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Where are the Black Batsmen?

Where are the Black Batsmen?

Where are all the Black Batsmen?

It’s been 16 years since South Africa was re-admitted to International cricket. At the time there was a wave of euphoria and optimism. There were hopes and visions of an African version of the West Indies with fast bowlers aplenty and aggressive, flamboyant batsmen.

The shine has since worn off and the realities of everyday life have kicked in. The idealistic dream is still a long way from happening.

Currently there is only one Black African cricketer in the South Africa Test squad. This is a meagre return given the implementation of controversial and strict quotas, transformational targets and heavy financial investment.

In February 2008, a Parliamentary committee met under the chair of ANC member Mr BM Komphela and concluded that, ‘a target had been set of seven players of colour in a touring team, and the franchise teams had a target of four players. However, previously disadvantaged players were still not on an equal basis with their White counterparts. Transformation was a national imperative, and was a requirement of the Constitution as well as the Sport and Recreation Amendment Act.’

However, the quotas, despite their aims, have failed to produce a team with the desired demographics. In fact the largest beneficiaries of the quotas have been the ‘Coloured’ minority group. There are currently six spots reserved for ‘previously disadvantaged’ people in the 15 man South African Test squad and at present four are Coloured, which as an ethnic group accounts for only 9% of the South African population. Quotas have been very controversial and are now enshrined in law yet Makhaya Ntini is the lone Black African from 80% of the population.

Most of the non-White talent isn’t coming from newly developed areas but the Coloured communities where cricket has a strong history and tradition. The large scale inclusion of these Coloured players hides the fact that there are few Black Africans playing at a high standard. However, despite the fact that the current and future landscape for Black African cricket looks quite bleak, there is progression. This progression isn’t anything close to what was gloriously envisioned over a decade ago but at least there is some movement.

The movement is gaining momentum in the bowling department but still appears stalled with regards to batting. As more Black bowlers make the grade, it begs the question, “Where are all the Black Batsmen?”

As with quotas, topics such as this are often emotive subjects that elicit a wide range of strong opinions. Without any political motive, a breakdown of why there are so few Black African batsmen is possible as well as viewing why the talent that is developing is mainly bowlers.

The answer is both simple and complicated. It is based in history, culture, wealth, education, preference and comparative standards. To understand the difference in production volume and quality of Black batsmen compared to Black bowlers, the nature of South African society, education, South African cricket and cricket in general must be looked at.

The first stop on this journey is to look at the nature of batting itself. Batting is a very technical activity and has always favoured those that develop skills early in life, and have an instinct and second nature that only comes from being immersed in the sport from a young age. Those that are introduced to batting early are at a huge advantage. It is an activity that thrives on a long term relaxed relationship and long term skills development.

Many Black Africans are not surrounded by cricket growing up and as such do not have these foundation years which are so often essential in becoming a quality batsman. Occasionally there will be a player that is able to develop without this background and there are certainly Black Africans that will love cricket from a young age. However, football (soccer) is still the game of choice for most Black Africans and those that turn to cricket in their formative years are in a very small minority. It is also worth considering that in a country where 50% of the population still doesn’t have access to running water in the home, it is no great surprise the financial and time commitment required to develop a technical discipline like batting is limited to a tiny group.

The school system is also an important factor in how the best young batsmen are produced in South Africa. The wealthy independent English language schools and certain Afrikaans schools are ‘cricket factories’. Students at these institutions have access to excellent coaching and facilities as well as a culture that encourages cricketing success. The wealthy English speaking schools have a great cricketing tradition and whilst the Afrikaans schools are newer to cricket, they have an incredible intensity towards sporting success and hard work. These schools produce batsmen of great familiarity to cricket and excellent technique. Cricket is coached from a young age, demanding a remarkable level of professionalism and dedication from the participants. These are also historically predominantly ‘White’ schools. The less affluent schools, regardless of location and race of the students, find it impossible to dedicate the same level of resources and expertise, and it is impossible for them to compete in terms of producing batting talent.

Although the above explanation is essentially accurate, it is something of an over-simplification. It isn’t quite as definitive as the best cricket schools being White and therefore producing White batting talent. I worked at a very prestigious English speaking school and the school was roughly 20% Black African. Yet the only good Black cricketer I worked with was Kenyan born. To understand the lack of Black talent produced by these ‘cricket factories’, it’s important to comprehend local culture. Those Black students that attend such impressive institutions often hold the cultural belief that weight gain and obesity is a sign of wealth and stature. Those Black students who attend schools that produce great batting talent are disproportionately overweight, unathletic and uninterested in sport, and are not in a position to excel in cricket. The irony is that those Blacks in a privileged position capable of gaining all the advantages in sports development held by wealthy Whites are often uninterested and incapable. Tessa van der Merwe of the International Association for the Study of Obesity said, “when being overweight is seen as a sign of health and wealth, it is extremely difficult to change this perception.”

