Ngidi is the accidental hero in Proteas’ new dawn

Ngidi is the accidental hero in Proteas’ new dawn
Lungi Ngidi has become the accidental hero who started a much-needed conversation in cricket. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze / AFP/Getty Images)

Lungi Ngidi, the accidental hero in a transformation revolution in South African cricket, came away from last week’s ‘Culture Camp’ in a reflective mood during turbulent times for the sport.

While the hierarchy of Cricket South Africa (CSA) fights over power and money, bringing the entire professional structure of the sport close to collapse, the people that really matter were doing their best to heal divisions.

The Proteas men’s players, the flagship “brand” and the single biggest factor when it comes to television rights negotiations, and therefore income for CSA, spent several constructive days at the Skukuza Camp in the Kruger Park, plotting a better way forward.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which rose out of the tragic murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, accelerated the process. The images of Floyd begging for mercy as a police officer blocked his airway with a knee on his neck, started a movement that has gone far beyond America’s borders and has widened into sport.

BLM has sparked intense debate and scrutiny of South African cricket’s own past. While a camp for SA’s elite male players had been planned prior to recent BLM related events, the scope and focus of the gathering shifted in the wake of what had happened.

For every moving account of discrimination in cricket, there have been opportunists pouncing on the movement to push agendas. Cutting through the jungle of soundbites and social media hysteria, and the obvious mistakes and injustices, is part of the process the players have started to go through.

“We moved from addressing issues to addressing people, from contention to conversation,” Proteas team manager Khomotso Volvo Masubelele said.

“It highlighted the need for education and showed that no matter what level a player enters the team environment, there is importance in touching base with everyone and having awareness of what it means for them to be Proteas. The camp also highlighted the importance of listening, understanding and acknowledging the experiences of others and through that, allowed the group to move into a space where it could concentrate on the performance model that the team feels they are a part of.

“It is a model that they can own and be proud to have formulated something that can outlive them and be there for future generations of Proteas.”

Ngidi became the accidental hero that started a conversation

Ngidi, whose straightforward desire for him and his colleagues to have a dialogue about BLM, started a raging fire. He was asked about it in an online press conference on 6 July 2020, and the erudite fast bowler gave a considered, but heartfelt answer.

“As a nation as well, we have a past that is very difficult because of racial discrimination,” Ngidi said. “So, it’s definitely something we will be addressing as a team and if we are not, it’s something I will bring up. It’s something that we need to take very seriously and, like the rest of the world is doing, make a stand.”

Sensible, reasoned and mature. But for some former Proteas players such as Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar, it was too much. They felt that Ngidi’s answer was some sort of rallying cry against farmers and white people. Of course it wasn’t, but it sparked a social media meltdown.

Meanwhile, in the real world, CSA was dealing with the fallout as former players and coaches came forward with stories of discrimination at both national and provincial level.

The experiences ranged from the truly heart-breaking, such as Makhaya Ntini’s feeling of isolation in the Proteas set-up, to those of astounding opportunism. Thami Tsolekile’s attempt to link his sordid match-fixing past and subsequent 12-year suspension to a racially motivated plot against him was the low point.

Those injustices, real and perceived, will be heard by CSA’s newly established Cricket for Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN) project. Respected lawyer Dumisa Ntsebeza will take up the role of CSA’s transformation ombudsman in that process.

Honesty and discomfort form part of the process 

But at a different level, the Proteas players had to clear the air and move forward if they hope to become a successful team again. Which is why the Kruger Park Culture Camp was so vital. And, early reaction is that it achieved what CSA hoped it would – a better understanding of race, transformation and culture.

“It was very important for this camp to happen,” Ngidi said in a recorded message distributed by CSA. “Most of the players and management felt like we had to address a few issues, and that was the outcome of the camp. There are a lot of young guys in the team now, and we had to pretty much form our own identity.

“Having left there, I felt we had discussed and reached the objectives of the camp. I felt happy leaving as a player, I understood everything a lot better. Everyone being on the same page puts us in a good position moving forward. A lot of things have been addressed. These shouldn’t be things that affect our performance on the field.

“The discussions surrounding transformation and race around the team environment were very uncomfortable in that moment obviously, but it was something that needed to be done.

“A lot of guys shared their stories and how they felt from the different racial groups. You understand how people feel and with transformation, we also understand that it doesn’t come from the players, it comes from the system and that a lot of people needed to understand why it’s in place and having these conversations and helping people understand why certain things are the way that they are, I feel, put a lot more people in a position of understanding.

“We all know that you play for South Africa on merit and not because of the colour of your skin. I think the greatest thing was helping everyone understand why. I feel like sometimes people are scared or embarrassed to ask, so being able to speak out in that environment really cleared up a lot of grey areas for a lot of people.”

The camp addressed ways of dealing with questions of transformation and culture, and also about how they could move forward as a team in the cutthroat world of international sport.

“With the conversation around BLM, I think the most important thing is it’s opened communication and helped a lot of people understand (where others were coming from),” Ngidi said.

“The main thing that the BLM conversation within South Africa about race, transformation and equality, is that it highlights a lot of things that need to be addressed. And for anyone who didn’t understand, guys were willing to communicate and explain, so I think it has definitely helped within the team. The main thing is helping people be able to speak about issues that they find uncomfortable.

“For rules of engagement, I feel that people should be allowed to be themselves without fear of being judged and for me, that’s because I know I play my best cricket when I’m being myself. If I can’t be myself, I don’t feel like I’m giving 100% of who I am and what I can do.

“So, for me that was one of the most important things – to be able to come into an environment and not feel like you have to conform to a certain way in order to fit in. We accept everyone the way they are, and everyone is different, which is what makes the team so great and the environment so great.

“The updated values system is very relevant to our country and the type of team that we want to build. Belonging – everyone  needs to feel welcome, empathy and respect – once you understand someone a lot better, you can relate and talk and have open discussions [with them], so these new values systems are very important and in the end, we felt that these are what we are going to use moving forward.

“With South Africa being such a diverse nation, we actually found that it’s one of our strengths and why we’re such a resilient team.”

There was also some cricket discussed although it is as unlikely that the team has discovered all the secrets to winning matches as it has to finding all the answers to transformation and race.

But it was a start. It was the beginning of something, which hopefully will prove to be a watershed moment in years to come. Dialogue and honesty are never a bad thing, no matter how uncomfortable they may be at first.

Ngidi and his teammates have shown the type of leadership that wouldn’t go amiss in CSA’s boardroom. Not for the first time, South Africa’s sports people are thriving in spite of their leadership, and not as a result of it. DM


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