Times have certainly changed – Mpitsang
Today, in Part 3 of the 20-year review since the end of isolation, Stuart Hess highlights what it was like for a young black cricketer making his mark in the game
SO what was it like for a young black cricketer, making his international debut for the Proteas eight years after unity had been achieved?
For Victor Mpitsang, not hard at all, for he was clear about what he wanted to achieve.
Mpitsang was not the first black cricketer to represent his country post-isolation. Omar Henry had played Tests, as had Paul Adams and of course Makhaya Ntini, was still trying to establish himself when Mpitsang made his debut in a one-day international against the West Indies at his home ground in Bloemfontein.
“I had a word with Corrie ( van Zyl his then coach at Free State) and he said it was an opportunity, and one I should try and learn as much from as possible,” said Mpitsang.
He was just 19 at the time – the youngest to play an ODI for South Africa – and the call-up came like a bolt from the blue.
“I was meant to be with the under19s, and then things happened so fast, one minute you’re watching these guys on TV, and the next you’re part of the set-up.”
As debuts go, Mpitsang’s wasn’t a bad one. He got to open the bowling with Shaun Pollock and picked up the wickets of Nixon Mclean and Daren Ganga with consecutive deliveries, eventually finishing with 2/49 from seven overs.
He was the only black player in the starting XI on that February day 12 years ago.
“I wasn’t too overwhelmed actually. I learnt so much. Things were going well and I knew what was expected of me. I certainly never thought of myself in terms of being a black player in the side, I just wanted to be treated like any other player.”
That was the opinion of many black players at the time. The quota system was as controversial a topic for black players as it was for white cricketers, who thought they were being denied a chance to play.
“There are two sides to the argument obviously, and there were times I wondered about the necessity (of the quota system).
“But there is no doubt it was very important in creating opportunities for black cricketers. Without it, there wouldn’t have been as many black cricketers as there are now.
“I don’t think many people even tried to understand why there was a need for a quota system.
“Of course when Kevin Pietersen spoke out about the quota system denying him chances to play there was a lot of controversy. I don’t think he was right.
“The quota system can’t cover up for a bad cricketer, the quality will always come through. What everyone has to realise though is that it’s just a case of providing opportunities.”
Mpitsang, now 31, is reaching the end of his career – in fact this season will be his last – but he says the environment now compared to when he began his career is much different for black cricketers.
“(The number of black players) was a helluva issue when I started, it’s not like that anymore.
“There was all this talk about players only being in the provincial side or even the national side because of the colour of their skin. But it would be very wrong to say that now,” Mpitsang remarked.
He cites the success of Ntini and Lonwabo Tsotsobe as having changed the perception of many.
“At the end of the day black players are just cricketers too and if you look at the South African team now you can see how vital guys like Tsotsobe are.
“Makhaya had a great career, Hashim (Amla) is a world class No 3. Black players are nowadays crucial to the national set-up. They work as hard at their game as any player.
“The question those critics of the quota system need to ask themselves is ‘would (those black players) have been picked by their provinces, if there wasn’t a quota system?
“Think about it in the franchise system, as it stands now, where we have a quota of a minimum of four black players per side, we are still talking about a minimum of 24 players.”
As a senior pro, who is looking toward a future in coaching, Mpitsang is intrigued by the number of young players coming through and playing franchise cricket.
“I know when I started there were always a few older hands in the dressingroom to offer guidance. At Free State we had guys like Gerry Liebenberg and Kosie Venter who were happy to pass on tips and chat about the game.
“You don’t find that so much now. But if you look at our team ( the Knights) you get young guys like Dean Elgar and Rilee Rossouw, who are just 24 and 21 years old, but they’ve already got a lot of first class experience.”
Because there are so many black players in the system now it is much easier for guys to be comfortable when Full name: Phenyo Victor Mpitsang Born: March 28, 1980 in Kimberley Major teams: South Africa, Eagles, Free State ODI Debut: Feb 1999, South Africa v West Indies HS: 1* - Wickets: 2- Ave: 31.50 - Best: 2-49 First Class – Debut: 1997/98 HS: 23 - Ave: 5.87 - Wickets: Best: 6-30 Twenty20 – Debut: Jan 2006, Warriors v Eagles Wickets: 14 - Ave: 30.35 - Best: 3-19
Ave: 29.71 - they come into the dressing- room. Mpitsang is very optimistic about what the next 20 years hold.
“Playing-wise South Africa is in a very good space. You look at the domestic one-day competition and on the batting side in particular it is dominated by younger players. There are young players out there, who are very mature, they believe in themselves and they are not afraid to take responsibility in a tough situation.”
That said, Mpitsang believes there is still room for improvement, and while he recognises there are differing needs for teams, he feels that some times coaches don’t give players a proper chance in positions where they feel comfortable.
“You’ll get an opener from the amateur side coming into the franchise side, and he’ll bat at No 8. He immediately starts to doubt his ability, he plays differently and it affects his confidence,” said. “If he doesn’t play well he is discarded, coaches need to be aware of that kind of thing.”
Mpitsang will turn his attention to coaching at the end of this season and wants to remain in the Free State.
Where he will fit in with the Free State coaching structure remains to be seen. But with over 100 first- class matches to his name, and following 14 years of play, there is no doubt plenty that he can offer.
LIFT OFF: Victor Mpitsang is airborne as he sends one down during a four-nations tournament between SA, Zimbabwe, Kenya and India in 1999.