Cricket: Race row threatens South African hopes

Disagreements over team selection policy could undermine home team's morale for Test series

ENGLAND'S CRICKETERS prepared for this week's first Test against South Africa in Johannesburg in the best possible way here yesterday as they recorded a 102-run victory over a combined Northerns/Gauteng XI. It completed what has been a gentle warm-up for the five-Test series, England's progress having gone largely unhindered thanks to a succession of pliable opponents.

However, another major reason why England have enjoyed a largely trouble- free first 26 days on tour has been the local preoccupation with other matters. The media here can usually be relied on to mount a destabilising campaign aimed at visiting sides, but for the last few weeks cricket in South Africa has been preoccupied once again by the subject of race. In a season barely six weeks old, at least four major rows have broken out over an issue that continues to dog the sport here.

The latest brouhaha occurred when England's latest opponents were originally named as an all-white side. Eventually, after a last-minute rethink, Walter Masimila, a black bowler, was drafted in at the 11th hour, a move that smacked of hypocrisy and tokenism despite Masimila's lively bowling.

If that decision was not bad enough, it later transpired that Geoffrey Toyana, a batsman from Soweto, had been replaced by Sven Koenig, a last- minute veto having been applied by the United Cricket Board's president, Ray White, a man apparently known for his reactionary views.

A major political row has followed and what is conveyed, once the noise of creaking soapboxes has died down, is that the UCB is united in name only, which, if not heartening for cricketers here, will be good news for England.

Whatever affects the confidence of the Board - the chief executive, Ali Bacher, has been working overtime to impart some favourable spin on events - will eventually filter down to the players.

In fact the process has probably already begun and rumour has it that Hansie Cronje recently threatened to resign if the Test team was forced to include non-whites on a non-meritocratic basis. As it is, Paul Adams and Herschelle Gibbs, both included in the squad for the first Test, deserve their places on talent alone, though Clive Eksteen, a left-arm spinner replaced by Adams since the Johannesburg Test four years ago, would probably argue otherwise.

Cronje's alleged intransigence over the matter is felt to have been one of the reasons he was initially given the captaincy against England for the first two Tests only, a move subsequently remedied over the weekend when he was appointed for the whole series.

Yet the row is showing little sign of going away. White's decision to replace Toyana was seen as a clear indication to other groups that the UCB was going back on its pledge that non-whites would be given opportunities at every level. It was an undertaking White himself made in front of a packed house in Cape Town last winter, during the series against the West Indies.

Since the snub came to light, the outrage has been widespread, with the Sports Minister, Ngconde Balfour, publicly demanding that the "cricketing authorities account for their decision to pick a team that was totally unacceptable".

Over the last few days the waters, rather than clearing, have muddied further, with some members of the UCB, along with selectors from both Northerns and Gauteng, claiming not to have been involved.

Clive Rice, a national selector who had recommended Toyana's inclusion, claimed he was "taken aback" when the batsman was excluded. Others, such as the Gauteng selector Dr Mtutuzeli Nyoka, wrote a letter to the Johannesburg newspaper, The Star, disassociating himself from a selection in which he claims to have had no hand. Separating the facts from the politicking has not been easy.

Unsurprisingly, confusion, whether real or feigned, has arisen over the so-called quota system. But while many believe that a minimum of two non- whites have to be included at all levels of cricket below the Test team, the request, at least at the highest level, is that at least 22 players of colour be incorporated into a first-class structure that contains 11 teams. So far 23 have played this season in the SuperSport Series, while in the three first-class matches England have played, the non-white count has been three, two and one.

According to Andre Odendaal, chairman of the UCB's transformation committee, the quotas per team are not rigidly fixed and certainly not an act of law, as some have claimed. What is required, however, is a willingness to follow initial opportunity with continuity, something that has not always happened. For those whose ideals say sport should be about meritocracy and excellence, the quota system will seem an abhorrence and a denigration of all things Corinthian. In truth, sport has long been manipulated everywhere. In South Africa, a country emerging from an apartheid system of staggering unfairness, the machinations are just that bit more obvious.

If there is little doubt that the odd white player of like, or slightly greater, talent is missing out in the first-class game, the irony is that the black and coloured equivalents probably had to be three times as good at junior level even to get noticed. According to Odendaal, whose committee submits a progress report every six months, a three-year plan has been formulated to achieve 50 per cent representation at all levels, including the Test team. As ideals go, particularly in South Africa, it is up there with majority rule; a seemingly unrealisable dream that suddenly came true.

Since democracy, there has been a power shift in South Africa that cricket would be wise not to ignore. But while many see the need to facilitate progress as quickly as possible, there is an element, embodied by the likes of Ray White, who are determined not to be dictated to by political agendas.

Yet no compromise is simply not an option, and as one onlooker said while watching the Northerns/Gauteng game over the weekend: "Cricket is going to get a nasty bump on the head if it continues to ignore the changes going on here." If it does, it is doubtful that the aspiring Toyanas of this world will be the ones standing by with the ice-pack.

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