Race and cricket in SA
The headline ‘Everybody doubts players of colour’ caught Victor Dlamini’s attention
Ihad to rub my eyes, and rub them again as I read this story. How can it be possible for any South African sport to still get away with racebased approaches to excellence? But here it was, this little story, demonstrating to us that the old South Africa was still very much alive in sport. Like many important stories that often escape greater scrutiny, this story about Hashim Amla was tucked away in the sports section, when it should have been the lead story.
Hash’s downfall as the captain should also have generated greater heated debate, even outrage, given that it was preceded by calls for his resignation.
I say downfall deliberately because even though this news was presented as a “resignation”, it felt more like Amla was hounded out of his job. And therein lies the rub – Amla isn’t just the first black captain of the South African cricket side; he’s also one of the world’s greatest players. His achievements rank him alongside the greats in any sport.
And before the calls for Amla to renounce his captaincy had died down, there he was at Newlands announcing that he was in fact stepping down as captain of the team. As usual of Amla, this moment was dressed in his trademark humility. But there was no denying that this was a deeply symbolic moment for the South African national cricket team.
Surely such a capable, dedicated player, who has been at the helm for 18 months, should not fall as captain under such unconvincing circumstances.
And to think that Amla was forced to give up his captaincy of the test team in the year that South Africa will be celebrating 20 years since Bafana Bafana won the Africa Nations Cup. It tells you something about the terrible pace of transformation in sports such as cricket that the race of the captain is still an issue when Bafana Bafana was captained by Neil Tovey 20 years ago.
There was Tovey, in charge and admired for his skills and leadership, with no one raising an issue about his race during his captaincy. But cricket, and its sister sport rugby, seem locked in the apartheid mind-set that says only white players are good enough to be long-term captains of these sports.
For cricket, it seemed to be business as usual, as Amla knocked himself off the captaincy after his double-century knock at the famed Newlands. It was as if he chose that moment to emphasise the ridiculous claims of his detractors that he was past his prime.
For those who believe that the numbers should do the talking, Amla’s are sparkling. In 90 tests, he has scored 7 108 runs. That’s well over half a century as an average. On top of that, he scored two-dozen centuries and still holds the South African record of 311 not out.
More should be made of coach Russell Domingo’s unhappiness with the criticism of Amla.
“I honestly feel that a lot of what Hashim has faced over the last couple of weeks has been very harsh,” said Domingo.
But his words did not stop Amla’s premature exit as captain.
What really should have troubled all those who rushed to praise his “selflessness” were Amla’s comments that players who were not white faced doubt all round: “Everybody doubts you for various reasons.”
Amla added, perhaps prosaically: “We both have very similar careers – the first time we do play international cricket, everyone doubts you. Maybe because of the colour of your skin, even though you’ve got the stats to back it up domestically. Everybody doubts you for various reasons.”
He was, of course, referring to the century that was scored by youngster Temba Bavuma at the same Newlands ground. Unsurprisingly in South African cricket, there had also been calls for the very same Bavuma to be dropped from the national team because he wasn’t good enough. But now here were the 16 000 fans at Newlands relishing his performance, happily forgetting how his prospects had been considered hopeless just a few days earlier. Perhaps the most painful part of the piece I read was this: “Bavuma was the man in the spotlight – as black players always are in South African sport – and he needed to deliver an innings of substance if he was going to be part of the future at the Proteas.”
It shouldn’t still be possible for race to weigh so heavily on the success or failure of those who choose to follow a career in sport in South Africa.
But that’s where we are – as proven during the recent rugby World Cup, in which the coach considered most of the black players permanent benchwarmers. Even in those matches that were clearly of no consequence, he stuck to his race-based formula.
It shouldn’t have to take heroics from the likes of Bavuma or Amla for black players to feel welcome in the team. More importantly, it is the leadership roles in the team that speak loudest to who the team belongs to.
If the South African cricket team could put up with a decade of Graeme Smith as captain, even when he was truly hapless, surely it should have given Amla even half that. Otherwise the racism genie will always haunt South African cricket.
And it will reduce phenomenal talents like Amla and Bavuma to “transformation ambassadors”, allowing audiences like those at Newlands to indulge in occasional rainbow nation-building.
Cricket cannot hide behind quaint notions like transformation when it does not make the very best use of those with the phenomenal talent of Amla.
Cricket SA can’t wait for another century to grasp that sidelining black players dooms it to permanent crisis.
Dlamini is a writer and commentator