Sport

The quota killers

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South African cricket has a proud heritage of being one of the best cricketing nations but in the past two decades, the spectre of quotas has constantly raised its ugly head. However, it seems as though the “born-free generation” is proving that, given the chance, they can do battle against the best in international cricket.

There’s Makhaya Ntini, Hashim Amla and now Kagiso Rabada. Three non-white cricketers who have enjoyed glittering careers with the Proteas, and each of them has been ranked number one in the world by the ICC.

It’s a proud heritage, one which is getting stronger by the year, and there’s every chance that South Africa’s long-awaited World Cup triumph could be achieved by a team that has more than half of its players who are players of colour… and with not a quota in sight!

South African players and fans have endured tragic endings to some of their World Cup campaigns. They lost to rain rules in 1992, suffered the disaster of the Klusener-Donald run-out in 1999, were outwitted by the rain and run rates at home in 2003 and, in 2015, lost in the semi-final to New Zealand after a selection controversy apparently sparked frustration within the squad.

The issue of quotas is a touchy subject for white South Africas but it’s even more touchy for players of colour. Speaking strictly under cover of anonymity, a number of professional black cricketers currently playing in South Africa have expressed their frustration to me about the fact that they are still labelled as quota players by certain opponents.

“You go out to bat in a first-class match and white players start chirping things like ‘you don’t deserve your place’, ‘you’re just a quota’, ‘you shouldn’t be playing here’,” said one player to me in December 2017, and it’s a sentiment that half-a-dozen black professional cricketers have expressed to me in various ways over the past six months. This shocked me as I had imagined that the cricketing landscape in South Africa was looking a lot rosier than these anecdotes suggest. Sadly, one must conclude that a similar sentiment might still be prevalent throughout the amateur ranks, from club cricket through to the professional arena.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a picture of doom and gloom, as the vast majority of South Africans have embraced the new South Africa and, in my cricketing travels around the country, I have seen a sporting brotherhood that would make Nelson Mandela proud indeed. There is great spirit, affection and respect among the majority of players, yet there remains a persistent niggle from a small group of players—and a large group of ‘supporters’—who refuse to accept that players of colour have a right to take their place in the top teams across all age groups in South African cricket.

Social media, in particular, is filled with a rogues’ gallery of quota callers, who seem determined to hold onto the old South Africa and are ceaseless in denigrating the achievements of non-white cricketers.

By all accounts, in the past, there was a push for quota players at the expense of more talented white players for a few years as South African sport and society worked hard to redress the atrocious imbalances of the past.

That said, when running through the record books, I struggle to spot any players who were way out of their league and could be described as ‘quota’ players who were there to make up the numbers.

Certainly, some very talented white cricketers would have lost out on some opportunities as slightly less talented players of colour were given a chance to prove themselves. This situation is no different to the fact that many millions of non-white players lost out on opportunities for decades under Apartheid. Some of these non-white ‘quota’ players didn’t make the grade but then if you scour the annals, you also find a number of white players who were given a chance who also didn’t make the grade. Yet the ‘quota’ players burn under the spotlight. It’s an attitude that needs to change urgently.

To me, the proof of the pudding is the fact that a number of those players who made the grade rose to the top of the game—Ntini, Amla and Rababa specifically—while many others have been solid international performers who completely justified their place in the side.

Now that more South African cricketers have grown up with far better opportunities to learn the sport and advance along a more natural timeline, the results have been incredible to see, and what a change has been brought about over the space of just 20 years.

In the heartbreaking 1992 World Cup semi-final, only one player of colour (the Spinner, Omar Henry) was in the squad, but he did not play in that semi-final match.

In 1999, there was one player of colour in the semi-final, the brilliantly talented Herschelle Gibbs, although he grew up surrounded by some of the best sporting coaches and facilities a young, talented player could want.

In 2015, there were four players of colour in the Proteas side that lost in heartbreaking fashion off the last over of the semi-final against New Zealand.

In 2019, there are six non-white players who are regular members of the side—and three of them are black Africans. That would really please Madiba, and especially because they are truly deserving of their place in the side.

The new Mzansi Super League is now also shining a spotlight on young South African players—and especially young black African players—who are getting a chance to show what they can do at the highest level against some of the best.

Leading the log at the halfway stage of the tournament were the Cape Town Blitz, a side made up of predominantly non-white players (including overseas marquee players), while the rookie, Lutho Sipamla of the Tshwane Spartans, burst onto the scene and has won numerous admirers for his fiery performances with the ball, along with a good many other players of colour who were not previously household names but who have risen to prominence.

The MSL has been a revelation for the game, however, as it has also offered older and younger white players a chance to shine on major stages, with players such as Anrich Nortje, Ryan Rickelton, Marco Marais, Pite van Biljon and Robbie Frylinck grabbing a spotlight that would otherwise never have shone their way.

Although Cricket South Africa receives much criticism for some of their actions (some of it fair, much of it biased), they truly deserve praise from all quarters for their efforts to create a cricketing culture that is allowing players of all backgrounds to have a chance to shine.

As a result, it’s now possible to select an international, quality Proteas side made up of entirely non-white players.

  • Reeza Hendricks
  • Hashim Amla
  • Temba Bavuma
  • JP Duminy
  • Khaya Zondo
  • Farhaan Behardien
  • Andile Phehlukwayo
  • Imran Tahir
  • Tabraiz Shamsi
  • Lungi Ngidi
  • Kagiso Rabada

Excluded from this line-up are the likes of Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Junior Dala and a number of other non-white players already capped for their country. The one glaring omission is that of a wicketkeeper—the above team does not include a specialist keeper. Sinethemba Qeshile is a young man with great potential who is getting a chance to shine as a rookie in the MSL, but he’s still making his way in domestic cricket, so the international arena is some way away for him. But remember his name, as he is a talented keeper/batsman for the future.

Wicketkeepers of all colours generally struggle to find opportunities in domestic cricket, from school level up to professional cricket, as it is a position where a dominant player will take ownership of a position for a good 5-10 years. Since 1992, South Africa has only had four main Wicketkeepers—Dave Richardson, Mark Boucher, AB de Villiers and now Quinton de Kock. A few players have filled in here or there when injury has struck the incumbent, but nothing to challenge these players’ long-term positions.

It is a possible team that could do South Africa proud. They wouldn’t win the World Cup because the batting lacks a bit of punch and the team has no specialist wicketkeeper. However, if you consider that the bowling attack is possibly the best in the world, that might give this diversified Proteas side the advantage by bowling teams out cheaply and leaving their batsmen with a more accessible target to chase. Maybe they could win the World Cup after all.

The beauty of this team is not just that such a victory would be a reality but rather that it highlights two things: one, there are plenty of quality, international players of colour in South African cricket; secondly, it highlights how important the white players are to creating a balance in the side, just as the players of colour create a vital balance in the current Proteas side.

The 2019 Cricket World Cup promises to be one of the most open in years, with India, Pakistan, England and South Africa being the firm favourites to take the title now that Australia is suffering a self-induced dip in fortune, following the suspension of two key players. Although South African fans are clearly eager to see Faf du Plessis lift the trophy for the Proteas, perhaps an even greater prize awaits within the team itself—the fact that the Proteas are finally lining up for battle with a truly representative team. Not only is that proving itself valuable on the field of play (diversity brings with it strength in so many ways), it is also providing role models for a whole new generation of non-white cricketers and, perhaps most important of all, offers a vision for how South Africans can work and play together to create a better future for all. That, surely, must be the greatest prize of all.

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