Transformation at the Heart of South African Cricket

Jon GemmellCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2010

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 02:  Graeme Smith and coach Micky Arthur discuss proceedings during a South African nets session at the Sydney Cricket Ground on January 2, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

South Africa briefly topped the Test rankings after their victory in Australia last summer, but rather like England following the 2005 Ashes, may have considered it "job done" and eased off.

The Aussies immediately bounced back to defeat the Proteas in the return series. South Africa then lost to Pakistan in the World Twenty20 semifinals and were embarrassed by an early exit in the Champions Trophy.

To then lose at home in the one-dayers to England and only draw a Test series against a side ranked fifth would inevitably lead to questions about future direction.

However, for Micky Arthur to stand down as South African coach on the basis that his and Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) vision for taking the team forward “are different” came as a surprise, coming four days before the national side was scheduled to fly to India to begin a two-Test tour.

The subsequent sacking of the selection panel suggests more of a coup d’état than a reassessment, whilst Arthur’s reasons for resignation have failed to provide clarity.

CSA chief executive Gerald Majola will now oversee the selection process. He insisted, “We believe as a board that Mickey has been very successful.” So apparently it wasn’t his record that was at fault.

It is suggested that he didn’t get on with his captain. Graeme Smith follows in the tradition of previous skippers Kepler Wessels and Hansie Cronje, presenting a supreme commander around which a side is moulded.

Only one winner here.

Furthermore, it is argued that alongside Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, and AB de Villiers have formed a clique considered impenetrable.

Yet, Smith said of Arthur: “The two of us have had a great partnership over five years, we had a good relationship.”

Arthur replied that his resignation had nothing to do with Smith.

So, we have to read between the lines and the language of "development" inevitably draws attentions to the question of transformation. As part of the public sphere, the South African cricket authorities have been given the responsibility to assist in the construction of the multi-racial nation.

In the past, this has meant affirmative action to ensure players of colour were provided with the opportunity to compete at the highest level. One of the beneficiaries of so-called quotas was Makhaya Ntini, the African fast-bowler.

Ntini has been a figurehead in the integration of South African society, has proved a loyal servant to the national side, remained largely injury-free, and has been a regular in the top five of the ICC world rankings.

Yet, age is gradually draining his powers, and you felt that his selection for the first two Tests against England were an emotional choice to propel a great warrior to 100 Test caps. Maybe there should be no room for sentiment in professional sport, but who could deny the man this achievement?

What I found strange was that having won his 100th cap, he was suddenly dispatched. If sentiment played a role in his selection, surely his departure deserved commemoration and celebration.

As it turned out, his replacement in the third Test, Friedel de Wet, bowled only 28 overs for one wicket, whilst Wayne Parnell bowled only 11 overs in the fourth. Ntini would have at least matched either of their performances.

Ntini’s omission meant that the Proteas went into the last two games against England without a single African player. Considered alongside the relatively poor record of late, the question of transformation was bound to raise its head.

The problem is that no one dare speak of a policy that has no official guidelines.

Whilst politicians demand black faces in prominent positions to highlight and encourage change, real transformation will be a consequence of real social and economic change.

Today, South Africa remains divided according to colour of skin.

There have been some impressive advances. In fact, 56 percent of professional cricketers are of colour. Yet those from an African background are few.

One of the few, left-arm quick Lonwabo Tsotsobe, has been selected for the Indian tour and would have been a more opportune selection as Ntini’s replacement against England.

Sometimes it’s understanding the underlying processes at work rather than having them etched in tablets of stone that’s politically expedient.

For Majola, this means that the “whole process by which the team is selected” will dominate the immediate agendas for whoever is the new coach.