Race is killing South African cricket

RW Johnson says the crushing defeat of the Proteas in the current test series is a portent of things to come

Beyond a Boundary

South African cricket since re-admission in 1990 has been mainly a joy. With the dreadful exception of the Hansie Cronje affair, the team has been consistently magnificent and has produced some of the most memorable names in the game – Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, Allan Donald, Jonty Rhodes, Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock, Dale Steyn, Herschelle Gibbs, A.B. de Villiers and Hashim Amla, to name but a few.

In this new era the team was at last open to players of all races and its tremendous successes were also hailed by all races for the first time. South Africans love a winning team and that was mainly what they got. It was striking that a large number of Coloured cricketers quickly rose to the top, showing that Basil d'Oliveira had been no flash in the pan. Less expected was the arrival in force of many hugely talented white Afrikaans cricketers.

Black Africans were far fewer – Ntini, of course, and but for terrible luck with injuries, Mfuneko Ngam – one of the best natural fast bowlers that the country has ever produced. But cricket-lovers were happy as long as they felt the team was picked on merit and provided it kept on winning.

South Africa's crushing defeat in the current series against England highlights what is happening to the only sport in which South Africa is rated as No.1 in the world. It is a tragic situation. Simply because South African cricket was so good it has been a major target for transformation capture. Who cares about soccer when the country's team became the first in World Cup history not to progress beyond the first round as the host team? But in cricket and rugby South Africa has conquered the world and this means that these are the two commanding heights selected for particularly strong political interference.

In rugby, South Afica were usually No2 to New Zealand. Cricket, however, has been South Africa's top sport for some time now, its team No.1 in the world for years on end. But this has simply meant that the political pressures on the game have increased.

One could start some years ago when Shaun Pollock attempted to persuade Ali Bacher that if something was not done to keep him, South Africa would lose the services of Kevin Pietersen. Bacher, who has much to live down from his role in the pirate tours era of busting sports sanctions, was adamant that nothing extra should be done to keep Pietersen. So Pietersen became England's top-scoring batsman instead. He was part of a trend.

Since then one has found an increasing number of young South Africans emigrating to countries where their white skins will not be a handicap. Even Roelof van der Merwe has decided to become a Dutchman while Johan Botha, now an emigre to Australia, has insisted that if South Africa wants him it will have to pick him from there. One old Springbok player of great distinction told the author that when asked to advise on the careers of promising young white cricketers, he usually counselled emigration to New Zealand.

This situation has now caught up with the country's Test team. As always, one has to start with the administrators. The chairman of Cricket South Africa, Haroon Lorgat, is the man who forced the selection of an unfit Vernon Philander (a Coloured) onto the South African team in the ODI World Cup, when Kyle Abbot (a white) was the obvious form pick. This cost South Africa a place in the final and the decision has weighed on the shoulders of South Africa's cricketers ever since. A.B. de Villiers, the captain, was reportedly so discouraged that he didn't want to play in the match at all and one can only sympathise. By selecting an unfit player South Africa was made, effectively, to play with only ten men. Philander bowled a few overs, took no wickets and wasn't even fit enough to field. In a closely fought game that is too much of a handicap for any team to overcome.

The Proteas had longed to win the World Cup, knew that no other team would be forced to pick an unfit player and realised that, in effect, they had been made to lose by their own administrators. For most of the players this summed the situation up all too well: if their own administrators were out to undermine them, how could they ever win ? The decision was, of course, equally devastating for Philander. Until then no one had doubted that he was one of the world's top bowlers in the team on merit. Now, however, by picking him when he was obviously unfit, it was made clear that ultimately he was just a quota player. Philander has never come back from that awful incident.

Spare a thought for what it must feel like to South Africa's cricketers. First, they had the repeated experience of being put to the sword by Kevin Pietersen, knowing all the time that he might have been playing on their side. Then at the World Cup the New Zealander who hit the winning six against them was Grant Elliot, yet another emigre South African. Wherever they go they are in effect mocked by the sight of ex-South Africans turning out for the opposition. This can hardly be fun.

Then came the tour of India. Prior to this the experienced Gary Kirsten had been succeeded as team coach by Russell Domingo, a man of colour, but with virtually no experience of top level cricket. This in itself was fantastic: plenty of experienced internationals were available for the job and no other top Test team would have dreamt of making the perilous tour to India without a coach able to prepare the team for the unique challenges they would face there.

The new chairman of selectors, Linda Zondi, had played only three first class matches in his life and his fellow selectors were also lacking in any experience of international cricket. The result was that the selection of the team for the Indian tour was botched. Above all, they failed even to select two opening batsmen. The team was also completely under-prepared for what they might face. Domingo was unable to anticipate the problems they would confront there because he had never been to India before in his life and cheerfully (though absurdly) talked of leading an expedition up the Himalayas.

On top of that, Hashim Amla had been chosen as the new captain despite his own reluctance to fill that role. Everyone agreed that Amla was a wonderful batsman, a highly intelligent and a very nice man. But a captain? He had none of Graeme Smith's bulldog breed leadership qualities. His field placings were often naive. He seemed completely unsuited to the role. Indeed, that is what he had repeatedly said himself. But, of course, the aim was to have a captain of colour. Again, it was a considerable insult to Amla: despite his wonderful achievements for his country, in the crunch all that mattered was the colour of his skin.

