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South Africa’s Hour

7th April 2009.

The offer to host the IPL is an impressive statement of confidence by a nation prepared to accept challenges.

By a strange quirk of fate and in the twinkling of an eye, South Africa has become the cricketing venue of choice. Within a fortnight the second season of IPL will start on African soil, with 59 matches to be played, attended by all the glitz and glamour that accompany this dynamic and theatrical form of the game. In September the unloved world championship will likewise be staged in South Africa, with the game’s eight senior teams competing for the trophy. Both tournaments were supposed to be held on the subcontinent. Both had to be moved. In both cases South Africa offered the only feasible alternative. And so the pariah state becomes the host, and all without a bloody revolution or labour camps or guillotines, or even undue recriminations. It is a great achievement that had great men at its core.

To arrive in South Africa in the early 1990s, just before the release of Mr Mandela, when many whites still regarded him as a terrorist, when many felt that the African National Congress was the epitome of evil, when fear stalked the land, was to encounter a country and a game aware that the stakes were high as the nation veered between violence and settlement. As far as cricket was concerned, the old powers were desperately trying to prove their sincerity by investing funds in townships and moving away from cloak-and-dagger rebel tours that had undermined the game around the world, even as it supposedly maintained standards in the white domestic game.

Despite the camps and programmes, many of them run by black women committed to promoting sport as an alternative to the streets, cricket retained its image as a game for the elite. If rugby belonged to the Afrikaners, then cricket was in the hands of the “liberal” Anglo Saxons in their Cape Town and Johannesburg strongholds. Reputations are not easy to elude. Even now the game retains the tag among swathes of the previously dispossessed. Changing that outlook is the primary task facing Cricket South Africa. Twenty-over cricket can help with that. No wonder they were excited about the prospect. Without paying a cent, making money in the meantime, they can show their wider audience that cricket is not a stiff or stuffy game, that it offers hope rewards, challenges.

Talented players emerged from Soweto and Alexandria, and were pushed through the ranks, partly to impress an international audience eager for its conscience to be assuaged, partly to inspire locals. Tracksuits, kit and opportunities were thrown at them by officials who knew, deep down, that cricketers cannot be microwaved, that the hard path is more reliable, but hoping against hope that a few might emerge. Most of these gifted sportsmen failed as cricketers. Economic and social factors could not easily be ignored. Gauteng introduced a mentoring scheme and a veteran spinner asked his charge what he needed, whereupon the boy quietly and devastatingly replied, “I need food, I need food.” So much for a pair of batting gloves. All the more reason to salute the miracle. Others were forced to fetch water from a township tap or to accept responsibility as the oldest male in the family. Or else they lacked the physical strength to compete with those raised on healthy diets. As the songster said in another context, the chances really were a million to one.

And so cricket’s public face remained stubbornly and frustratingly white. Of course, the game had been played in various Indian communities and by coloureds in the Eastern Cape. Indeed non-white cricket has a proud history that is nowadays attracting increasing attention and documentation. Basil D’Oliveira’s success overseas had been a source of encouragement, but there was regret that D’Oliveira was not able to open doors for others. Players from these areas were not quite sure what it all meant – was the gap between them and the whites enormous, or could it be crossed in a generation? It was left to Makhaya Ntini, the Amla brothers, JP Duminy and Wayne Parnell to provide an answer.

Makhaya Ntini

Makhaya Ntini during a training session at the Sydney Cricket Ground 01 January 2009.
Photo © NAPARAZZI, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mr Mandela’s release and the keenness of the awaiting government to rebuild, as opposed to destroy, meant that South Africa was able to resume playing international cricket. In 1992 they took part in the World Cup. Next came the first elections and majority rule founded upon the notion that all men are equal and ought to be judged only by the content of their character.

