Players not Pawns

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Sport in South Africa is riddled with political interference and legislation. This is an almost unique situation in world sport, with most countries preferring to leave sport on the fields and politics everywhere else. Unfortunately, due to South Africa’s historical past, the inequalities of a disgusting Apartheid regime, have meant that it is not likely that the politicians will leave sport untouched in a quest to speed up the quest for a representative cricket and rugby team, sports that have historically been white sports in South Africa. But is there a place for racial targets, as they are labelled by Cricket South Africa, in the national team?

There is no doubt that if transformation and development of the previously disadvantaged is to successful, in the here and now and future, racial targets will play a part. However these should only be implemented at certain levels. In schools cricket, at club level, and even at franchise level, the politicians can request that a certain number of players in each team should be non white. This will ensure that those with sufficient talent are being given opportunities at playing at a level that will ensure they get experience, exposure, and the playing field to show that they are capable players at that level. By saying that, at Franchise level, 3 or 4 of the starting 11 should be non white, will mean that, in the 6 franchise teams, at least 18 non white players are playing at any given match period. This will ensure that each province will give sufficient time and resources to development, to ensure that they get the best out of the system. In time, hopefully in only a few years, this target can be done away with as the players will be represented by merit. The problem arises with players like Kevin Pieterson who feel that they are being left out for non cricket reasons and so jump ship to another country. These players need to feel that if they are good enough they will play, they need to feel wanted and safe in the environment of South African cricket. Generally the talented players are identified early and are given sufficient playing time within the system. Young white players like AB Devilliers, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn have been identified early and have made it through to national level without being lost to England or another country. The reality is that even with a racial target system the players good enough to play international cricket will still come through. The problem that Pieterson faced is that, when his career started, he was a spin bowler and not a batsman, as he is today. He was behind Pat Symcox and Gulam Bodi in the Natal team, and subsequently left for England. Had he remained there is no doubt that his batting would have seen him emerge as a leading player for Natal, and then for South Africa.

While racial targets are a difficult reality in domestic cricket, the issue is even more murky in respect to international cricket. The use of the term “target” by CSA suggests that there is a number that they strive to achieve but may not inforce. That number, as it stands right now, is 7 non white players in any 15 man squad. Where this issue harms rather than heals the game is in the selection by merit. Players of colour in the South African national team, players like Ntini, Gibbs, Amla, Prince, Langeveld, Philander and Duminy are all in the team because they are good enough to play international cricket. But at teams they are treated like token players. They want to be in the team because they are good enough, which they are, and not because they are not white. When a player like Justin Kemp has a bad run of form there is no question about his worth because he has proved to be a match winner in the past. But when Philander drops a catch in an important T20 World Cup match against India, which South Africa go on to lose and are out of the tournament as a result, he is slated as a quota player. The double standard and indifference to this problem does little for a player at the beginning of his career. If there were no racial targets Philander would still make the team because he is one of the best young players in South Africa and will be a leading player in the future. And when he drops a catch it will be down to bad luck, a lack of concentration, or technique, and his colour will not be an issue. Racial targets at international level are not useful when the baggage that ensues damages a players confidence.

Another problem with racial targets at international level are when players are rushed through to fill a position, or when players are past it but picked because they fill that void. Examples of this are numerous in South African cricket. Justin Ontong was rushed into the South African test team as a young spin bowling all rounder in a match against Australia that should have been Jaques Rudolphs debut. Political interference meant that Ontong was in and Rudolph was out. The public slating that followed did a lot to damage the careers of both players, particularly Ontong who has had sporadic appearances for South Africa since then. His form for his domestic teams has suggested that he is a very talented batsman in all forms of the game, who, had he been better looked after, could have been, and still can be, a leading batsman for the national team. The selectors must ensure that such a debacle is never repeated. Another problem came about in the selection of South Africa’s World Cup 15 earlier in the year. Roger Telemachus travelled to the West Indies but never got a game, or looked like getting a game. The selection seemed purely one based on race. South Africa would have been better suited had a player like Dale Steyn, a lightening fast strike bowler, Johan van der Wath or Albie Morkel, devastating all rounders in the the Lance Klusner mould, had been picked. Instead the selectors felt that they had to meet the target of 7 non white players which upset the squad selection in terms of both the best available players and player options being greater.

In a recent game in Pakistan the selectors decided to include Andre Nel in the starting 11 in place of Charl Langeveld. In order to do this, to replace a non white player with a white player, the selectors had to drop Justin Kemp for JP Duminy, evening out the racial balance of those players coming in and those going out. There is no need for this type of action. JP Duminy is one of the most talented batsman in the country, and has a bright future in the South African team, so long as he is not made into a political pawn by selection issues. He must not be allowed to have his career stalled as Justin Ontongs was.

The main argument for why racial targets should not be used in international cricket is that winning units a country more than a enforced representative team. The Springbok rugby team recently won the Rugby World Cup with only 2 non white players in their 15, a number that the politicians were unhappy with. Yet the entire country got behind the team and were proud of their success and not moaning about racial issues. The cricket team follow that example. A South African squad made up of players such as Albie Morkel, Johan van der Wath, Morne van Wyk and others who missed out on selection for the World Cup because they were competing for 8 and not 15 places, would have had a better chance of winning the World Cup then the team that traveled did. Winning units a country.

South Africa has young talent, young non white talent, coming through, players such as Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Thandi Tshabalala and Yussuf Abdullah. These players must be allowed to progress their careers at a normal healthy level without political interference. They are sportsman, and not political pawns. For the sake of cricket, and the players, politics should be left off the field. South Africa will be better for it.

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