unflappable master with soft hands who would rather drive through mid-on than flick aerially over midwicket, and whose technique is tight without being restrictive. Like Tendulkar, he has been freed of the anxieties of the middle order where a soft ball and strategic complexities can muddy the waters. Opening the innings, he knows his only job is to use all his skill to guide a hard ball through a restricted field; and the results are spectacular. Tendulkar averaged 50 against the best ODI teams of his day (Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka). Against the current top four (Australia, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), Amla averages – you guessed it – 50.

So if Amla is cutting a swathe through the record books and creating a legacy that can comfortably stand alongside two of the all-time greats, where are the banner headlines? Where are the awkward but good-natured cameos on television ads for hamburgers or cars or life insurance? Hell, even Jonty Rhodes managed to flog a line of chinos back in the mid-90s, with billboards featuring the fielding legend in a rather awkward horizontal pose, dressed in a shirt and slacks, as if he was running out Inzamam-ul-Haq near the office water-cooler. (Somehow red-blooded sports fans failed to realise that they were clamouring to get into Jonty’s pants. It was a simpler time …)

Perhaps Amla’s faith (or at least his well-defined principles) has persuaded him to avoid the earthly demands of publicity. He seems a genuinely modest and self-contained man, blessed with the kind of piety that manifests as humility rather than preachiness. He is the anti-Pietersen: a cricketer with a clear picture of the world he inhabits, at peace with his relatively small place in that world, with no demons in his head demanding that he turn the spotlight on himself again and again.

Then again, there have been other modest men who have been cricketing megastars. Many pundits are still trying to figure out how Tendulkar, a global sporting megastar, managed to keep his private life entirely out of the public eye and how he maintained his serene demeanour through two decades of spectacular success and unimaginable pressure. So perhaps modesty alone is no guarantee of a relatively low-key career.

One explanation might be Amla’s style of play. Had he debuted 20 years ago he might have got the same adulation Tendulkar did, lauded for the silkiness of his strokes and his astonishing ability to score quickly without ever seeming to hit the ball particularly hard. But the aesthetics of cricket have changed, and while sophisticated hedonists and Test aficionados still savour Amla’s artistry, most fans of the shorter formats want to see balls flying through the night sky, soaring over jets of flame and high-kicking cheerleaders.

Here I must confess that even I, a stodgy traditionalist who believes cricket reached an apex in the early-2000s and has been somewhat drab since then, sometimes catch myself thinking of Amla as sedate. It shocked me to discover that Amla’s ODI strike rate was almost identical to Lance Klusener’s and forced me to concede that even I might have an unconscious preference for aerial sloggery over all-along-the-carpet class.

Charisma and aesthetics, however, are just footnotes in the larger explanation of why we have responded to Amla’s ODI heroics with a collective ‘meh’. The sad truth is that he could be twice as charming and hit the ball in the air twice as often and we’d still smile and nod politely. Why? Because ODIs are dead. Sure, we watch them, and we crank out a drop of adrenaline come World Cup time; but the truth, which we all feel in our cricketing marrow, is that the 50-over format was dead the moment T20 was from the ICC’s womb untimely ripp’d. We can watch Amla open an ODI innings for the Proteas and take pleasure in his mastery, but we cannot quite convince ourselves that it means anything, or at least anything relevant to modernity. Deep down we have to concede that being the third-best ODI batsman of all time is a little like being the third-best harpsichord-maker of all time. It takes vast skill and concentration, but it’s still, you know, a harpsichord.

Still, third-best-ever isn’t exactly chopped liver, and it’s tempting to look at that holy trinity of Viv, Sachin and Hashim and to dream of the heights Amla’s ODI career will still scale. How quickly will he reach 10 000 runs? Will he get to 15 000? Which apparently unattainable records will tumble to his educated blade? But these, unfortunately, must remain dreams.

In 2007 the World Cup in the Caribbean took an already stodgy format and turned it into a spectacle so tedious, so profoundly unwatchable, that for a few weeks it seemed that ODIs might be summarily executed. The 50-over game survived, but never fully recovered: 2007 was the high-water mark, with more ODIs played around the world than ever before; and then the slide began, with fewer and fewer high-profile teams playing fewer and fewer ODIs.

Even if the format survives, kept on life support by the World Cup, the numbers will continue to decline. Once, players could bank on 30 ODIs a year. No longer. The days of being able to rack up 10 000 runs in a limited-overs career are ending. Amla has at least four more years of ODI glory in him; perhaps another 3 000 runs. But when he calls time on his career he won’t be anywhere near the top of the all-time lists. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

The 50-over game was killed by quantity supplanting quality so maybe it’s fitting that its greatest post-Tendulkar exponent doesn’t end his career among the run-gluttons of the early-2000s, those players who endlessly gorged on meaningless cricket.

Soon our focus will turn to the World Conference of Harpsichord-Makers in Australia and New Zealand. We will watch the world’s ODI teams plane, hammer, screw, and tune their harpsichords, and, despite being intrigued now and then, we might struggle to take it all very seriously. Still, it would be nice if we could pause for a moment and rise to applaud the third-best harpsichord-maker of all time. Thank you, Mr Amla, for your beautiful craft. And here’s to a little more sweet music.

*

First published in Business Day/Sunday Times Sports Monthly and sacricketmag.co.za