From a distance, the sight of a group of boys kicking a ball around a cricket field in Weybridge, England, was nothing new. The Surrey sun was shining and the air was full of the careless abandon of children in a happy place.
And yet, upon closer inspection, the blue tracksuits and grins of the lads suggested they were a touring party of sorts. But this was different. This wasn’t a private school team on a biennial jaunt. Far from it. This was the realisation of a goal by former South African opening batsman Gary Kirsten to take a group of boys that he has been coaching in the heart of Cape Town on a tour.
It is 13 472km from Khayelitsha to Weybridge. More than 14 hours of travelling from the dusty, uneven field of Chris Hani High School to the perfectly manicured lawns of Weybridge Cricket Club. That is the journey the Gary Kirsten Foundation took with a group of boys, aged 10 to 13, in the midst of the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
In societal terms, Weybridge is on another planet compared with a township. It is one of the richest neighbourhoods in the United Kingdom and, by extension, the world. Those who call it home inhabit a privileged cocoon that is beyond the reach of all but the crustiest of the upper crust. Footballers, business moguls and the like call it home because it is a short trip from the bright lights of London but still far away enough to be ensconced in the serenity of the countryside.
Khayelitsha, in contrast, has all the have-nots that Surrey could never fathom. But they have cricket in common, and the eternal dream that sport can change lives.
When you get close enough to hear the chatter, the unmistakable Xhosa chirps ringing out in the middle of the English countryside are like music.
“It seemed like a crazy idea a year ago, but we really wanted to make this happen,” Kirsten said, surveying the sunny scene unfolding in front of him. “When we told the parents what we were trying to do, they laughed. We resolved to find a way to make this happen, and we have to thank our sponsors and donors for bringing this into reality.”
There is a glint in the eye as Kirsten says that, because he knows that kids from Khayelitsha seldom leave Cape Town, never mind South Africa.
“I think it is time we shifted the thinking that we can only produce quality players if we take potential out of the township and nurture it at schools in the city. Why can’t our focus be on improving the facilities in Khayelitsha, and then allow all the talent that is there to combine and take on these big schools?
“Can you imagine a Rondebosch or a Bishops having to come and play in Khayelitsha, and taking on these guys in a few years? On their actual home ground! Why not?” Kirsten challenges, with all the sincerity of an opening batsman taking first strike.
“Some of the best businessmen I have ever known come from the townships, and are still there. These are thriving communities and we should be looking to add to them, rather than take any promising talent away.
“At the moment, we are saying that you have to leave what you know at home in order to make it as a cricketer. I don’t like that way of thinking. The relationships that I have formed with parents and stakeholders in Khayelitsha are cherished, because they see what we are trying to do.”
What Kirsten is trying to do is flood the pool of hopefuls with raw talent, from the very source. He has seen enough in just a few schools in Khayelitsha to know what is out there. He has formed genuine friendships with these youngsters, keenly observing their enthusiasm for the game, and resolved to do more.
This is not a charm offensive. Kirsten has achieved more in the game of cricket than most South Africans. He chiselled a playing career out of hard work, and then rose and rose to win the 2011 Cricket World Cup as coach of India.
His word is gospel over there, because he had the blueprint to galvanise a room of millionaires and get them to dedicate themselves to a single, collective goal, which all the money in their worlds couldn’t buy. Kirsten wants to make a difference in his own country, starting at the bottom. He has rolled up his sleeves, and to hear him wax lyrical about what he hopes can be achieved is to listen to a man who has found a calling.
Complementing existing structures
“People must understand that we are not trying to compete with any of the development structures that Cricket South Africa have got through their hub system. There is just so much talent out here,” Kirsten glistened.
To that end, he has secured funding to lay a full-size artificial field and will build an indoor facility for training. Those facilities will also have classes for local coaches to come in and work towards gaining their qualifications.
Currently, these boys train on a field so bumpy and unpredictable that getting down to field a ball takes more courage than facing a bouncer. It could go anywhere. And yet, their fielding was so polished that one of the Weybridge CC officials noted that they had not conceded a single misfield throughout the match.
The energy in the field is always a sure indicator of commitment. During their disastrous campaign, the Proteas had to address their body language on the pitch. There were no such dilemmas for these youngsters, with each ball seemingly an event of which they all wanted to be a part. This was their World Cup, their moment in the sunshine, when the only thing that separated them from anyone else was runs and wickets.
And so, when they met on the cricket field, Khayelitsha’s clutch of cricket hopefuls marched to a popular victory over their Weybridge CC counterparts. Cavalier strokes in the finest West Indian tradition were unfurled as the team, led by the unflappable Nande Mguye, thrilled those gathered around the club grounds.
“It’s just great to see them finish off their tour in style,” Kirsten beamed.
The day before the victory, the Gary Kirsten Foundation Invitation side had been handed a tough lesson at St George’s Hill, one of the most exclusive schools in the country. Before that, they had won their opening fixture in Cardiff and then thrillingly tied their second fixture in Oxford.
Mguye, who has already been earmarked in the junior structures of Western Province cricket, helped himself to consecutive half-centuries and nervelessly closed out the match in Oxford with the ball.
“It is incredible to be here. I never thought that I could come here at this age, so I was highly motivated to come and do well. When I got out there, I just wanted to show that we have the talent to play against anyone,” the young leader growled.
“When we heard we were coming here, it was hard to believe. Then, the day we left, the way our parents and friends were singing at the airport in Cape Town was amazing.”
For most of the youngsters, this was their first time on a plane. Mguye had flown to Johannesburg before to visit family. He noted that a few of the younger players cried as they climbed aboard, stepping into a whole new world.
On arrival in England, they went straight to the Proteas’ victorious game over Afghanistan in Cardiff, Wales. There, they went through a range of amagwijo, attracting the attention of the stadium cameras. As first days abroad go, that day in Sophia Gardens was truly exceptional.
In between their own fixtures, the touring party also went to Birmingham to go and watch the Proteas at practice and then playing against the Black Caps of New Zealand. The day before the Edgbaston thriller, the boys stood agog at the back of the nets as their heroes went through their paces.
“This is incredible,” Aiden Markram gulped, as a short summary of their story was told to him. Andile Phehlukwayo puffed his cheeks out, understanding better than most just how long and lonely this road can be. Faf du Plessis was mobbed, his equipment a magnet for curious eyes. One youngster picked up his helmet to take a closer look.
“Hey, one day you might be wearing that same helmet and we will be watching you play in a World Cup,” Du Plessis winked.
He then took Mguye aside and had a few moments with him, captain to captain. What was said stayed between them, but there was a handshake and a hug of sincerity that spoke volumes. Mguye, already a standout, swelled to 10 feet tall, the significance of that moment not lost on him. If he thought he wanted to play cricket before this trip, he now knows for sure.
And he is not alone. All round him there are big dreams mushrooming on the back of this odyssey. As they might have dreamt during their trip across England and Wales, one day they may be the ones inspiring youngsters as they turn out for South Africa.
“That’s the dream, isn’t it?” Kirsten nodded. This is but the beginning, he says. For the lucky 13 that crossed the ocean, they’ll never forget these days.
Nande Mguye (captain), Buhle Mfunelwa, Buhle Dyira, Owethu Moyi, Unathi Magoloza, Ayanda Ntamo, Linoxolo Roro, Oyena Mbanya, Endinako Gxidolo, Likhona Mathunda and Mila Silamsi. Remember these names. They might pop up in a decade, fully grown and ready to take on the world.