Reporter’s notebook: Tsotsobe’s maddening fall from grace

By Antoinette Muller 25 April 2017

This week, Lonwabo Tsotsobe became the seventh player to be named in Cricket South Africa’s ongoing investigation into a match-fixing saga that rocked the 2015 T20 domestic competition. Once upon a time, he had the world at his feet. How did it all go so wrong? By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

A few years ago, Lonwabo Tsotsobe had the world at his feet. A cunning southpaw who was ranked number one in the world in one-day cricket, Tsotsobe had all the makings of becoming a legend. Now, he’s yet another casualty in the fixing saga that has, so far, seen seven players (including Tsotsobe) banned.

Feeling any sort of sympathy for those who transgress the boundaries of what is “good and moral” in sport is frowned upon. Fixing or even contriving to do so, particularly in cricket, is universally viewed as the worst sin a player can commit. We say that we cannot excuse players who step over these boundaries because they should know better. But few ever stop and ask why these players do it? Most simply assume a wayward moral compass or greed. In some cases, that might be true, but as with everything in life, things aren’t always that simple. Tsotsobe’s contrived situation is a reminder of that.

Tsotsobe was always impeccably polite, friendly, professional with almost a childlike innocence about him. He always seemed as if he enjoyed being around the team and enjoyed the attention that came with it. His Instagram feed has often looked more like an exhibit in flash rather than that of a professional cricketer: A mix of fancy cars, snazzy suits and family blends with hints of a professional career in sport. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. Athletes can do what they like with their personal social media profiles, but it all forms part of the bigger picture of how Tsotsobe fell so far.

A 1978 study by Carol Dweck asked the question just how corrosive constantly being told how talented you are can be. The study gave over 300 students, aged 11-12, a questionnaire probing them on whether they buy into the “talent myth” – ie, whether success is set in genetic stone. They were lumped into two groups: a fixed and a growth mindset. The former would quickly blame their failures on their perceived lack of abilities, despite having had a string of unbroken successes while the growth mindset group did not blame anything and didn’t even consider themselves to be failing.

This study – and other elements that contribute to success – is examined in the book Bounce written by sports psychologist Matthew Syed. The book looks at nature vs nurture in sport. It examines whether those who go on to achieve excellence in the sporting field were genetically predisposed to this excellence.

The book and Dweck’s study brings us back to Tsotsobe. As a left-hand bowler, he is predisposed to being lumped in the “gifted” category and was, probably, told about just how talented he is. Left-arm bowlers are rare and an asset to teams because of their rarity. That does not exclude them from having to work hard to achieve greatness but Syed’s book and Dweck’s study hypothesis that if athletes are constantly told just how great they are, and they buy into this hype, they might think it exonerates them from having to put in the hard yards.

A lasting memory of Tostsobe is one of him sprawled out on a training ground within reach of the cooler box, but slightly awkwardly positioned so that getting a drink would require shifting a bit. A meter or so away was one of the team’s management staff. Complete with a please and thank you, he requested the standing person to walk over and hand him a drink.  The person in question laughed and obliged.

Ordinarily, such an incident would not even register. But for a guy who was rumoured not to have the best work ethic, it stuck. In retrospect, it seems to be a microcosm of what will now come to define Ttostobe’s career: somebody who wanted to do things the easy way.

Even before he was dragged into this whole sordid saga, a number of sources suggested that the bowler was in serious financial trouble. Yet, despite being offered aid, he refused – he even went into hiding to try and escape this. It is thus not unrealistic to assume that when he was offered the opportunity to make a quick buck that would get him out trouble, he saw it as the easy way out without even considering the consequences. And, even if he did consider the possible consequences, perhaps like everything else, he thought he might find an easy way out when it all came crashing down.

But there is another intriguing angle to this tangled web. Tsotsobe has a relatively close relationship with Fikile Mbalula. He was unashamedly partisan during last year’s election campaign and attended the ANC’s manifesto launch in the Eastern Cape, even booking himself a seat in the presidential suite. Again, there is nothing wrong with this and, who knows, perhaps he just liked the flash that went along with it. However, if the investigation turns criminal – and there is a chance that it might – Mbalula might have to provide resources to Cricket South Africa to further investigate. Could their relationship become a conflict of interest? Only time will tell.

What is most maddening and saddening about Tsotsobe’s fall from grace is that unlike some of the other players who have been implicated, he had seemingly little reason to feel aggrieved or let down by the system. It is a maddeningly frustrating tale of a player who squandered opportunities and a sad story of a human being who lost his way.

He loved being good at cricket, but perhaps he just didn’t love cricket. Such is the burden of the talent myth and the victims it can claim. DM

Photo: Lonwabo Tsotsobe of South Africa celebrates a wicket with teammates Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix