The case of the missing black Test cricketer
There has some gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands in South Africa about the lack of a black Test cricketer (especially by Firdose Moonda of Cricinfo and Telford Vice of the Times in Johannesburg).
I've written something about why there is no anti-black conspiracy in SA cricket, and why there is a lack of black Test cricketers. I have no idea where to send it to though, so I post it here for your amusement.
The case of the missing black Test cricketer
In South Africa there has been much debate around the lack of players of African origin in the national cricket side. Since South Africa’s return to the international fold in 1991 only one player of African origin has been a regular in the Test side, Makhaya Ntini. He served the national side with distinction, playing over 100 Tests and taking nearly 400 wickets. He also has the best match figures by any South African in a Test and is the only South African to take ten wickets in a Test match at Lords. However, apart from Ntini, those of African descent (called black Africans for the purpose of this article) have been a rarity in the national side.
Only four other black African South Africans have played Test cricket. These are Thami Tsolekile, Mfuneko Ngam, Monde Zondeki, and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Victor Mpitsang, Loots Bosman, Thandi Tshabalala, and Aaron Phangiso have also all played for South Africa in limited-overs cricket.
Firdose Moonda, ESPN Cricinfo’s South Africa correspondent, writing after the announcement that the former national cricket coach, Gary Kirsten, was not renewing his contract, said that one criticism of his time as national head coach was that he had failed to transform the national cricket side sufficiently, by not fielding a black African in the Test side . She said that this was proof of Kirsten lack of commitment to the transformation, especially ‘Africanisation’ of the national side.
The Sunday Times also recently said that the country’s Test XI should not call itself the national side until a black African was picked (implying that the 10 million South Africans of Asian, European, or mixed-race descent are somehow not South African).
Nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid it is indeed a poor state of affairs that only one black African has been a regular in the national side. However, the national side, apart from the lack of black Africans, is relatively representative of South Africa as a whole. In the current Test team Hashim Amla, of Asian descent, is a regular. Alviro Petersen, Vernon Philander, JP Duminy, and Robin Peterson, of coloured, or mixed-race descent, are also all regulars in the current Test side.
Why is there a relative paucity of black Africans in the Test team? To begin with the number of black Africans playing at franchise level is low, making the available selection pool small. In last season’s Sunfoil Series, the six franchises used 109 players altogether. Of these 109 players only 14 were black Africans, and of these players only nine played in more than half of their franchise’s matches.
Of the top run scorers in last season’s Sunfoil Series, the only black African in the top 10 was Themba Bavuma, of the Lions, while two black Africans were among the top 10 wicket takers in the competition (Ayabulela Gqamane of the Warriors and Ethy Mbhalathi of the Titans).
In the current season there have only been four games, with 92 players selected. Of these players 15 are black Africans (already an improvement over the previous season) but once again Themba Bavuma is the only black African amongst the top 10 run scorers. Eddie Leie of the Lions is the only black African among the top ten wicket takers in the series to date.
It is thus clear that the pool of African players is relatively small to pick from. In addition, the current Test side is, apart from the recent retirement of Jacques Kallis and questions around who should be the first-choice spinner, a settled unit.
Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Thami Tsolekile are the two black Africans that are probably closest to the national Test side. Tsotsobe plays relatively regularly for South Africa in limited over internationals. However, he probably lacks a yard of pace to be effective at Test level and there have been questions raised about his work ethic and commitment. In addition, he has not played a first-class match in two years, meaning in that he is unlikely to be ready for the rigours of a Test match. Furthermore, the selection of Kyle Abbott in the last Test of the previous summer against Pakistan shows that Tsotsobe is not in the selectors’ thinking at the moment. Other seamers, such as Chris Morris, Beuran Hendricks, and Rory Kleinveldt are probably also above Tsotsobe in the national fast bowling Test pecking order.
Thami Tsolekile has been unlucky to have not been given a Test match. He is a nationally-contracted player but has not been selected. He is probably technically the best keeper in South Africa and has, in recent years, been in good form with the bat. In the current season he is averaging 121 (although this is boosted by only having been out only once in four innings).Last season his average was somewhat lower, at 30. In previous seasons he has regularly averaged over 50. However, the current form of AB de Villiers behind the stumps also probably means he is unlikely to be given a game soon, especially with a testing series against Australia coming up. Tsolekile is also on the wrong side of 30, making it likely that if and when De Villiers is relieved of his keeping duties he may be overlooked in favour of a younger keeper.
It is clear that the pool from which selectors can pick is limited. Black African players are not making it to franchise level. However, there is certainly not an agenda in the South African first class game against players who are not white. In last season’s Sunfoil Series 22 players of mixed-race origin turned out, as did seven players of Indian descent. The current season reveals similar figures with 19 coloured players and four Indian players being selected. There is obviously no ‘anti-transformation’ agenda in South African cricket.
