Cricket: Cronje conjures vision of harmony
In a nation undergoing severe growing pains, sport offers a diversion which cannot afford to be tarnished, and that includes cricket.
Tokenism can be a debilitating word in a team game like cricket, for it undermines the confidence of team and individual alike. Fortunately in the six years since South Africa's cricketers returned to the Test stage, merit has taken over.
There are three non-white cricketers in their 17-man squad. Paul Adams (aged 21) and Makhaya Ntini (20) have both played Test cricket, while Roger Telemachus (25), a swing bowler, has one-day international experience.
"The term we use," said Bob Woolmer, the team coach, "is non-racial team. In other words it's picked from the best players in South Africa. There is no doubt in my mind that Roger Telemachus and Makhaya Ntini are very fine cricketers in their own right and they deserve to be here on tour."
Hansie Cronje, the captain and a man from Afrikaner stock, went further. "When I first came to England, the question that kept coming up was `when are we going to see the first black South African to play?' Well I'm very proud to say the time has come and Makhaya will be the first in a long line of black South African players." The distinction being made is that the other two, in a hangover from the bad old days, are still referred to as Cape Coloureds.
"It is not a case of token players," continued Cronje. "It is a case of players coming over here and doing a lot of hard work. They realise that and want to be great examples to the next generation. In fact they've already been terrific role models for the youth of South Africa. As a captain it's ideal for me to work with a team where there is no extra pressure from racial talk."
Despite the plaudits, however, a regular place still eludes all three. That is not surprising, perhaps, with respect to the two pace bowlers Ntini and Telemachus, who have to compete with Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. But in Adams' case, it is disappointing that his unorthodox left- arm spin has not improved much since his debut against England in 1995.
When South Africa toured here four years ago, they were still naive. They are still not as clinical as Australia, but the potency of Donald and Pollock has done more than most to harden the brittle edges. Indeed, there has been only one century opening stand against South Africa since their return to Test cricket in 1992.
It is a soaring testament to the pair, especially to the 31-year-old Donald, whose fast and accurate bowling is the reason South Africa are just behind Australia and Pakistan in world ratings.
"I'm just looking forward to them firing together," said Woolmer, who at one stage became so wrapped up in hyperbole that he claimed Pollock to be the best all-rounder since Gary Sobers.
Mind you, their attack provides a sobering thought, particularly with England's opening pairing likely to be compromised by Alec Stewart's drop down the order and Michael Atherton's scrappy form. Unless England try and prepare turning pitches like the one against Australia at The Oval last August, this series will be won by the team who best combats the pace bowlers.
South Africa's means of trying to achieve this will be very different from England's. Their Achilles' heel, apart from their captain's tendency to be unimaginative, is the fallibility of their early order. To offset this, they have a middle and lower order brimful of all-rounders; players such as Jacques Kallis, Brian McMillan, Lance Klusener and Pat Symcox all bat and bowl, while the wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, can also score valuable runs.
Having played 11 Tests themselves in the past six months, England's opponents ought to be feeling as jaded as the home side normally does after a West Indies tour. For that reason, they are not underestimating England.
"We know they are two different sides home and away," said Cronje, who said a series win in England would be the "ultimate" although he also professed he would like to beat the West Indies next winter, as well as win the World Cup.
Whether they can do that with the help of some heroic performances from their non-white players remains to be seen. Interestingly, while Cronje and Co were giving their press conference in the England and Wales Cricket Board offices at Lord's, another was being given next door by the Cricket Foundation.
The Foundation was airing the findings of a report it had commissioned on the levels of racism in English cricket at the grassroots level. South Africa may still be bearing the brunt of racial discrimination, but judging by the study, which looked into equal opportunities of cricketers from ethnic minorities in Essex and east London, the ECB has a challenge on its hands as well.
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