The result was, of course, catastrophe. The team only tied with Bangladesh and then lost 3-0 to India and its younger batsmen came back with their confidence crushed. A clear sign of the sheer amateurism of the situation was the way in which a decision about whether to include the injured Dale Steyn was taken only at the last moment before any given match. It was as if they were ready at the drop of a hat to play a semi-fit Steyn.

In Durban it seemed that the team was close to just folding up. Once again, the selectors refused to pick a proper opening batsman to accompany Elgar. A high price was paid for this. Then again, despite De Villiers' known frailties and his publicly stated wish not to be over-burdened, he was pressed into service as a wicket-keeper: he ended up keeping for over 202 overs. Essentially he was put under that absurd load because if de Kock had been picked to keep wicket, Bavuma would probably have had to make way for him. And that couldn't be allowed on obvious racial grounds.

All of this was allowed to happen with no serious discussion on either TV or radio because all sports commentary and particularly cricket commentary in South Africa is now subject to strong political censorship. No one may even discuss on air the calamities being inflicted on the game by racial politics. This is, of course, exactly the same as happened under apartheid when there could be no discussion on SABC of the horrific damage done to the game by the Vorster government's bone-headed attitude to the d'Oliveira affair.

The result, then as now, is that if one wants to have any notion as to what is going on one has to read what foreign commentators are saying. Thus, for example, the seasoned BBC commentator, Jonathan Agnew, questioned whether South Africa was being properly captained at all - “Amla just stands at mid-off polishing the ball”, he wrote, adding “Quite simply the Proteas look as though they are hating their cricket. There was no leadership from Hashim Amla – when things are going badly, the captain has to galvanise the team to inject some spirit and fight. There was none at all.”

In addition, of course, the coaching scene was a pure mess. Batting coaches came and went in swift succession. Allan Donald left as bowling coach and there too there has been too much coming and going. In the end Graeme Smith erupted on air and was immediately approached about being drafted into the Proteas' dressing room (though this reportedly did not come to pass) Everything was ad hoc. Contrast that with England who have an Australian coach, Trevor Bayliss, and a West Indian bowling coach, Ottis Gibson. They have been selected purely on merit. But one could not imagine South Africa asking foreigners to step in and, truth to tell, none of the good ones could possibly stomach the continual political interference in the game.

This dismal process ended with another thrashing at the Wanderers and the loss of South Africa's No.1 status. But the real drama is this: South Africa are now No.3 in the ICC rankings but England are No.5 and coming up fast, while Pakistan (no.4) have just beaten England. In other words, South Africa could sink to 6th place relatively soon. Indeed, beneath that neither New Zealand nor Sri Lanka are pushovers, so it is quite conceivable that within a few years from now South Africa will have mirrored the collapse of the mighty West Indian teams of yore and sunk down near the bottom of the heap.

The reason why this is so is the new CSA rule, requiring all provincial sides to play six players of colour of whom three must be black African. The fact that this is being enforced is itself testament to the fact that teams chosen strictly on merit would not look like that. Which is to say, CSA have decided deliberately to degrade the standard of provincial cricket and with it the standard of the national side too. No other cricket board in the world would take a decision deliberately to undermine the standard of its own national side for political reasons. How different, indeed, is the CSA from the old apartheid cricket regime? Both of them enforce selection based on race.

There was a time when South African provincial cricket was as strong as Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia. No more. The standard has already been degraded and will now be lowered further. There is no doubt at all that this rule will see more and more cricket refugees leaving South Africa in order to qualify for other countries. Already this has reached embarrassing proportions: at a World Cup nowadays there is hardly any team without an emigre South African member or two. Both of New Zealand's two most recent wicket-keepers, B.J. Watling and Kruger van Wyk, are South African, as are their team mates Neil Wagner and Grant Elliot.

Kyle Coetzer is Scotland's vice-captain, Wesley Barresi and Ryan ten Doeschate star for Holland, as will Roelof Van dr Merwe in future. Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, has spoken out against the fact that ten South Africans have now played for England and in some cases, like Trott or Kieswetter, this was after they had already played for representative South African sides. In the current English team, one might note, Nick Compton used to play his cricket with Hashim Amla at Durban High School. In effect, South Africa is becoming for cricket what Cuba is for baseball, with more and more talented Cubans defecting from their country in order to play for foreign baseball teams.

Already, the signs are clear. The stars of the current team all came up through a provincial structure based largely on merit. It is unclear whether they would have managed that under the new structure. As they age it is harder and harder to see any realistic replacements. As the team begin to realise how precarious their position is, morale has collapsed. As De Villiers puts it “all hope has gone”. This was already evident in this year's matches when a South African Invitation XI and an “A” team played England: both were thoroughly thrashed – yet they are supposed to represent the future. Players begin to envy men like Ashwell Prince and Alviro Peterson who have done so well by leaving this troubled scene for the calmer world of English county cricket.

The reasons why the Windies imploded are various and are still debated. Undoubtedly part of the problem was the greater financial appeal of basketball and baseball in the US and the consequent loss of talent to cricket, but poor administration also played a part. The extraordinary thing about South Africa's implosion is that it has thus far been engineered entirely by appallingly bad administration. Of one thing there is no doubt: there is no shortage of talent. In addition to the many good Afrikaans and Coloured cricketers we now have great black prospects like Rabada and Bavuma. It is, though, a sad story of how racial politicking can destroy even the best.

RW Johnson