A self-inflicted wound. South Africa’s cricket woes reflect a malaise in its approach to race, and indeed to patriotism.

8 November 2021 By Paul Martin

South African cricketers are masters of the self-inflicted wound.  Not just the players, but also the administrators.

In the current T20 World Cup they defeated England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, only losing, albeit narrowly, to Australia — after abject batting and very good bowling — at the start of the tournament.  Talking of self-inflicted wounds, remember when the South Africans found themselves denied a place in the final by a crazy run-out against the Aussies in Birmingham at the 1999 50-over World Cup.  Or miscounting the need for a single run to knock themselves out of another World Cup, in their own territory.  And so on.

This time, another debacle. The website cricinfo wittily headlined its story “Net Curtains” — as the South Africans failed to progress to the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup because of a slower run-rate than Australia. That’s being attributed to South Africa’s slow run-chase towards a meagre 87 scored by Bangladesh — compared to a far faster run-chase effort against the same weak opponents by Australia.

Arguably the world’s most consistent winners in T20s over the last decade, South Africa have never won a T20 or a 50-Overs World Cup. They’ve been labelled ‘chokers’ — unkind but undeniably accurate.

And of course their most talented and accomplished cricketers have not even been playing in the last three World Cups.  This time, ex-captain Faf Du Plessis (fresh from brilliant performances in the world-leading Indian International Professional League); AB De Villers, world record-holder for the fastest centuries in the short-form international game; highly-valued all-rounder Chris Morris; and former world number one T20 spin-bowler Imran Tahir, were either not selected or did not make themselves available.

Even more daunting was the attitude of the South African cricket authorities.  Embroiled as they have been for years in turbulence from mismanagement and government intervention, they had the brainwave after the first match of this tournament to order all the players to ‘take the knee’ — even though that has never been compulsory and several leading countries had not done so in all the matches leading up to the T20 World Cup.   All the South African players showed respect for the anti-racism theme; it was just that a few chose different methods to show it, rather than bend down on a knee and/or raise a fist.   The instruction came hours before the second match, and after a long bus-ride to the ground South Africa’s star batsman and accomplished wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock said he would not do it. 

He later explained he did not like being ordered to choose how to show his rejection of racism, and felt the order was an infringement of personal freedom.   It’s to the credit of the players and the wise words of captain Themba Bavuma that the team went on to win that match, and with the about-turn and resumption of de Kock (who, unsurprisingly, never recovered his blistering form of earlier this year) South Africa won the next four.

Former star wicket-keeper-batsman Mark Boucher took over as coach in late 2019. Yet South African cricket continued to be embroiled in drama — including most recently at the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings, where Boucher was named among those accused of racial discrimination in the past. He submitted a response, although he did not appear at the commission, and, like everyone else, awaits the ombudsman’s report at the end of the month which may include recommendations for the current set-up.

South African cricketers being instructed to take the knee almost derailed them at this tournament. “It has been tough,” Boucher said. “It’s been tough on this team. We are finding the headlines for the wrong reasons.”

Now that South Africa are returning home, to a busy summer that starts with a full series against India, Boucher hopes future headlines will be for the right reasons. “This team is in a very good space,” he added. “They are very strong and together and hopefully that is reflecting in our performances and hopefully people can come and see that for themselves when we are back home.”

These cricketing woes reflect an overall problem in South Africa’s body politics: how to deal with the legacy of the apartheid system. That, though, is another story. Suffice it to say: the current crop of cricketers are now in the disadvantaged category.

Or at least, that’s they way many of them see it. In turn, that could explain the apparently bizarre decisions by top players not to play in major world cup events, or even to be unavailable for the ultimate form of cricket: Test matches.

Playing in the Indian Professional League provides a far better income than fees from representing your country in any of the three formats. So could it be that some top players eschew their patriotism for a bigger bank balance?