There is also the interesting statistic that there are noticeably less Black Africans going to independent English schools than twenty years or so ago. The actual numbers of Black Africans that attend these ‘cricket factories’ has declined. This may seem counter-intuitive, but under apartheid the White state schools were out of bounds to Black children so the only way to gain a good education was to send a child to an independent, private school. Since transformation, all state schools have opened up and are multi-racial so there is less urgency to pay the high fees for private school. A decent academic education is available for little money through the state system. The current situation is that a far greater section of the Black population has access to a decent education but smaller numbers are getting a great academic and sporting education.

Batting is also a task that requires a great deal of commitment and dedication as well as help from an early age. In this regard, Black children are generally at a disadvantage. Cricket isn’t a traditional Black sport in many areas of the country and few are encouraged to take up the sport early. Black boys have far fewer role models and much less parental guidance and coaching. Whilst South Africa is the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ different ethnic groups still have clear different behavioural patterns and cultures.

To summarise, there are essentially three points that explain how a large Black African population produces far less batting talent than would, on the face of it, be expected. Huge swathes of the Black population have little interest or access to cricket and little family background in the sport. A large proportion of the group that do have interest in the sport do not have access to the coaching and dedicated cricket structure found at the ‘cricket factories’. Those Blacks who attend the schools that produce quality batsmen are often in no physical shape to take advantage of the environment, and are not as aggressive and determined as their classmates.

It is the technical and long term evolving nature of batting that unfortunately means that ten rich White children with access to quality private coaching, a passion for cricket and a family history of the sport will have more chance of producing a good batsman than a thousand Black children being introduced to Kwik Cricket in the townships.

Bowling is a different proposition to batting all together. Somebody can come to cricket quite late, with no background in the sport, and become a good bowler. There are certainly technical aspects to the discipline but it is far less complicated than batting and requires far less of a ‘feel’ for the game. Once learned, the mechanics are repeated and honed. There is nowhere near the variety of depth and nuances compared to batting, Nor does bowling require the same level of coaching to make great strides in. Once a good foundation is built then a young player, regardless of race, can add their own flavour and allow their inherent ability to come through. It’s a discipline that is more reliant on a player’s ability than technique, whereas batting generally requires a healthy dose of both. The same level of in-depth coaching isn’t required to be successful. This places the poor schools, with less availability of one-on-one coaching sessions, on a more equal footing than they could ever possibly be with batting.

In fact there is a growing view in South African cricket that heavily coached bowlers are undesirable, and that the more raw and less studied bowlers have more potential and cutting edge. More so, it is believed that, in contrast to batting, the ‘cricket factories’ are producing heavily mechanised bowlers and many a youngster’s talent and natural instincts are being compromised by being over-coached. Regardless of race, Franchises are looking for bowlers that are rough around the edges, retain a great deal of their own action and mentality, and can be moulded at the professional level.

The difference in Black batting and bowling development is also exaggerated by quotas at Franchise level. Often a player will make it on merit but when there is a player needed to meet the targets, a bowler will usually be brought in. The simple reason is that there is a big drop off in talent between White and Black batting which doesn’t exist in bowling.

Using the Franchise I am most familiar with, Nashua Titans, as a case study there are clear patterns that emerge. The urban base where the cricketing power schools are located is the capital of South Africa, Pretoria. Not one of their non-White players was born in Pretoria, not one of their non-White batsmen is Black African, and only the journeyman, Pierre Joubert, out of all the seamers was born in Pretoria (Nel, Steyn, Thomas, M. Morkel, A. Morkel, Reddy and Mbhalati were all born elsewhere). In fact, the only demographic that is predominantly from Pretoria are the White batsmen (de Villiers, du Plessis, de Bruyn and Aronstam as well Kolpak player Jacques Rudolph).

These are trends that will continue. The wealthy schools in the big cities with a strong cricketing heritage, superior coaching and facilities will continue to produce quality batsmen in the greatest numbers. As long as they remain predominantly White then their products will be White. Increasingly, though, the wealthy schools are not producing the desired seam bowlers, and people are looking outside the traditional centres. In the future the numbers of Black African bowlers should continue to increase. However, it isn’t as easy to be optimistic about the numbers of quality Black batsmen dramatically growing.

On the face of it, an obvious solution would be to change the demographics of the pupils at the ‘cricket factories’. A word of caution, though. It isn’t as simple as just bringing more Black faces to these schools and expecting quality Black batsmen to be produced. The same passion and dedication to cricket from a young age also needs to be replicated. A cultural change is needed as well as a change in access. The fruits of such possible changes are realistically more than a generation away.

Kev Gough spent 3 years coaching cricket and working in the Gauteng, South Africa, School system.

Photo copyright of BBC

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