South African Cricket: Race Has Always Played a Role

Jon GemmellCorrespondent IJuly 7, 2008

The selection of contemporary South African cricket squads tends to be accompanied with suspicious asides about the merit of certain players.

Politics played an important role in the re-admittance of South Africa to the international fold following nearly 25 years in the wilderness. The most controversial aspect of its presence has been targets for the numbers of black cricketers, introduced following the national board’s inability to treat the transformation of South African society seriously.

The current touring party hold the best fast-bowling quartet in world cricket. An attack of Steyn, Ntini, Morkel, and Nel may well lack the subtleties of variety but will cause a myriad of problems for anxious English batters.

Missing from the squad is the mixed-race swing-bowler Charl Langeveldt, who quit international cricket because of so-called political interference.

For many, the encouragement of black cricketers is political interference at its worse.

Yet there are two important points that have to be considered before passing judgement.

The first is that the issue of skin colour has always featured in the selection of South African sides. I refer not just to the apartheid years when whites were prohibited to mix socially with blacks, but to the very early days of South African cricket.

Africans have played the sport for as long as whites have. The formation of the first clubs, competitions, leagues, and regional associations were at about the same time as for whites.

By the 1890s the Eastern Cape, Kimberley, and Cape Town had become strongholds for black cricket, and the modern Free State, Natal, Basutoland (Lesotho), and Bulawayo in Rhodesia had witnessed it being played.

Occasional contests took place against white sides, though inter-racial matches were irregular and when held usually commemorated occasions such as Christmas Day and Empire Day.

Black communities have provided a number of exceptional cricketers. Nathaniel Cyril Umhalla captained the successful Champion Cricket Club in their famous victory over (white) Alberts in 1883. A newspaper report in 1889 described him as among the best players around.

A combined Malay XI was considered strong enough to take on the second English team to visit South Africa in 1891/92. Though the Malays lost by ten wickets, "Krom" Hendricks took four for 50 in 25 overs and L. Samoodien hit 55, one of only two South Africans to score 50 against the tourists all summer.

Hendricks, described by English Test players George Rowe and Bonnor Middleton as one of the fastest bowlers they had witnessed, was included in the 1894 South African team to tour England. Despite a number of withdrawals, his selection was vetoed as a result of “the greatest pressure by those in high authority in the Cape Colony”.

C.J. Nicholls once earned ten gold half-sovereigns for bowling to the 1905-06 MCC side. In his book of the tour, Pelham Warner described how, at practice, Nicholls, “a young Malay with a fast left-hand action hit my middle stump nearly every other ball”.

During the sinister apartheid years, black cricketers such as Basil D’Oliveira had to seek their cricketing fortunes in England. He was followed by others into the Lancashire Leagues.

Goolam Abed played in the leagues over three decades, and twice (1970 and 1972) won the Frank Worrell Trophy for being the leading run scorer. Cecil Abrahams’s league career spanned 15 years (1961-75) for three teams. Other players included Sedick Conrad, Des February, Rusddi Magiet, "Coetie" Neethling, and Owen Williams, each holding their own with both bat and ball.

It is, of course, difficult to draw direct comparisons between players not allowed to compete against each other, though the Lancashire Leagues allow for some assessments.

The white fast-bowler Pat Trimborn, for example, was selected for the 1970 tour to England; Dik Abed, who was the professional at Enfield between 1967 and 1976, was not. The black South African finished second overall in the Lancashire League bowling averages for 1969, Trimborn sixth.

These comparisons don’t, of course, take into account that Abed’s coaching came from the streets, Trimborn’s from the well-resourced white schools.

The second point when considering targets is emphasised by historian Krish Reddy, who points out that black cricketers are only given preference over their white counterparts if they are of equal ability.

This seems a small measure in order to re-balance over 100 years of injustice in which ability served a long way behind a white skin in the selection of South African sides.