Lord of Lords:

Lord of Lord’s: Who can forget Makhaya Ntini’s ten-wicket haul at Lord’s in 2003?

Firdose Moonda, a journalist for ESPN Cricinfo, published an extraordinary piece on January 10 about a black South African cricket player moving to England because of a lack of opportunities in South Africa. Siphe Mzaidume claims that, because he is black, he was never given an opportunity to play in the South African provincial franchise system, and therefore moved to England where he will qualify to play for the national team in June. The same article appeared in the Business Day, written by Moonda’s husband, Telford Vice. Both were published widely on social network sites, including getting a retweet from Helen Zille, saying: “So sad”.

There are two reasons I think the article is extraordinary: Firstly, how, when Jacques Kallis retires, Moonda celebrates his career by considering his remarkable statistics (13289 test runs at an average of 55, 292 at an average of 32,  and 200 catches) but neglects to mention Mzaidume’s statistics? In short: Mzaidume has not taken one wicket at provincial (or county-cricket) level. In fact, the only first-class cricket he has played, according to Moonda’s own Cricinfo, is an U/19 match representing Border in 2008, where he took 0/27. Reading through the comments on the article, more information about his whereabouts and performances are forthcoming. According to cryptq1, Mzaidume has played only 3 games for Phoenix in the Irish League in 2012: “From there he ‘progressed’ to Holmesdale where he has been playing for the last 2 seasons. That’s in the Kent 3rd Div, yes, 3rd Div. He took 24 wickets in 24 games for Wollaston at 30.63 with a SR of 41.88. Not to shabby but also nothing to get excited about. His figures for Holmesdale in the 3rd Div is quite impressive but obviously not good enough to impress anyone in a higher league. Over the 2 seasons, he’s taken 84 wickets at an average of 15.45, SR 26.17, Economy rate 3.54. Looking at the SR and ER it would appear that he bowls many wicket taking balls interspersed with a lot of loose balls.” Then he adds: “I feel sorry for this man. The quota system led him to believe that he is much better than he really is. Bit weird complaining about opportunities in SA when he’s playing in a lower league in Eng than he did in SA.”

Cricket is great like that: its stats provide an objective measure to assess the quality of an individual’s performances (especially if the sample is large enough). And while context must always inform statistics, there is no doubt that Mzaidume’s performances were and still are not sufficient to warrant a place within the South African provincial system. To put it differently, in the four years plying his trade abroad, Mzaidume has failed to impress on coaches and selectors in England and Australia (where, according to him, “everything was just judged on performance which made it easy for me to progress through the ranks”) that he has the ability to perform at the county level. The reason Mzaidume is not playing in South Africa is not because he is black, but because he is not good enough.

But the piece is even more extraordinary for the obvious undertone that Siphe Mzaidume’s story is the reason there aren’t more black cricketers playing for South Africa, that black cricket players are not given the opportunities they deserve.

Marius Roodt, a blogger on CricketWeb.net, wrote the following response on January 7, which I think is worth repeating at length:

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.

I would add another explanation. To obtain the necessary skills to play at the highest level requires a level of commitment and resources that most black South Africans simply cannot afford. Cricket is expensive – good batting equipment (the bat, pads, helmet, shoes, etc.) could easily amount to R8000 which, let me remind you, is about the same as the per capita income of black South Africans. (Is it a coincidence that most black South Africans that play at franchise level are bowlers?) Moreover, developing the correct batting technique requires hours of training in nets with good (expensive) coaching. Parents must be in a position to drive kids to practice sessions and matches.

As I’ve said before, Afrikaners increasingly participated in cricket because they could afford to do so. White wages increased significantly during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Still, it took several decades for them to make their mark at the international level. For black South Africans to prosper on the cricket field, black incomes need to rise significantly.
Here is Rasimione, also in CricketWeb.net:

I am a black African and live in what we call a township, in the North West province. I’m 29 years old and I have personally never faced or experienced naked racism. However, the Apartheid structures remain and will take years to dismantle. As a young person I could only play football because it was the only sport available to me because of lack of facilities. Just a few kilometres away white kids had tennis courts, cricket pitch, rugby pitch, you name it and they had it and it was reserved for only whites. The fact that coloured and Indians are more represented in cricket circles is not really a coincidence. It mirrors how our society is without a shadow of doubt.

People talk of Ntini and the like. If those guys were not given bursaries to study at formerly exclusive white schools, you and I would never have witnessed them playing for the Proteas. Why is that? The reality of the situation is that an African parent earns way less than white South Africans and the other race groups and has to make serious life or death choices. Faced with a hobby for your child or food to survive what would you chose?

My solution is simple. Ensure that each and every school, black, white, coloured and Indian has facilities and that school sports is played religiously. From then on create Academies say in metros that will ensure as much representation as possible. Whites with the know-how could be of great help by donating time to teach black coaches the ropes which in time will create black African players. Like the OP said it will take time but that IMO is the way to go.

I could not agree more.

Firdose Moonda and Telford Vice are correct that most South Africans would love to see more black cricketers prosper. But to use the case of Siphe Mzaidume to argue that black South Africans are stifled in their progress by the selection policies of cricket franchises in South Africa is not only lazy and sensationalist journalism, but dangerous too. The problem is much deeper, complex and important.