Peace, Justice and Harmony have arrived

The new face of South Africa can be seen in the first tour to the British Isles by the Soweto Cricket Club. Robert Winder reports
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The Independent Online
With only a few overs to go, and 30 runs still needed, the Soweto Cricket Club was running out of wickets. It seemed harsh. One of their top batsmen had been forced to retire after a crack on the elbow by a bouncer - a blow that provoked a shriek of undisguised glee from the slips; another had been given out caught behind off his thigh pad. In the pavilion, the team's supporters were getting restless. "Justice," they cried as the wickets fell. "We must have Justice."

It did not seem an unreasonable request. Soweto is a name loaded with symbolic resonance - almost a synonym for the sufferings endured by black South Africans under apartheid. And this was a historic moment: the first cricket tour abroad by a team from the townships. So if anyone deserved a break, this team did. But Justice was still lying in the dressing room, his stricken elbow wrapped in ice, talking to his twin brother, Peace.

Harmony was there too. He'd just about got over his unlucky dismissal ("That's cricket - it's the same everywhere") but he was still dead set on a win. "We bat all the way down to No 11," he said, gesturing to his team-mate out in the middle. "And Moses is still there. Moses will lead us through. But we've got to have Justice."

These are not ordinary names. But this is not an ordinary cricket team. Until 1986 cricket in Soweto was a matter of boys lunging at tennis balls with bits of old wood in the street. Peace and Justice worked on their forward defensives in a place where eight families share one tap. Some days they might be watched by their cousins, Charity and Comfort. But in the last decade, backed by a bold development programme, Soweto is a force to be reckoned with. The team has won its way into the promotional league, a step below the premier league, and is enthusiastic about its chances of climbing into the top division.

"It's a very young side," said the captain, Khaya Majola. "And it's going to get better. This tour is great for that." A couple of Sowetans are playing for South Africa Under-19 and one, Geoffrey Toyana, is on the Lord's groundstaff. The club has a brand-new ground in Soweto, the Elkah stadium, and every day 120 children come along to be coached.

But right now they were in Beckenham, walking out to bat in one of London's south-east townships, under a warm grey sky. It is hardly the most glamorous setting in English cricket, but the word was that John Major was going to drop in - he was once photographed having a net in Soweto, and had just announced an important programme to encourage sport in Britain. The opposition was the London Cricket College, a training programme for budding cricketers based in Haringey which has already produced several county players, such as Mark Alleyne and Keith Piper.

"I never dreamed I would go to England to play cricket," said Soloman Ndima, Soweto's 18-year-old batsman. He looked around at the neighbouring sports grounds, all empty - NatWest over the road, British Gas and Cornhill just round the corner. "The facilities here are incredible," he said.

He was not the only one who was envious: the London College cannot afford a pitch, despite its impressive record, and is itself in urgent need of sponsorship. The Sowetans themselves seemed unsure who they were playing. When someone explained to Harmony Nitshinga that the College was a scheme for bringing unemployed Londoners into cricket, he said: "So how come it's mostly black boys?"

"You have to remember," said Majola who, apart from captaining the tour, is the National Director for Development on the South African Cricket Board, "in Soweto there are five million people, and we have one cricket oval - two artificial wickets and one grass wicket. They get used every day."

The tour took two years to organise, and a pounds 50,000 fund-raising drive. The team was sporting maroon-and-yellow outfits and, when the bowling was slow enough to let them take their helmets off, smart red caps. They have come a long way since the barefoot six-and-out street games of their youth.

They are an exuberant outfit, too: the whippy bowling of Piet Lephoi and Peace Nkutha (who bowled the West Indies' opener Phil Simmons in a match in London a fortnight ago) is supported by impressive batsmen and dive-for-anything fielding. So far on tour they have won four, lost four and tied one. They have played in Wales and Ireland, Birmingham and Basingstoke. Some of the matches have been tough (the Sundowners were bowled out for 79). The tour concludes with matches at Arundel tomorrow, Chagford (Devon) on Friday, and Shepherd's Bush on Monday. If nothing else, the Sowetans will take home fond memories of the British motorway system.

The highlight has been the match at Ynysygerwyn, a leading Welsh club in the Neath constituency of the noted anti-apartheid MP, Peter Hain. It was a day rich in ironies. The match was sponsored by Barclays Bank, not previously known for the quality of their service in the townships. And among the 600 or so spectators (more people than some county games attract) was Tom Cartwright, the player whose injury in 1968 led to the fraught inclusion of Basil D'Oliveira in the English touring party and, eventually, to the sporting boycott of South Africa. Talk about wheels coming full circle.

"It was one of those historic things," said Hain. "Pure magic. I'm not normally given to emotion but I found my voice disappearing during the presentations. And Khaya, he broke down and cried. He is a big man and it was very moving. Ali Bacher agrees that Khaya could have been in the Test team in the Seventies and Eighties if he'd been allowed to. And here he was, crying."

It was a good match, too. Soweto were chasing 223 and looked like getting them while Solomon Ndima (104) was at the crease. But they still needed two to win off the last ball, and only managed one (there was a run-out). Afterwards they were given a police escort to their hotel. "It was a couple of the home players," Hain said. "They suddenly appeared, lights flashing, to accompany the coach. The Sowetans were quite nonplussed." As one onlooker remarked: "They probably thought: Christ, not this again."

Actually, they are getting used to attention. They were given a noisy send-off at Johannesburg airport - choirs sang and danced - and the long lenses of the media have started to sprout on the boundary of their tour matches. "The tour's getting huge coverage back there," Hain said. "It'll give cricket a mega-lift. Black youngsters will look at it and say, my God, I could actually go on tour. Don't forget, most of these guys have never been outside the Johannesburg area in their lives. And here too it will change people's perceptions about South African cricket."

Back at Beckenham, things were going well. After a poor start (1 for 2) the Londoners scurried to 218 from 55 overs. Soweto kept up with the run-rate, but had lost a few wickets by the time their skipper, Khaya Majola, strode to the crease, 20 years senior to the next oldest player in the team. "Come on, youngster," shouted the lads on the boundary.

It was time for a captain's innings. The Londoners obviously didn't reckon that a man with a paunch could possibly stand up to their fast bowlers, not even when he started thumping the ball into the sightscreen. But then he was out, and wickets kept falling. At the very end Justice walked in, rubbing his arm, and flicked a couple of boundaries off his pads to inch the score up close to 200. But it was too late.

Oh well. That's cricket. And John Major didn't turn up after all. Still, the team lined up in front of the pavilion and sang Sowetan songs. Peace, Justice and Harmony stole the limelight, even though they had lost. Only a seasoned cynic would not have felt a bit soppy at the sight of these boys from a South African township (average age 20) jiving in defeat. The Londoners looked bemused. "We won't take you on at the singing," their director, Reg Scarlett, said. "I don't think we'd win that one."