Money, Mandela and the townships hoping for a cricket reconciliation

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FOUR YEARS after their peaceful transition to democratic rule, South Africans were hoping for another negotiating miracle yesterday to allow the long-awaited West Indian cricket tour to go ahead.

At the 1994 elections the very future of South Africa was at stake. But the details of a letter from President Nelson Mandela, concerning the threatened cancellation of the tour reveals just how damaging the South African president believes the sporting crisis might be for the host country.

The president's intervention in the split between the West Indies Cricket Board and its players, led by sacked captain Brian Lara, over demands for better pay and conditions may seems excessive if you think cricket is just a game. It is understandable if you believe in the power of sport to pull a country together.

Still reeling from the fall-out of last week's divisive Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, on the atrocities of the apartheid years, Mr Mandela clearly feels a no-show by Mr Lara and the boys will be another body blow to the beleaguered process of national reconciliation. Seldom has South Africa had a greater need for something that both blacks and whites can cheer for.

"The game of cricket has, since the start of our transition, come to take a very particular place in the national consciousness, drawing increasing numbers .... from all sides of our diverse society," writes Mr Mandela in a letter of instruction to Ali Bacher, the head of South African cricket, whom he dispatched to London on Thursday to try to help broker a deal between Mr Lara, the undisputed hero of South Africa's township kids, and West Indian cricket officials.

Mr Lara and vice captain Carl Hooper were sacked by the board earlier this week when they refused to travel to South Africa unless pay and conditions for the entire team improved.

President Mandela does not judge their case but he makes clear that the West Indies tour is perhaps the most important sporting contest since South Africa was welcomed back into the international fold. The president writes that "there cannot have been a contest more keenly awaited than a home series against the famous West Indies side." He refers to the "inspiration" and "role models" the West Indies, the only black side in international cricket , provided for blacks during the dark days of apartheid. The West Indies were the best cricket team in the world during the 1980s when the townships were ablaze.

And he emphasises how that inspiration endures at a time when the ANC- led government, and cricket authorities, are struggling to open up a game - like the country's white-dominated institutions to blacks. Mr Bacher arrived in London on Thursday carrying a personal message for Mr Lara and his team which follows the same lines.

For the last four years South Africa's cricket authorities have been selling the game in the townships. Three blacks now grace a once all-white national side. But while cricket is generally considered to have made far greater progress on integration that racially-charged rugby, traditionally the domain of Afrikaners, the government and the cricket authorities recognise that there is still a long way to go. Next weekend cricket authorities will announce a new strategy to bring blacks not just into play, but into management at national and local level.

No-one knows how emotional the West Indies tour of South Africa would be more than Brian Lara who has been mobbed by kids during visits to the country to run cricket clinics among the shacks settlements around Johannesburg.

"More and more blacks are coming to watch the game," says Bronwyn Wilkinson, sports editor of the Johannesburg Saturday Star. "But this was expected to bring them in droves. It promised to be the greatest boost yet to the transformation of cricket." Ticket prices have even been dropped to allow blacks to see their heroes. It is unlikely that the townships will blame Mr Lara, any more than his countrymen back in Trinidad, for the current crisis, despite the cricket board's attempts to paint him as a greedy prima donna who has become too big for his boots.

Mr Lara's talent has brought him wealth beyond the dreams of many in his home country. But few seem to grudge him the lavish house with three swimming pools, built on prime real estate which was gifted by the president of Trinidad in 1994 after Mr Lara made the highest score in Test history, 375 against England in Antigua. In Trinidad he has been deified.

And while Mr Lara might be blamed for making his players' discontent so very public, complaints about wages and conditions are long standing. It is the cricketers' lament that they are the poor cousins in international sport when it comes to money, and the West Indies justifiable complaint to be the poorest of the poor cousins.

While other national sides fly business class, the West Indies fly economy. In the 1980s English players - better paid but embarrassingly outclassed by the West Indies side - used to joke that it was their desperate need for prize bonuses that was responsible for their winning performance. What seems surprising is that the gifted Lara - considered rather aloof from his less talented team-mates players - has emerged as a warrior for his team.

That he has however must make the West Indies Cricket Board regret appointing him full-time captain earlier this year. Mr Lara's flashes of obstinacy and strength of will had been expected to deprive him of the position. After all this is not the first tour he has pulled out of. He refused to go on a previous test series to Australia after the board fined him for going missing on another trip, despite promising him there would be no punishment.

Last night the West Indies Board was promising to negotiate for as long as it took to resolve the crisis. Despite the personal plea from Mr Mandela it is hard to see how the dispute can be resolved without a major climb down by one side.

In South Africa they are still optimistic about a good result. But then countries who have lived through miracles tend to hope for the best. "We've been told it will be resolved," said Bronwyn Wilkinson. "And that the tour will go ahead."