All change and no change in South African cricket

Race and class dynamics continue to dominate the sport while Cricket South Africa still has no discernible plan to transform the game and promote black players.

The optics in South African cricket right now are as reassuring as wearing a white vest in a blizzard. Following a 2019 of tumultuous administrative implosion, Cricket South Africa (CSA) has installed Jacques Faul as acting chief executive officer and appointed Graeme Smith as temporary director of cricket, and a new Proteas management team led by former wicketkeeper Mark Boucher and assisted by Jacques Kallis (batting consultant) and Paul Harris (bowling consultant).  

As Proteas captain Faf du Plessis was quick to point out, the debuts handed to three white thirtysomethings, opener Pieter Malan, middle-order batsman Rassie van der Dussen and allrounder Dwaine Pretorius, were cricketing decisions seeking to stiffen the team’s spine with the grit and experience of players hardened in the domestic circuits – men who “know their game”.

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In a normal society, this would have been accepted without a blink of an eye or a raised eyebrow. In an abnormal society riven by historical and contemporary inequality and racism, such as South Africa, those optics, taken to their most cynical level, would suggest that these are guys who would have made their debuts earlier in their careers were it not for the CSA’s race-based transformation policies.

Their inclusion has asked pertinent questions about the lack of development of cricket in formerly disadvantaged areas and the CSA’s inability to create a pipeline for promising black cricketers through junior structures, and franchise and national age-group representative teams to then feed the national men’s squad.

The latter is out of the control of the men making the selection decisions at the elite level of the sport: Du Plessis, Boucher and current convenor of selectors Linda Zondi. Development, rather, is the main job of the CSA and the men who run the sport in the country. This was made clear by the 2012 inquiry report into South African cricket by retired judge Chris Nicholson who, identifying the CSA’s not-for-profit Section 21 nature, which allows for tax exemptions, noted that revenue should be mainly focused on development of the game.  

The report by Proteas management to the CSA board about the team’s disastrous exit from the World Cup in mid-2019, which New Frame has seen, made clear that development is not happening at a pace and effectiveness that would “normalise” the sport in South Africa. This, married to the quota system in South African cricket – which has been reduced to nothing more than a box-ticking exercise serving narrow political self-interest, rather than broader issues of democratising the game and nation-building through representation – has caused undue pressure on black players at every level of the game.

Quota knock-ons

Black junior players frequently have snide remarks about quotas thrown their way when they cross the boundary ropes. The mental effects of these experiences have not been scientifically captured, but the attrition rate among black players who make it into the professional domestic game suggests it is destructive.

Black players such as bowlers Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi have been overworked and not given enough time off to recuperate from injuries and fatigue because of the demands of ticking the CSA’s quota boxes. There are not enough black players of international quality coming through the system to replace them when workload management is required.

Despite being “red-flagged on a number of occasions”, Rabada’s workload remained high during the previous season, aggravating an ongoing back injury and contributing “to him being both physically and mentally jaded” during the Cricket World Cup, according to the report.

“It is interesting to note that he has bowled more overs than any other fast bowler up to this stage of his career. There was a drop in KG’s [Rabada] bowling speed at CWC (when compared to his speed during the Pakistan Series), which suggests that the load on KG has contributed to fatigue and underperformance,” the report goes on.

It also calls for a “revisiting” of transformation quota targets “so that our star players like KG and Lungi Ngidi can be given sufficient rest and conditioning time”.

Race dynamics

In the fractious debate that followed Temba Bavuma being dropped for the Newlands Test match, the second of the current Test series against England, it became obvious that even those advocating for his inclusion had reduced a fine man and a sturdy sportsman to nothing more than a box to be ticked.

When New Frame interviewed Bavuma in Pune during the Proteas tour of India in late 2019, it was obvious that the significance of being a black national team sportsman in South Africa was not lost on him. He is fully aware of the race and class dynamics that dominate South African society and sport.

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“When I first started off in international cricket and when I had relative success, I always felt that extra bit of pressure, that extra bit of responsibility being the player that I am, a black African player. There is a greater deal of significance in my achievements and what I do,” he said.

“If I do well versus if a white player does well, mine will be blown a bit more out of proportion, if I can say it like that. Probably rightly so considering where we come from as a country. I try and not focus too much on that, but at the same time I can’t be oblivious to that. The honest truth is that if you don’t do well as a player of colour, you’re going to have the term ‘quota player’ thrown in. And if you do well, you’re probably hailed as the next messiah or something like that. It’s juggling those two things. You can’t be oblivious to it, it’s something that’s always there,” he said.

Bavuma is a complex person, the kind who will be the first to concede his failures and the last to want to hide behind race and quotas. He remains a sportsman, one who takes great pride in playing for his country and in believing he is doing so on merit.

Yet, over the summer so far, he has been reduced to nothing more than the colour of his skin. This is because of the CSA’s failure to transform the sport and, consequently, the conversations happening in press boxes, cricket clubs and pubs around the country. For this to happen, Smith must focus his attention on the structural aspects of the game from grassroots upwards in the short time before he resumes commentating at the Indian Premier League. 

The CSA board has managed to deflect nagging questions around its failures over the past two years with the temporary appointments of Faul and Smith just before the country’s attention returned to the cricket oval. More importantly, now the CSA needs to give an indication to the nation about whether it intends continuing on its destructive path of self-interest, will resign, or return its focus to its basic mandate: developing the sport so that the country sees black cricketers emerge outside of the reductive, toxic bounds of the quota system.

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