Cricket South Africa plays with a straight bat, but that won’t stop the claims of race, politics and personal relationships from getting on the front pages.
There’s ritual to the resignation (or sacking) of a sports coach that’s pretty standard, no matter which country, no matter which sport. There’s the whispering campaign that it’s imminent, which is confirmed by the lack of any noise coming from the team management. Then it actually happens, and there’s silence for an hour, it starts to leak, and by the next morning the story’s moved from the back page to the front. Once there, there are a lot more column centimetres to fill, and as sports politics sells papers more than virtually anything else, the urge to slap “exclusive” on the front is massive.
All of this explains why so many papers had the “Why Mickey quit” headline on Wednesday morning, and why so many of those stories were different. Now Cricket SA has come out, with Arthur himself in attendance, to say they were all wrong. CSA CEO Gerald Majola put his hand on his heart and told us this was all about the direction of the team itself, the fact that it’s “plateued” recently, and that other teams have caught up to where we were when we beat Australia in that heady summer of 2008.
He may well be telling the truth. The fact that Arthur, who was there, didn’t contradict him, would seem to endorse this. Of course, being the professional cynics we are, it may also have something to do with his settlement agreement. It’s probably not as large as Jacob Maroga would have liked his to be, but presumably he’ll not be calling friends for rent money.
But Arthur would have something to gain from hinting, or letting slip, or telling someone off-the-record that transformation was an issue. Also, the press conference (in East London of all places) wasn’t that tightly controlled. People were told no one-on-ones, but that was quickly broken and Arthur himself did one of those. His successor, Corrie van Zyl, was having a cup of tea with the journalists still in the room when he was asked for a few minutes as well. Graeme Smith sat next to Arthur and there was no sign of any tension in their body language. So it doesn’t seem at this stage as if this was one of those highly choreographed press conferences where everyone has to stay on the same message to protect the lie.
Arthur would have a gained a lot of support from the “excellence is all that matters crowd” if he had let slip that politics was involved. However, he strikes us as a fairly decent bloke so perhaps he knows the country and its cricket doesn’t need that whole argument to rise again. Of course, South African journalists (and those from Britain’s Independent) know it’ll sell more papers than the truth, and that’s possibly one of the reasons it was advanced as the real cause of him going.
The truth is, with the cricketing demise of “that incredible man” Makhaya Ntini, our cupboard of black cricketers is embarrassingly bare. That’s the real scandal here. In 1994 a man called Devon Malcolm took nine of our wickets for just 57 runs. It was at The Oval during our first tour of England since Basil D’Olivera. Back then it was the ninth-best bowling attack ever. He was the blackest man on the field then, and if he played against us now, he still would be. The only thing that happened was that Ntini came on the scene, was brilliant for a good whack of time, and has now retired. Where is his replacement? No one knows.
What’s always made cricket different to other sports on the transformation issue is statistics. Who makes a better striker or flyhalf is a matter of opinion. But in cricket you get to back that up with sheer numbers – wickets taken and runs scored. And thus the whole problem with our current system is laid completely bare. What makes this heartbreaking is that our cricket authorities have thrown millions at the game, making it accessible to black people, ensuring they could get a good dose of hero worship from a young age by putting it on terrestrial telly. The franchises, or provinces as they used to be known, had quotas and then after a long democratic process in which non-white players had substantial input, decided they weren’t necessary. Maybe that was right, maybe wrong, but either way, there’s a shortage of quality black cricketers at the moment.
Somewhere something has gone badly wrong. And it’s difficult to know where, or who is to blame. Perhaps too much pressure is put on black youngsters to get into the first team too quickly, perhaps when they later hit their teens, there are other attractions. Cricket is one of those sports where it takes three generations of a family being in the middle class for a son to feel financially secure enough and interested enough to make cricket his life’s ambition.
The sacking (and we know for sure it’s a sacking this time) of Mike Proctor and the selection panel indicates change is coming. Majola’s himself is taking over as convenor and there’s been an assurance that at least one person from the old panel will stay on. That would seem to chime nicely with the claim that this is all really about the team having stagnated. But it’s hard to see how any major change can be effected quickly. You can’t just chuck out everything, and then destabilise the current team, which in cricketing terms happens to be fairly well balanced. Taking ultimate responsibility himself might demonstrate that Majola and his top brass need to think deeply about what’s gone wrong with the entire process of getting black African players out on the field for their country. Who knows, maybe he actually comes up with something.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an EWN reporter)