Cricket: The new order and the old disorder: South African sport has taken a turn for the better and a turn for the worse. John Carlin in Johannesburg explores the reasons

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The Independent Online
IN SPORT, as in all things, it often pays to have God's battalions on your side. Never mind their fearsome pace quartet, in last week's Test match at Lord's, South Africa had, in Kepler Wessels, Andrew Hudson, Jonty Rhodes and Hansie Cronje, four of the most fervent Christians ever to smite a willow in anger.

If the South Africans had simply stuck to prayers in the dressing-room England might perhaps have stretched their innings into the fifth day. As it was, the intervention - not once, but twice - of Archbishop Desmond Tutu assured that the humiliation would be complete. Conducting grace at a banquet the night before the Test, he said: 'The fact that I am praying here before you will ensure that South Africa will win the Test.' The next afternoon, on being informed at the entrance to the pavilion at Lord's that he was improperly dressed, he explained to the doorman: 'I have to bless my captain so that he will score a century.' The good archbishop, duly allowed in, caught up with Wessels during the tea interval when the captain was on 61. By the close of play he had made his 105.

Thirty-six hours later in Wellington, New Zealand, the second Test between the Springboks and the All Blacks was about to begin. The South Africans - Afrikaners, mostly, and as such members of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church - were offering their own prayers for victory. They were not heard, and the Springboks ended up losing both the match and the series. In the case of Johan le Roux, the entreaties went badly awry.

In what he later described as a 'moment of madness' he clutched the head of the All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick and bit him, with the ferocity of an angry hippo, on the ear. Le Roux promptly received a 19- month suspension though Louis Luyt, South Africa's rugby president, said he should have been banned for life.

What has been the reaction back home in South Africa to the mixed fortunes of the two national teams? By and large a sense that God is indeed in his heaven and that virtue is rewarded while vice is not.

Local cricket writers, in praising their team's performance, drew attention to the zeal with which South African cricket has embraced the new political orthodoxies. They made much, for example, of the team coach Mike Procter's decision to flout stuffy Lord's convention and wave the new South African flag.

Five years ago, before Nelson Mandela's release, Procter was not known for his devotion to the 'non-racial' ideals of the African National Congress. Last Sunday, after his men had bowled out England for 99, he did not pause for thought before declaring: 'It was a really special game because of the new South Africa. With things going so well at home if ever there was someone to dedicate a victory to it is our president.'

The quote was in every national newspaper, reinforcing the generalised perception that the cricket team has become the embodiment of the South African miracle.

Pride in the cricket team is something which black South Africans - so long cut off from the sport - increasingly share. Archbishop Tutu attests to that but so does the response of the many thousands of youngsters who have benefited from Ali Bacher's admirable township development programme. After a particularly fine performance by Jonty Rhodes in one of the matches against Australia earlier this year a journalist from Soweto arrived breathless at work the next morning. 'I tell you]' he told his colleagues. 'If the kids could vote and if Jonty was running for president he'd beat Mandela hands down]'

'Jonty' is a national hero. Not only does he epitomise the indomitable fighting spirit so sadly lacking in the England cricket team, he conveys such a childlike enthusiasm for the game, such hyperactive excitement on the field, such a rigorous sense of fair play (in an international match last year he admitted to an umpire he had failed to catch a player after he had been given out) that he has emerged as a larger- than-life character straight out of Boy's Own. As if all this were not enough, he is also an epileptic who, by drawing attention to his condition, has done wonders for the self-esteem of his fellow-sufferers in South Africa.

Johan le Roux is something completely different.

There is an enormous temptation to conclude that if cricket incarnates everything that is best about the new South Africa, rugby stands for everything that is worst about the old. There is plenty of evidence for that.

If you take squeaky-clean cricket as a standard, then there is certainly more than a whiff of rottenness about South African rugby. To exaggerate only slightly, Bacher is to the ungracious Luyt as Tutu is to Eugene Terreblanche. An editorial in yesterday's Johannesburg Star found a pleasing Shakespearian analogy to illustrate the degree to which the ear-biting episode offered a reflection of the general uncouthness of the South African rugby authorities - not to mention a dubious record of inaction against rough play.

'The noble Luyt,' quoth the Star, 'hath told you that Le Roux was vicious; if it were so, it was a grievous fault; And grievously hath Le Roux answer'd for it. For Luyt is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men . . .'

Wynand Claasen, the Springbok captain on the ill- fated 1981 tour to New Zealand, last week lamented the failure of Luyt and his men to root out dirty play. 'It's been happening for too long and it's sad that, in the new South Africa, there has not been a needed change. Our officials' . . . incompetence has been with us for years.'

Rugby crowds in South Africa also remain rather unlovely. Many of the fans at the first Test in Pretoria against England last month waved the old flag, jeered during the new national anthem and passed racist comments about Mandela.

But, before passing final sentence on South African rugby, the point should be made that many other rugby fans, Afrikaners included, felt profoundly embarrassed by the behaviour of their boorish compatriots. And, notwithstanding the irreverent headline 'Boks' bite worse than their bark' in the Johannesburg Citizen last Monday, the Le Roux incident has also generated widespread embarrassment among white South Africans, not least because it conjured up once again the old caricature captured so cruelly some six years back by Spitting Image - 'I Never Met a Nice South African'.

The defence might also argue the point that rugby is not a gentleman's game. Ear-biting, as well as eye-gouging, punching and kicking, are not crimes unique to South Africa, as the Star's editorial pointed out yesterday. The difference between dirty rugby in South Africa and elsewhere, it said, is down more to a question of degree and, perhaps, to the alertness of New Zealand TV cameramen.

As for the comparison with South African cricket, yes, it is night and day. But rugby, far more than cricket, was always identified by black South Africans as 'the oppressor's game' and if Luyt's township development programme - one does, at least, exist - is not flourishing in the same way as Bacher's it is partly because he has been more half-hearted, but also because of blacks' deep-seated resistance to the game.

Again, unlike cricket, rugby's constituency in South Africa has traditionally been right- wing conservative, more Afrikaans than 'English'. But many Afrikaners have successfully caught up with the mood of the nation, and many others are battling to. Following a promise the Springbok captain Francois Pienaar made personally to Mandela, the rugby team have battled to learn 'Nkosi Sikelel'i', the anthem of black liberation.

Wise after the event, everyone now agrees that Le Roux, long known as a bad boy, should never have been chosen to represent his country. But his moment of madness, and the sacrifice he will now endure, may yet be seen as necessary acts on the road to the redemption of South African rugby.