Cricket: Colour still clouds South Africa

Stephen Brenkley finds the hosts are still troubled by their past
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THESE ARE contentious times in South African cricket. The country may possess one of the most formidable sides in the world but, as England came into Johannesburg last week, it swiftly became obvious that there exists profound unhappiness both about how it is selected and who is selected. At best it exhibits disunity of purpose, at worst it will undermine South Africa's efforts in the forthcoming series and in many series to come, as well as seriously damaging a sport which only days ago secured another sponsorship worth R54m (pounds 9m).

The heart of the issue, an important microcosm of the heart of most issues in this simmering, fledgling democracy, is race: just how far, how quickly the policy of affirmative action - picking non-white players on the grounds of creating opportunity and equality, rather than merit - should be extended. There has been much whispering in corners, but it all exploded unsavourily into the public arena last week when the combined Gauteng-Northerns side to play England was announced.

The original squad consisted wholly of white players and when one of them withdrew with an injury he was at first replaced with another white bowler. Only then, at the behest of the Ministry of Sport, did the United Cricket Board intervene. A young black bowler called Walter Masimula was belatedly drafted into the team. By then it was simply the expedient thing to do. It might also have been too little, much too late.

Questions were immediately asked about who picked the squad and what thinking lay behind it. One of the Gauteng selectors, Mtutuzeli Nyoka, wrote a scathing letter to the Johannesburg Post in which he said that he had not been consulted and that the selection "is a pitiful and stark sign of the lingering resistance of cricket officials to the changes sweeping our country and is also revealing of the incurable arrogance and refractoriness that pervades the corridors of power in cricket".

In an attempt, which may yet prove forlorn, to curb further unrest the government's sports minister, Ngconde Balfour, will this week meet officials of the United Cricket Board, including its chief executive, Dr Ali Bacher. It may be receiving billing as an amenable affair designed to "clarify one or two points" but nobody doubts that it is in effect a summons at which the game's ruling body will be told to put its house in order and quickly.

Until the past few days it had seemed in the early part of the South African season that the quota system, superficially at least, might just be working. Officially, this entails that in any team up to and including provincial level at least one non-white player would be chosen, regardless of merit. While one is the minimum, the desire has been frequently expressed that the 11 provinces should field 22 non-white players between them. This has been accepted as necessary to encourage all races to play the game and to ensure that they feel they are being given proper consideration.

The policy does not formally apply to the national side (in cricket or any other sport) but there is a distinct impression that if South Africa were ever again to take the field with an all-white XI all hell would break loose. Last week's avoidable farrago was a mini-hell which the Ministry of Sport was doing its best to play down in the face of Nyoka's comments.

Graham Abrahams, Balfour's spokesman, said: "It is a simple policy designed to create equality of opportunity for all. It has worked well so far and Gauteng has done well by insisting on sticking rigidly to it in provincial matches.

"This policy was evolved by talks with all our major sports federations and each federation put in place its own policy. We would certainly never intervene if a side of 11 white players was picked for South Africa. But a form of encouragement can work there too. A year ago Herschelle Gibbs was given an opportunity and he has gone on to establish himself. We stepped in with some advice when the side for Gauteng-Northerns was chosen purely because they had breached their own code."

The plain implication was that in this final four-day match before the First Test the South African Board wanted to give England the severest possible examination. So hang the policy. Bacher has remained silent but Abrahams confirmed that they spoke on Friday afternoon to discuss the meeting.

Cricket, more even than rugby union, is still perceived as the white man's domain. The Nyoka Letter made that eminently clear. The selection, he wrote, was underhand. "With this action and this team they have essentially swept all advances towards unifying our disparate country, through sport, as detritus into the all-purpose dustbin of privilege and exclusivity that my people have spent centuries fighting."

The maelstrom will not easily be kept under the carpet. A measure of the difficulties ahead was reflected in another letter alongside that of Nyoka. It too complained of racism playing an important part in academic appointments at Witwatersrand University - towards whites.