Inexorably these breakthroughs led to the current, mostly happy, state. By hook or by crook, South Africa began to develop a multi-racial team. Furious debate raged, behind the scenes and in public – not so much between backwoodsmen and progressives as between those regarding cricket as a separate place and those persuaded that it had a part to play in the reconstruction. Injustice and artifices were created, as with varying degrees of enthusiasm the country sought to find a peaceful path forwards that entrenched change without damaging the better parts of the inheritance. No book has been written to serve as a guide, nor were intentions always honourable, but the fact is that South African cricket has managed to forge a new alliance. As much can be told from the comfort and content of the current team.

Doubtless the IPL will be fun. The game must go on. But it’ll take more than a pile of money and a hundred dancers and screaming commentators to camouflage the size of this defeat. The cost to the game, and the world, has been high. It’s hard to remain optimistic

Although it helped, it was not enough, for the IPL or the Champions Trophy, that the new South Africa had settled down more easily than even the dreamers had dared to hope. Simply, Lalit Modi and company were looking for a location capable of holding a multi-million dollar extravaganza lasting more than a month and including most of the cricketing stars of the era. Grounds, safety, support and experience were essential. South Africa alone could provide them. England and Arabia were mentioned as alternatives, but neither held water. England offered an audience and accommodation, but its season was underway and it was not able to provide empty stadiums. The IPL did not want to be moving around from place to place. Modi said that cost was not a consideration, yet it could not be completely ignored. Moreover the English grounds were often tied in to advertising contracts, and the same applied to television coverage. Also. it tends to rain a lot in England. Nor was Abu Dhabi a realistic proposal. Several arenas were needed, and training camps and so forth.

South Africa was the last country standing. It had the interest and the infrastructure, the space and the desire. Already it had staged a cricket World Cup, one spoilt by self-indulgent boycotts leading to distorted outcomes. Already it had held a rugby World Cup (RWC). For that matter it had won the most recent RWC, whereupon the State President had joined the team in a merry jig, a sight more improbable and almost as uplifting as the sight of Mr Mandela wearing a Bok jersey as he presented the 1995 trophy to Francois Pienaar.

Now it was busy preparing for the 2010 soccer World Cup, amongst the biggest sports tournaments of them all. Again it had bid boldly and been acclaimed. Stadiums were being erected, plans laid. Of curse it could organise a little cricket tournament featuring a handful of teams. And it could do so at the drop of a hat. It was an impressive statement of confidence made by cricket officials and politicians in nation prepared to accept challenges. It was, too, a sign that, not least in its own mind, South Africa has come in from the cold.

Clearly it has taken more than the rise of one country to cause these competitions to be shifted. South Africa’s delight has been the subcontinent’s despair. Certainly the Indian election complicated matters and stretched resources, but the idea that a nation as powerful and so devoted to the game could not protect a hundred or so cricketers was alarming. After all, South Africa also has an election looming, an event likely to pass off without incident but bound all the same to arouse passions. South Africa is riddled with crime as well, and recently laptops belonging to a rugby team staying at a posh hotel in Durban were stolen. Hardly a family has not been exposed to thefts and murders. Yet South Africa put its hand up.

India’s inability to stage the tournament sets a bad precedent. What, now, for the 2011 World Cup? The IPL does not include national teams, merely famous international players. It is a much less tempting target. The outrage in Pakistan shows that sportsmen are no longer immune to attack. The Mumbai attacks confirm that the wealthy and western are regarded as legitimate targets. Moving the IPL and the Champions Trophy was a desperate measure likely to have dire consequences. For the time being the cosmopolitan dream is over, beaten by the anger. South Africa’s gain has been substantial and shows its leaders in a favourable light. But the cost to the game, and the world, has been high. It’s hard to remain optimistic.

Doubtless the IPL will be fun. The game must go on. But it’ll take more than a pile of money and a hundred dancers and screaming commentators to camouflage the size of this defeat. Full praise to South Africa for responding to the call, but the implications of this relocation ought to worry every lover of the game, and life itself.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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