Cricket: Danger signs of backlash against Lara

Soweto youngsters slow to respond to arrival of West Indies tourists.

ON THE face of it, the arrival of the West Indies team in the sprawling township of Soweto was an unqualified success. A crowd of around 1,000 schoolchildren lined the boundary ropes, a school band bashed out marching tunes and a large international media contingent was on hand to capture it all.

It was just the sort of scenario that Dr Ali Bacher, the head of South African cricket, was talking about when he preached the importance of this historic tour during the tense stand-off between West Indies players and administrators over players' fees.

In reality, most of the spectators had been given a free bus trip and a day off, and the length of the queue at the face-painting stand suggested that the presence of Brian Lara and his colleagues was only the second biggest attraction.

Even the arrival to the crease of Lara, with his side on 46 for 3 against a provincial XI, failed to muster more than mild applause. Many did not even know who was playing, let alone who Lara was. "I think it's South Africa against Australia," one said.

The best-known names came from the ranks of the Gauteng Invitation team. Of the 12-man squad, five were members of the Soweto Cricket Club while the rest of the team was a mixture of young prospects and more established players, such as South Africa's Test opener, Adam Bacher. "I'm here to watch Geoffrey," said one young girl, referring to one of the local heroes, batsman Geoffrey Toyana. He and fast bowler Walter Masemola are perhaps the best-known Soweto cricketers and leave Lara for dead in the popularity stakes. Only the celebration of a West Indian wicket elicited a cheer from the crowd, while the passing of Lara's half-century went by unnoticed - even by the stadium announcer.

If the United Cricket Board were aiming to familiarise the masses by osmosis, this game may have done the trick. Many may not have been watching Lara's superb strokemaking, but at least they had a glimpse of what can be achieved, even if it was only the example set by Masemola and Toyana.

The Soweto Oval is the only cricket ground in the township that is home to around 2.5 million. It is also one of 11 cricket ovals that have been set up in townships throughout South Africa as part of the national cricket board's plan to take the game to the masses.

A typical Johannesburg thunderstorm washed out the match, but spectators at least had the chance to get close to the men they had been watching in the middle. "I've been to Soweto before, so I have a little experience of it," Lara said. "There is so much unearthed talent here and I feel the interest is growing."

The general apathy could have something to do with the fact that many South Africans only bother to take an active interest in sport when it involves their country against another. Or there could be a deeper, darker reason. When Lara made his stand against the West Indies Cricket Board he effectively ceased being a cricket captain and became a shop steward. At least, he did from the perspective of mainstream white South Africa, which is still where cricket in this country is coming from. His actions were widely viewed as reprehensible and irresponsible, and he and his team could yet be the victims of a backlash in the form of public apathy. Indeed, ticket sales for the first Test, at the Wanderers in Johannesburg from 26 November, are reportedly down, and the squad's eventual arrival was greeted with virtual indifference in a country which makes a habit of fussing over visitors. However, the apathy theory will be properly tested only when the serious business begins.

Play started 30 minutes late as a result of what, in the wake of a frantic last few days, must have been a refreshingly trivial crisis for officials of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. Coloured clothing was the dress code for the limited overs match, but the West Indies' gear had not arrived.

So the tourists turned out in their training kit, bland maroon and grey pyjamas with an oddly generic legend emblazoned on their backs: "West Indies Cricket - Team Member". They looked less like world class sportsmen than hyperactive Teletubbies, and several of them played accordingly, not having had sufficient time to recover from their flight.

Not Lara, who in scoring 65 off 60 balls took on the largely callow bowling much as he must have taken on Pat Rousseau. Mercifully for the West Indian bowlers, the rain spared them having to perform. Had they been called on, they would no doubt have completed a scene rendered surreal by the dramatic sky and the sounds and sights beneath it. All that was missing was for the stately grandstand clock to melt a la Dali.

Surreal, too, was the news that Jimmy Adams is out of the tour with severed tendons in a finger following an in-flight altercation with a breadknife. The Jamaican's experience as captain of the West Indies A team which visited South Africa last season will be missed.

SCOREBOARD

Gauteng Invitation XI

v West Indies

One-day friendly

(Soweto Oval, Johannesburg)

WEST INDIES

P Wallace b De Bruyn 22

C Lambert c Pothas b Morkel 2

S Williams c Hall b Masemola 12

B Lara* c Bodi b Morkel 65

D Ganga st Gibbs b Bodi 18

C Hooper not out 60

N McLean c De Bruyn b Bodi 6

J Murray st Gibbs b Bodi 1

S Chanderpaul not out 34

Extras (lb10, nb5, w23) 38

Total (for 7, 47 overs) 258

Fall of wickets: 1-14, 2-46, 3-46, 4-142, 5-163, 6-177, 7-187.

Bowling: Morkel 8-0-67-2; Masemola 6-0-16-1; De Bruyn 8-1-42-1; Flusk 9-0-57-0; Bodi 10-1-38-3; Gani 6-0-28-0.

Match abandoned - rain

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