transformation

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

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.

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

Blocked by Mbaks

instagramThis week I got blocked on Twitter by South Africa’s sports minister, Fikile Mbalula. That doesn’t make me special. Mbalula aka Fiks aka Mbaks aka Razzmatazz aka Beyoncé Please Call Me blocks people faster than a jammer having a “glitch” in the media gallery at Parliament.

And to be honest, he’s actually been pretty restrained with me. I’ve been heckling him on Twitter for months, wondering aloud what a Sports Minister is actually for, or why he is paid 2.2 million of our tax rands every year, or how his ministry spends the billion tax rands it is handed annually. I mean, after you’ve signed off on your latest campaign to get South Africans interested in basketball (Because Americans! And Americans!) and then headed out for lunch in Camps Bay, there’s quite a lot of change left.

lunchMbalula, however, has not been idle since taking office. (You will recall he was once our deputy minister of police, in which role he urged cops to “shoot the bastards”, a policy which came to fruition at Marikana.) Oh yes, he’s been a busy little bee, and in the process has become famous for four things:

  • a public crush on Beyoncé which made him overlook the local musicians he’s supposed to support as he tried to get his dream date to come and perform at…
  • an awards dinner costing R21-million
  • calling Bafana Bafana a “bunch of losers”, and…
  • overseeing said losers’ progress in the global rankings from about 50th to about 50th

Bafana

The numbers don’t lie. This is a FIFA graph showing how our football team has fared compared to the football teams of the moderately fucked Democratic Republic of Congo, the mostly fucked Haiti, and the completely fucked Iraq. Say what you like about Mbalula but you can’t deny that under his administration we’ve performed much better than one country destroyed by war and another destroyed by an earthquake. Yes, we’re currently lagging another country being destroyed by civil war, but Mbaks surely has a plan. Perhaps involving lunch in Camps Bay.

But of course Mbalula’s biggest claim to fame is his addiction to social media. His instagram account is a selfie-encrusted altar to narcissism. It’s so startlingly self-obsessed it’s even had two articles written about it in proper newspapers. (Here’s one. And here’s the other.) And Twitter, ah, Twitter: it’s the padded cell in which Fiks can get his fix.

Now, Mbaks has always had a way with words. Not a good way, mind you, but still a way. His tweets are always memorable, in the same sort of way that a glimpse of a hillbilly dragging a bloody sack into the trees is memorable when you see it from a speeding train.

On Tuesday afternoon, though, things got very strange, very quickly…

razz

As the tweets rolled out, Fiks seemed to be going from DEFCON Loveable Babbler to DEFCON Oh Wow He’s Been Hacked to DEFCON Oh Fuck He’s Having A Nationally Broadcast Mental Breakdown.

hacked

A concerned nation weighed in. Some phoned the number he’d tweeted…

number

And then, just when it seemed that the Sports Minister had redeployed himself to Groendakkies…

not hacked

Now here’s the thing.If you’re having to explain to people that you were doing comedy, then you’re a bad comedian. But if you’re the Sports Minister and you’re having to explain to people that you were doing comedy, THEN YOU’RE AN UTTERLY SHIT SPORTS MINISTER. I was unimpressed.

humor bankrupt

Something that’s always fascinated me about politicians is how they have two kinds of skin on their bodies. The one kind is incredibly thick. They can take astonishing abuse from each other. They can survive the kind of pressure that would kill you and me. They can be found guilty of fraud, of stealing our money; they can be shamed before an entire nation and be back in Parliament a few months later without even a hint of a blush. But the other kind of skin…that’s tissue-paper thin. The faintest, flimsiest film. Anything can get under it: a dandelion seed, a kitten’s sneeze…or perhaps a tweet about fucking around on Twitter.

Suddenly the jovial, I’m-Still-Mbaks-From-The-Block banter was gone, and the Honourable Fikile Mbalula, MP, stood up to wag the finger of state at me…

wag1

Oooo! Look at all the properly-spelled words! Look at the Capital Letters! Somebody was piiiiiiissed! But there was more…

wag2

I had no idea that asinine jokes about Wifi grants were a way for Public Reps around the World to engage, but he did have a point: if I didn’t like what I was reading, I was welcome to unfollow him.

Except, before I could unfollow him, this happened…

blocked

“You’re going to break up with me? Not if I break up with you first!” And bam! it was all over.

It was tempting to see a bigger picture; to imagine that this was yet another example of the ANC’s pathological inability to tolerate dissent. After all, Mbalula is an integral part of a corporation (because that’s what the government is) that brought us the proposed Media Tribunal, non-commissions of non-inquiry into the arms deal and Marikana, signal jammers, and a Speaker who fails to recognize people depending on how thick her political cataracts are that day.

But of course this wasn’t government or the ANC or even politics in general. This was just Mbaks being Mbaks. This is how he rolls. Scrambling up onto his moth-eaten high horse, wagging his little cyber-finger at me, he declared that Twitter was a way of engaging with people. And yet his reputation as someone who blocks first and asks questions later suggests that when it comes to Twitter, the only engagement he’s interested in involves a ring and Beyoncé.

Oh well. That was that. It was all over. Or was it?

Seconds after being cast into the outer darkness my Twitter mentions started lighting up.

Could Fikile have said something about me after blocking me? No. No adult, let alone an adult public servant, could be that petulant or juvenile. It would be like walking away from an argument, claiming it was beneath you, and then, once your opponent was out of earshot, turning around and yelling “And yo mamma too!” Not only would it be childish, it would be desperately weak. Pathetic, even. No, it was impossible.

