Adams the catalyst for change

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The only cricket pitch in Langa, a township in the suburbs of Cape Town, looks more like a neglected farm field. Clumps of grass in the outfield are almost knee-high and there are numerous sinister grapefruit- sized rat holes, which must have accounted for many a twisted ankle in their time.

"The ball bounces all over the place. It's not exactly the easiest ground to play on," said 15-year-old Barnisile Mbambani, an all-rounder with Langa Cricket Club, during a breather from an afternoon practice session. "It's almost impossible to hit a four through all the grass and it has been known for balls to be lost in the holes.

"It's not fair. Most white guys go to private schools with much better conditions than this. Some have at least two well-kept pitches as well as seven or eight practice nets. We only have two nets for practising."

Although South African cricket appears to be on a high after the Test win and the annihilation of England in the one-day series (there is a lot of talk of adding the cricket World Cup to rugby's biggest prize), there is a long way to go before the organisation at grass-roots level matches the success of the top flight.

The meteoric rise of Paul Adams, the teenaged spin bowler from a Cape Town township who bewitched England's batsmen after just a handful of games, serves only to highlight the problems.

Adams' effect on young people in the townships has been galvanic. The reaction from a group of kids playing a mini-league match in the Cape Town township of Blue Downs when asked who their favourite player was, said it all. "Paul Adams!" they bellowed. One said: "We used to all want to play soccer, but now cricket is my favourite sport." Another added: "Cricket is definitely no longer a white man's sport."

The problem South Africa now faces is to move fast en- ough to capitalise on the wave of enthusiasm. It is eight years since the United Cricket Board was formed to bring black and white cricketers together and help the development of young black players, but improvements to township facilities are slow.

Those fighting for better standards are feeling frustrated. "There are still a lot of conservative people around who are very resistant to change," Rushdie Magiet, the Western Province Cricket Association cricket development manager, said. "So we have to fight and fight and fight to give blacks an equal chance. Apartheid is over and the government has changed, but people's attitudes don't change overnight.

"It may take another 50 years or more before the inequalities of apartheid, as far as cricket is concerned, are ironed out. The facilities in most townships are still terrible. Young blacks just cannot compete on level terms with young whites at the moment."

Development programmes are at the forefront of the long haul towards equality of cricketing opportunity. The WPCA spends thousands of pounds each year on building all-weather practice nets in townships and has one of the biggest and best-structured mini-cricket leagues for black kids in the country - more than 500 schools take part.

Special training sessions are held for the most talented youngsters in the hope of discovering future Test players. They have already proved successful. Adams comes from the Cape Town township of Grassy Banks, and is the first coloured player from the development programme to make the Test side.

Developers hope he is not a one-off. Magiet was one of the Test selectors who picked him: "We originally put him in the South African A side as a form of affirmative action - his record alone did not justify inclusion. However, he then blossomed, taking a number of wickets, and we felt it was time to include him in the Test side.

"Now everyone wants to be a Paul Adams. But he only got where he is through a lot of hard graft and black players must realise that they will not get an easy ride into the Test side. They must prove themselves. We hope Adams is just the first of many players about to come through from townships."

Many top-quality black players in their late 20s and early 30s, however, feel that they are having to put in an unnecessary amount of "hard graft". Faiek Davids, who scored a half-century for Western Province against England at Newlands, is particularly aggrieved.

"The system is stacked against us," Davids said after thumping another half-century in a league match for Cape Town's Primrose Cricket Club, his local side. "Most of the administrators in the provinces simply have no record about our achievements as players in the old black leagues. They don't recognise our achievements. We find that we are having to prove ourselves all over again which puts us under enormous pressure.

"I believe we have to perform thrice as well as white players of similar experience in order to get noticed. If I score a thirty, people look on me as though I have failed, whereas with white players it will normally be seen as a temporary blip, because the coaches knew all about their past records. If you have a few unlucky innings in a row, that's it, your chance is up."

Players from Davids' era are worried that time is running out. Davids himself would not admit to his age, which he only gave as "late 20s. If people knew my real age they might simply write me off altogether."

The main immediate concern for the new generation of black players, however, is for township facilities to be improved. When the England A team visited Langa to meet the township's players, special stands were erected for the occasion and the outfield was, for once, mowed. But it was little more than a publicity stunt.

David Maliza, aged 14, a spin-bowler for Langa, said: "The next day the stands were taken down and since then the pitch has just been left to deteriorate. The truth is that the facilities are very, very bad here. If I'd been born white, things would have been much different for me."