Cricket wasting black talent

Letter from Ntselamanzi, South Africa

EVERYONE OVER here thinks Hansie and the boys are doing a great job, what with thrashing England, Sri Lanka, India and Kenya, and getting one up on everybody, if only briefly, with those clever little earpieces. But it must be said that South Africans are a little distracted because there is an election on Wednesday.

Sport has not been mentioned. But it is striking that South Africa, five years into democracy, eight years after readmission into world cricket, and two days before its second multi-racial election, is represented by a lilywhite World Cup squad.

For all those years of the sports boycott, you were the team without a public - because the majority of South Africans either supported the opposition or just did not bother to follow cricket, which was perceived as a white sport. Now you have a public, but you are not giving South Africa the team it deserves.

You cannot blame Makhaya Ntini for everything. The first black South African Test player was sentenced on Friday to six years' imprisonment for rape. Neither can you say that development cricket - widely publicised and lavished with funds - needs more time. Some people say cricket is doing better than rugby, but they are not convincing.

Ray Mali, one of South Africa's leading black cricket administrators, wistfully looks back on a conversation in Trinidad seven years ago: "Some young players in Port of Spain asked me if we were not being used by whites just so South Africa could get back into international cricket. I denied it at the time. Now I think we were." Mali, 62, a former teacher who runs a building company, is from the Eastern Cape where cricket and rugby were introduced by Scots and English missionaries in the 1820s.

In a radius of 14 miles, centred on the town of Alice, 78 clubs compete in village leagues during the December holidays, when migrant workers come home. In games of limited overs which last from 7am until dark, a sheep is slaughtered and half of it consumed during play; the other half given to the winning team. This is where Ntini comes from and logic would suggest the area is capable of producing an entire national team.

Most of the villages have matting wickets, a few have a concrete strip. Here, there is no talk of willow striking leather. Rather, the sound is of a tennis ball hitting a scrap-wood bat." The wickets are cut to the height of the tallest boy's hip," says Mali, recalling how he and thousands of other herdboys and students played a home-grown form of mini-cricket.

The only greenery in the area is at Ntselamanzi Cricket Ground, situated down a dirt road, by a river, and surrounded by scaffolding stands which are seven rows high.

Only six years old, Ntselamanzi is as close as South African black cricket gets to having a Lord's or Wanderers, because this area is historic to the game. England are to play here on 16 December, by which time pounds 7,500, given by Britain, will have spent on new turf and other improvements.

Through Mali, a soft-spoken and patient negotiator, black cricketers and administrators are trying to convey to the South African United Cricket Board that the Eastern Cape knows full well how to produce top players.

Solomon Pango, also a lifelong cricketer who is president of the Alice Cricket Board, says: "An enormous amount of cricket goes on in this area. There is no need to go hunting for talent with development cricket in urban townships which have never played the game. We have tomorrow's great players right here."

Mali says: "At the moment, talent scouts come here and take boys out of their Xhosa villages to the very foreign environment of an elite English- style school. This is very traumatic. There, they play on grass for the first time ever and the bounce is completely different. Incidentally, playing on concrete is a recipe for injuries.

"Another mistake is to see cricket as a school sport. White primary schools have grass wickets. There are no facilities or nets at our schools. We have a club tradition and we should build on what we have."

At the Wanderers-based UCB - successor to the segregated bodies in the sport of the apartheid years - their director of professional cricket, Imtiaz Patel, seems willing to listen to the exasperation of black cricketers.

Patel, 35, who is Asian and describes himself as part of a "lost generation of cricket", says: "At the beginning of the 1990s we created unity in the sport, but it was fast and theoretical and carried with it baggage and no shared history. Blacks now feel assimilated into the sport, rather than united with whites in it."

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