But in Mbaks, all things are possible. This is what I found.

verwoerdSure.

Because the only possible reason taxpayers would tell you to do your job is white supremacy. Obvies.

His fans were cross. What they hell was I on about? What kind of Calvinist slave-driving buzz-killing arsehole was I to criticise Razzmatazz for spreading joy on Twitter?

buzzkill
She raised an interesting question, though: how much time was he spending on Twitter? At which point, as if reading my mind, the number crunchers at SA By Numbers weighed in:

stats

More analysis revealed that most of Fiks’s tweets are sent during working hours. So how much of our money is he pissing down the urinal of social media? *turns on overhead projector, licks finger, rubs off last remnants of yesterday’s lecture, wipes blue fingers on trousers*

Let’s assume the following:

1. Razzmatazz works 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year.

2. He works 12 hours a day. (MPs and Ministers pull long hours. What they actually do in those hours is debatable, but you can’t deny they arrive early and leave late.)

3. 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year = 2,940 hours a year.

4. For working those 2,940 hours he is paid R2,211,937, or R12.50 per minute.

In short:

giphy

OK. We know Fiks tweets around 22 times a day and that most of those happen during school hours. So let’s assume he’s tweeting on the job 18 times a day. Some of those are brain-farts. Some are imperious slap-downs to uppity columnists. Some or just re-tweets of things he’s liked. Some take 5 seconds to compose, others might take up to 20 seconds. So let’s go with about 15 seconds per tweet – which covers reading his timeline, replying to some tweets, getting annoyed by others, and generally trawling for stuff to re-tweet.

18 tweets x 15 seconds? Fiks is spending just 4 and a half minutes of his working day tweeting. We’re paying him R12.50 a minute, so his Twitter addiction is really only costing us R56 per day. Or R280 per week. Or R13,700 per yea – actually, fuck that. That’s social grants for three children living in hunger and poverty

Emotive? Manipulative? Perhaps. But I admit, I’m pissed off – at watching so much potential squandered by untouchable politicians, at being associated with Verwoerd when I demand that my public representatives work harder – so maybe I’m overreacting. After all, Twitter is an important tool for politicians. It gives them a direct link to the voters and allows them to communicate their policies, plans and success without all the red tape of press releases or speeches. If Mbaks is using Twitter to promote South African sport, to keep us informed of the successes of his ministry and his progress in transforming rugby and cricket (his biggest policy promise to date), then perhaps that’s R13,000 a year well spent.

So what does Fiks tweet about?

Life is far too short to read his Twitter feed for too long, but I thought 10 days would give a fair sample of content. And so I waded through his tweets from 1 March until lunchtime on 11 March. And here’s what I found.

  • Religious messages: 1
  • Comments on local music: 3
  • Lobbying for Durban to host the Commonwealth Games: 5
  • “Comedy” tweets: 8
  • Pictures of himself supporting sports events. Or playing golf. Or just of himself: 14
  • Messages of congratulations to sportspeople or musicians: 14
  • Messages of good luck to sportspeople (including re-tweets from others): 15
  • Zinging slap-downs of his critics: 16
  • Updates on current or upcoming sports events: 26
  • Various official-ish tweets on topics ranging from sports development to gender violence to Ebola to the sentencing of the Ivory Coast’s First Lady: 33
  • Informal banter with his followers, about sport, Twitter, the price of gold teeth, etc: 37

And what topic did Fiks fixate on most of all? What essential subject dominated his social media time? What could be important enough to keep those three kids hungry?

Fikile Mbalula, of course.

Between 1 March and the middle of 11 March, Razzmatazz re-tweeted or commented on a total of 41 tweets that were compliments to him by his fans.

Actually, “compliments” is too restrained a word. Rather think teenage girls at a Bieber concert.

fanmail2 fanmail3

Reading through the endless self-congratulation, I began to realize that I had completely misunderstood Mbaks. I had thought he was a public servant, working to uplift South Africans through sport. I hadn’t realized that he isn’t a Sports Minister at all. He’s not even a minister. He’s a celebrity comedian. He’s a marketing tool for the ANC.

These two tweets in particular helped me realize the error of my ways.

just a joke fanmail1

He’s hilarious. And he does what we pay him to do. In short, we pay him to be hilarious.

On Wednesday and Thursday, as sports writer Antoinette Muller took to Twitter to try to raise R8,500 to send two promising Khayelitsha touch-rugby stars to national trials, some might have wondered where Mbaks was. After all R8,500 is what he “earns” in a single day at the office.

But of course Fiks has nothing to do with sending those boys to trials. That’s not his job. His job is Razzmatazz, an endless song-and-dance routine, keeping the voters laughing so they don’t ask why his colleagues aren’t doing their jobs. No wonder his fans were angry with me: suggesting that he actually do his job was like me grumpily telling Beyoncé to get an office job.

His portfolio isn’t Sport and Recreation. It’s Hearts and Minds. Largely unqualified to win minds, he’s turned all his skill as a comedian and showman to winning hearts – and if Twitter is anything to go by, he’s doing his job superbly well.

Maybe it’s all a joke that this Caucasian isn’t getting. But I can’t help feeling that if voters are happy to hand over a billion rand a year to a joke ministry run by a joker, the joke’s very much on them. And Fikile Mbalula is having the last laugh.