How is it possible that such a small proportion of black Africans (who make up more than 80% of South Africa’s population) have made it to the top of the sport in South Africa? Firstly, apart from parts of the Eastern and Western Cape cricket has never been a popular sport in black African communities. In most of South Africa’s club competitions, black clubs are a relative rarity.
However, there is no reason to think that this will not change. Cricket in South Africa used to be almost the sole preserve of white English-speaking South Africans and Afrikaner cricketers were uncommon.
In the final series that South Africa played against Australia before its banishment from Test cricket in 1970, there were only two non-Anglo white South Africans that played. These were the Jewish Ali Bacher and the Egyptian-born Greek, John Traicos. In that series not one Afrikaner played for South Africa (it should be remembered that only whites could be selected for South Africa at the time). Fast forwarding to the 1980s the situation had not changed very much. In the 19 unofficial Test matches that were played in the 1980s by South Africa versus various ‘rebel’ teams, only four Afrikaners were ever picked: Adrian Kuiper, Corrie van Zyl, Allan Donald, and Kepler Wessels.
However, in the 1990s, there was a veritable explosion in the number of Afrikaners playing cricket for South Africa. Five Afrikaners (Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Adrian Kuiper, Allan Donald, and Tertius Bosch) played in South Africa’s first Test against the West Indies at the end of the country’s exile in 1991. During the 1990s a number of Afrikaners, such as Fanie de Villiers and Cronje, were fixtures in the side. In the current side three Afrikaners – Morne Morkel, Faf du Plessis, and AB de Villiers – are regulars in the Test side and there are numerous Afrikaners playing franchise cricket and on the fringes of the Test side. In fact, since South Africa returned to the international game in 1991, an Afrikaner has always been in the Test XI.
Why were Afrikaners a rarity in the game before the 1990s? White Afrikaners were not, in general, interested in cricket and there are probably two reasons why this is so. Cricket is often seen as a quintessentially English game. Tensions between white English-speaking South Africans and Afrikaners were high for much of the 20th century which may have contributed to Afrikaner disdain for the game (ironically Afrikaners embraced another English game, rugby union, with gusto). In addition, South Africa was the Bangladesh of world cricket for the first half of the 20th century. Winning teams are teams that are well supported. Once the country began to become competitive in international cricket (for South Africa this was restricted to games against the ‘white’ Commonwealth of England, Australia, and New Zealand), Afrikaner interest piqued. Afrikaners would have begun attending matches, following games on radio, and in the press, and most importantly begun playing the game and began to encourage their sons to play the game. Instead of passing a rugby ball to his young son in his garden, an Afrikaner father would perhaps begin bowling to him. As Afrikaners began playing the game in the 1950s and 1960s there was an explosion of Afrikaners into the South African game thirty years later.
This is not a sound scientific explanation but speculation. However, it is unlikely to be far off the mark.
Perhaps we will begin to see a similar explosion of black Africans into the game as they begin to see the Proteas as a side for all South Africans, and not an extension of white supremacy as the cricketing and rugby-playing Springboks were previously.
There are already more black Africans plying their trade in the South African first-class game than 20 years ago. In another decade this number will only grow and also create a larger pool of players to select from. In 1991/92, the first season after isolation, only five cricketers who were not white turned out in the first class competition, the Castle Cup, of which only one, Rodney Malamba, was a black African, so it is clear much progress has already been made. Makhaya Ntini is a trailblazer and he will soon be joined by other black Africans in the pantheon of South African cricketing greats. His success has shown young black African cricketers that there is a future for them in the game.
The transformation of the national South African cricket side from one dominated by white players into one that represents all South Africans is already far advanced, as noted with the relatively large proportion of coloured players in the side. Coloured and Indian players also make up a relatively large minority in the South African first-class game. However, the lack of black Africans is a concern but it is not something that can be changed overnight. In order to do this Cricket South Africa has to ensure that there are cricket facilities in impoverished areas and that cricket as a school sport is not restricted to privileged schools or schools that were formerly reserved for white children.
However, this is perhaps a uniquely South African neurosis. Possibly no other country in the world has the same obsession with race that South Africa has. However, sport has shown that it can unite South Africans. This has been seen through the great support that the primarily white rugby Springboks have in the country. At the same time, the national football side, which is primarily made up of black Africans, is also all supported by all South Africans, regardless of race. South Africans probably do not care what race their national sportsmen are. As long as they succeed and play with pride and passion all South Africans will support them.
The quest for the next Makhaya Ntini is important but so is South African cricket success. Black Africans will not play Tests for South Africa in any number until the growing cricketing culture is consolidated and there are cricketing facilities available for those that want to play the game. A truly representative national cricket side is important but success must not be sacrificed on the altar of demographic representivity.