Posted on January 15, 2010

Makhaya Ntini’s Absence Raises Awkward Question for South Africa

Mike Atherton, Times of London, January 14, 2010

One of the iniquitous effects of apartheid–an ideology that is rarely referred to by name in today’s South Africa–is that we are encouraged to think continually of sporting teams in terms of race. It is, though, a question that South African cricket must ask of itself, and urgently: why has there been only one black African cricketer of note, when black Africans comprise 80 per cent of the population?

That cricketer, Makhaya Ntini, is, in international terms, of the past. Friedel de Wet, his replacement, has suffered what is thought to be a serious back injury and De Wet’s replacement, Wayne Parnell, is from a township in the Eastern Cape that also produced Alviro Petersen and Ashwell Prince. But none of these is black African and it is a black African that Cricket South Africa (CSA) desperately needs as a role model to help to inspire others.

Fifteen years ago, on England’s first tour to South Africa after readmission, Ali Bacher, the chief executive of the South African cricket board at the time, promised that within ten years the home team would be more than half made up of blacks. “Black” covers a multitude of races here–African, Coloured, Indian–but implicit within Bacher’s pledge was the acknowledgement that black Africans would play a central role in cricket over the next decade.

Five years ago Gerald Majola, Bacher’s successor and himself the product of a famous black cricketing dynasty, made the same promise. But despite the millions spent on cricket in the African community, the returns have been minimal.

In 1995-96 England helped to increase the visibility of cricket in the townships around Johannesburg. The opening first-class match of the tour was played at the Soweto Oval–still the only first-class match it has hosted–and Nelson Mandela made a grand entrance midway though the first session, bringing the game to a halt. He chatted to us all, but at length to Devon Malcolm, and Bacher had the photo opportunity he craved.

Later that tour England opened a ground on the outskirts of the township of Alexandra, five square miles of desperate degradation hemmed in by some of the wealthiest suburbs of Johannesburg. Since then, England have played matches, or helped to promote cricket in a number of townships: Alice, in the Eastern Cape, for example, and Galashwe, in the Northern Cape. Last year Australia asked to be taken into Soweto and their players spent the day coaching there.

Zed Ndamane is the development officer in Gauteng, although he comes from the Eastern Cape, and I spoke with him this week about his province’s failure to capitalise on these opportunities. “It is a combination of facilities and investment,” he said. “We have four township teams in the 16-team Premier League in Johannesburg and they are usually in the middle or lower middle reaches of the league. Four turf pitches is not a lot for the population size. Black schools don’t have the playing fields or the space.

“In the 1990s transformation was a buzz word and companies were eager to get involved as it reflected well on them. Now, 15 years later, with the football World Cup looming and a recession biting, there is not the investment that there was. We used to have 127 coaches in the townships and we are down to about 32 now.

“We do have a scholarship scheme in place, whereby we take the most promising and put them in good schools with good facilities. Our budget is limited, though, so we are just scratching the surface. We have just recently produced our first African player to represent South African Schools, which is great, but it is slow and frustrating progress. Cricket is the second most popular sport in the townships, but it is all about investment and facilities and there is not enough of either.”

There are four black professional players in the Gauteng squad: Thami Tsolekile, a wicketkeeper-batsman who represented South Africa briefly on England’s 2004-05 tour to the country, Aaron Phangiso (left-arm spinner), Pumelela Matshikwe (right-arm fast bowler) and Grant Mokoena (top-order batsman).

Tsolekile was particularly exciting because he was something of a marketing dream for CSA. He came from the Langa township in Cape Town, raised as one of 14 in a two-room, bricks and mortar house on Harlem Avenue, which is next door to Langa Cricket Club. But at the same time as Tsolekile disappeared from the South Africa team, so did Langa from the first division of the Cape Town league.

Three of Tsolekile’s peer group in Langa went on to play for the South Africa football team. Football is an African game here, in a way that cricket and rugby union cannot match. And with the football World Cup coming, and investment aimed almost solely at making sure the tournament is a success [–12 billion rands (about £992 million) is being spent on building or redeveloping football stadiums ]–cricket is likely to fall even farther behind.

For Bacher, whom I spoke with this week, the great tragedy was the injury sustained by Mfuneko Ngam, a black African fast bowler who had the potential to ease Ntini’s burden. “The late Hylton Ackerman was in charge of our academy when I was still involved in cricket here and I would go to him constantly to ask whether there were any black African superstars coming through,” Bacher said. “He’d always say ‘no’ until one day he told me to come and watch a young fast bowler that he believed could be another Michael Holding. Ngam was beautiful to watch, a real athlete and seriously quick. His back injury robbed us of a potential superstar.”

How does Bacher feel now about his promise all those years ago, and the lack of progress of young black African cricketers? “I remember going through the villages of the Eastern Cape with the head of Mercedes-Benz and seeing all these villagers playing cricket; I was sure we would produce a steady stream of good black African cricketers,” he said. “I’m still hopeful about the Eastern Cape, where cricket has long been embedded. It’s in their blood there. It is more of a struggle here in Gauteng. I hope and trust that South African cricket is doing everything in its power to change that. It is vital for the future health of our game.”

Another cricket club opened their doors yesterday, to more pomp and ceremony, in the heart of Johannesburg, in the shadows of the stadium formerly known as Ellis Park. But here in Gauteng, the home of the most desperate townships, cricket and rugby are just bystanders to football. Mind you, to stand on the Oval in Alexandra and look down into the slum below is to wonder that any kind of sport is played there at all. Sunshine and space are key ingredients for any sport and while there is plenty of the former, there is none of the latter.