Cricket: the next test for freedom

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The Independent Online
A SEA of faces emerged from St John's Wood Underground station and headed up towards Lord's, complete with panamas and cool boxes. They glided past the collection box that Tom Beaumont was shaking for Buskaid, a charity helping young classical musicians in Soweto. They looked extremely cheerful.

They were all white faces. It seemed odd, given that this was a new beginning for Nelson Mandela's reborn South Africa, the first Test for a largely black nation. Middle-class black South Africans no doubt have other priorities than flying out to see the cricket. It certainly was not one of Basil D'Oliveira's to travel a much shorter distance. But the disproportionately high number of cricket enthusiasts among London's black population were not there either.

In the Sixties, when Peter Hain demonstrated against apartheid and cricket, black workers on London Transport threatened a one- day strike against the Lord's Test. Where were they to celebrate? When tickets were sold it seemed Mandela might be there. Even that had not drawn them.

A man was thrusting red leaflets into the crowd as it streamed towards Lord's. He was Mike Marqusee, American author of Anyone But England (Verso, pounds 16.95), a book about imperialism and cricket calculated to make some of the older MCC members turn the colour of their ties.

'These people at the MCC spent years trying to undermine the international boycott of South Africa,' he said. 'I wish people would admit they are wrong. 'Up to the late Eighties there were large black crowds here. Then theyraised prices, and put a ban on whistles and klaxons - they banned the carnival spirit, so that the message was, black people are only welcome if they behave like the English. Even at West Indies matches now the numbers are down.'

Inside the hot, packed ground less than 1 per cent of the audience was anything but white - or rather, lobster pink.

And the scene on the pitch, of course, was entirely white, too, the South African team still the product of a regime that did not give black players a sporting chance.

'It's a shame,' said Marlene Perera, a self-confessed fanatic lady cricketer and England supporter. 'Perhaps in time to come . . .'

At the back of the pavilion at lunchtime a black waiter stood outside the MCC hospitality tent. Many more served hamburgers and checked tickets. An old-style South African white supremacist could have felt at home here. But there were none of those in sight.

Instead, a small group of white teenagers from Western Transvaal, some of Boer descent, waiting to get in, waved their country's new flag and burst into a brief snatch of their new anthem. The same flags were draped from the South African players' balcony.

'It's great,' said Jonathan Friedman, a bookie from Johannesburg. 'It's the first time I could carry my flag to a match. I can sing my national anthem. We've never had this feeling of being proud of our country. I'm African] You used to say you were Australian if you went abroad, especially if you were talking to anyone black. Mandela's shown a bit of maturity and forgiveness to us whites.'

At the Wanderers cricket ground in Johannesburg, he said, there are usually only 300 black faces out of a 3,000 crowd. In the past, even those were absent. The white-dominated culture of South African cricket, he thought, was changing. There are changes still to be hoped for in English cricket. Kahn Forbes, a 19-year-old young MCC cricketer, was selling scorecards to the crowd. His father, Carlton Forbes, orginally from Jamaica, played for Nottinghamshire. This is Kahn's ambition, too. Does race count in cricket in this country? 'It's fine here at the MCC,' he said. 'And as far as England, goes it's OK, too. But there are still some county sides who don't like too many black faces playing for them. Definitely.'

He, too, was looking forward to seeing some black players in the South African team. 'There's a young lad from Soweto on the MCC staff,' he said.

So there is. Jacob Malao bears on his young shoulders many people's hopes for the future. In theory, black talent has been nurtured in South Africa since the mid-Seventies. The hollowness of that claim is demonstrated by the fact that the top 50 cricketers in South Africa are still white, and the black players coming up are all young.

'The 'Development Programme' was cosmetic until 1991,' said Mike Marqusee. 'But now it's run by Khaya Majola, it's real.'

The first Test at Lord's of the new South Africa is cause for some celebration. But reason for full celebration is still to come. There may not be too long to wait.

Jacob Malao left his scorecards and appeared, a quietly spoken 21- year-old. It was exciting, he said, to see his team play at Lord's. He had been waiting for this sight for a long time. At home his friends had been interested in the West Indies tour. In four or five years, he said, there would be black players out there for South Africa at Lord's. And did he hope to be out there? He nodded. Jacob Malao doesn't just have hope in South Africa's future, he has full confidence.

'Yeah,' he said. 'I'm positive. I'll be there.'

(Photograph omitted)