Cricket: South Africa toe the Magiet line

Stephen Brenkley finds the selection issue a headache elsewhere as well
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The Independent Online
SOUTH AFRICA'S new convenor of selectors was always likely to be sailing in stormy waters. It was therefore slightly bemusing when Rushdie Magiet, as if to demonstrate that he could withstand the rigours of the journey ahead, immediately started to rock the boat himself. In less than a month he has pronounced on the likely future structure of the side, dropped a long-established player, Daryll Cullinan, and put the most successful captain in the country's history, Hansie Cronje, on notice.

Magiet, like chief selectors the world over, is already getting it in the neck. He sounded none the worse for the experience - actually, he seemed to be relishing it - as he watched a training camp for young black cricketers in Durban last week.

His main, short-term objective is to pick a winning South African side while trying to adhere to the increasingly vociferous demands for more places to be given to non-white players and the need gradually to replace some of the ageing warriors in the present team.

As the first non-white chief selector in a country where apartheid might have been dismantled but whose national teams are still dominated by the white minority, he is already the focus of attention. Pick non-white players and he could be derided for bias and weakening the side, pick whites and he could be accused of selling out.

It is some balancing act and David Graveney's present rough passage may be a walk in the park by comparison. Magiet, 56, a Cape Malayan who played a handful of games as a fast bowling all-rounder for Western Province in the days of segregation (he is a friend of WP's former and England's present coach, Duncan Fletcher) had been on the panel for eight years. He was given the top job ahead of Clive Rice and Mike Procter. As he watched the aspiring players being put through their paces his optimism seemed to swell and he explained his intentions for the Test and one-day series against England.

"We will always field players on merit in the national side," he said. "That policy will not change. There will be no quota system for non-white players." They were powerful, contentious words which, although gently uttered, bordered on the defiant - and they illustrated the delicacy of Magiet's position. The country's sports ministry has been becoming extremely agitated about the slowness of change. It might have been assumed - indeed, in some quarters it was - that Magiet would institute an immediate programme for ensuring the senior team would invariably contain a minimum number, probably three, of non-white players.

He proposes to do no such thing, sensing the importance of South Africa's need to win internationally and so encourage participation at home, but he also added the get-out clause. Asked whether he could have a hand in selecting an all-white team, when it has been repeatedly stressed, not least by Dr Ali Bacher, managing director of the United Cricket Board, that they must never again take the field with one, he said: "That isn't going to be the case. There are now enough non-white cricketers coming through. Perhaps the leading three are Herschelle Gibbs, Paul Adams and Roger Telemachus. They will all be in contention but others are making advances quickly."

One of the others, of course, is the fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, whose appeal against a rape conviction earlier this year is imminent. The UCB have been unwavering in their support of his innocence and last week, with Ntini on bail, he was picked to play for Border in a provincial match. Only after protests from groups outside the game was this reversed, but it was a measure of the UCB's desperation to be seen to be advancing the cause of black players.

Magiet is happy that provincial sides are being urged to establish a quota system and one will partly operate in international A and one-day sides. "In tournaments of lesser significance we will give fringe players, whether black or white, a chance," he said. "We have to be patient and it's hard to predict but in the next 10 years I should think the national team will have 50 per cent non-white players. It was never going to happen overnight but I'm proud of what we've done. As for myself I don't think I will be accused of taking one side or the other. In the old days I stood on platforms and spoke out for change."

If the race issue stands alone as the most fraught, the new convener decided to introduce another controversial note with his first squad, for a one-day tournament in Kenya this month. It did not contain Cullinan, an under-achieving batsman in an under-achieving order but still probably their greatest stylist. Magiet said this did not mean Cullinan would not be returning but added: "We have to evolve. Some of our players are getting older and we don't want to be caught napping." Cullinan certainly was but a few moments' reflection might help to reveal the wisdom of Magiet's stance.

The convenor's remarks about Cronje - allied to the decision to appoint him as captain only for the forthcoming one-day tournament, two Tests against Zimbabwe and the first two Tests against England, instead of for the whole of the South African summer - were greeted as needless tampering by a new man anxious to prove a point. Magiet had said they wanted to be sure of Cronje's availability. This concerned the captain's form as well as his implied concerns about the imposition of a quota policy.

"Hansie has done a fantastic job but we weren't sure about his form and if it was for the good of the side to pick him for any more than four Tests. I've had one chat with him and will be speaking to him again. There is certainly no problem between us and I'm sure he's level-headed enough to know why we did it." Cronje's silence on the issue might confirm his displeasure and Magiet's comments too might have been selector-speak for: "He'd better not get too big for his boots."

Magiet's future, like that of all selectors and all teams, will be determined by results, though for him it may not be that black and white.