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BOOK REVIEW

Kingsmead by Ashwin Desai — Of Timeless Tests and a book of vital significance

Kingsmead by Ashwin Desai — Of Timeless Tests and a book of vital significance
Book cover: 'Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead' by Ashwin Desai. (Photo: Supplied)

For me, this book was a Christmas cracker. It must rank as the most literary book on cricket in South Africa, all the while picking at your mind like the great seam bowlers of yore.

“May there be cricket always, In the Long Room in the Sky”Brian Levison, Timeless Test

On the afternoon of 9 December 2023, I was at Kingsmead Cricket Ground. The stadium was a hive of activity as television crews and ground staff prepared for a T20 game the next day. It was highly anticipated, as India were going to take on the Proteas.

I took the lift to the President’s Lounge to attend the launch of Ashwin Desai’s Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead.

What a backdrop to a book launch; the ground looked splendid. Memories flashed. So many times, I had come to this ground. But I never had the chance to look at it from the vantage point of the upper tier when there was hardly anyone about.

The stillness flooded the banks of my memory. The matches, the tension, the hope that the Proteas would prevail in the 2003 World Cup. That Jonty Rhodes six! One thinks of Eduardo Gaelano’s words: “Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than the stands bereft of people.”

The President’s Lounge began to fill up. People I recognised from photographs began to drift in. Yacoob Omar the Natal batsman. Grayson Heath, an old stalwart of the game.

While looking over the Kingsmead turf in schoolboy wonder, I saw a figure walking up to the wicket. Slowly, with a slight limp, but erect. He wore dark glasses and black pants. He then made his way off the field and headed towards the change rooms. I wondered who that was. And then at the launch I realised he was none other than Michael John Procter. And there he was in the book. As a young man standing alongside Barry Richards. And me next to the man who gave me so much joy.

The event unfolded and like an Allan Donald innings was soon over. I had my book and was determined to read it over the Christmas break.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Of Fathers, Sons and Timeless Tests: Wicket Tales from Kingsmead

I opened the first page of Desai’s book. The opening stand was enthralling. The personal, the ability to move beyond the boundary and then back to the field of play, the allusion to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude left me hugely impressed.

For the book is as artful as a Shane Warne over. One has only to glance at the contents page to be captivated by the most literary turns of phrase: Remembrance of Things Present (Chapter 1); Wounded Attachments (Chapter 2); Spinning into the Present ( Chapter 13).

SA cricket history

Indeed, it must rank as the most literary book on cricket in South Africa, with quotes on cricket by Dryden, JM Coetzee and the intertextual reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude which runs like a seam throughout the book, all the while picking at your mind like the great seam bowlers of yore.

The book chases a seemingly impossible target: to spin a yarn of a divided cricket history of black and white cricket by looking at one hundred years of cricket at Kingsmead, where for almost 75 of those years, black cricketers were forced to play on “the outfields”.

As if this was not difficult enough, Desai attempts to stitch this history together by studying the lives of some of South Africa’s most famous cricketing father-and-son partnerships — Peter and Shaun Pollock, Dudley and Dave Nourse, to name but a few. 

This is a stroke of genius because the most important father-son relationship in the book is that of the author and his father which allows the author to explore the different manifestations of apartheid in cricket, even at the level of spectators.

Indeed, the earliest cricket memory Ashwin Desai has of Kingsmead is of his father, a school principal, who was manhandled by white spectators and thrown across a fence demarcated for “non-whites”. That Ashwin Desai penned one of the greatest love letters to Kingsmead and cricket in SA despite these “bouncers” is as astonishing as Barry Richards’ innings on the opening morning of the Test against Australia in 1970 that Desai so eloquently evokes.

Forgotten story of Toplan Parsuramen

This is not the only “wounded attachment” in the book. For me, the one that broadened my knowledge of the game was the story of one Toplan Parsuramen, a name I had never heard before.

“Parsu was a man who grew up in the immediate shadow of Kingsmead.” This is because his father, Topsy Parsuramen was the legendary groundsman at Kingsmead. And yet his son Toplan could never play on the wickets his father spent his whole life laying and perfecting.

The story is all the more tragic because Toplan Parsuramen is described by Desai as one of the greatest spinners cricket lovers never got to see. Apartheid condemned him to no more than a net bowler for the white players at Kingsmead. This was a man who bowled to the likes of Roy Maclean,Hugh Tayfield and Dennis Dyer. Desai sardonically remarks that “Dyer did not have a long career in the Test team… If you had Parsu as your net bowler, it might introduce some trepidation”.

This is no flight of fancy on the part of Desai because the author recounts how Parsu bowled Basil d’Oliveira for one in an exhibition match at Curries Fountain.

But to think I knew the poet Chris Mann for almost 15 years, but never knew his father was the Springbok spin bowler Tufty Mann. The story of Tufty Mann will bring a tear to your eye. As will the chapter on Baboo Ebrahim, yet another black cricketer denied his rightful place in South African cricketing folklore by apartheid.

Across the divides

Other highlights in the book are the chapters on the Timeless Test at Kingsmead, and the special place accorded to Barry Richards in the book. And the way Desai is able to compare white players in the Springbok side with black cricketers denied a place in the Springbok side through apartheid by painstaking archival research of the few occasions when these players found themselves on the same field.

Not to mention the pages dedicated to that immortal partnership between Barry Richards (140) and Graeme Pollock (274) that lives on in the scorecards of memory.

At a time when histories are still ghettoised and apartheid’s divided wickets simply replicated in a game of one-upmanship, Desai has done something courageous. He has written a history of Kingsmead that transcends boundaries, cajoling us to emerge from a hundred years of isolation so that we can build a new innings. 

As I was about to leave Kingsmead after the book launch, I went one last time and stood in the empty grandstand and once more thought of Eduardo Gaelano’s words: “Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen”.

And as I walked out, I thought of the first match my father took me to at Kingsmead. A Datsun Shield 50-over match. And how Vince van der Bijl, Kenny Cooper and Mike Procter all but destroyed the Transvaal “Mean Machine” batting line-up.

And how Clive Rice slowly but surely rebuilt that Transvaal innings over the next three hours to some semblance of respectability. I could not help but think as I drove through the streets of Durban on my way back to Pietermaritzburg: how South Africa needs a “mean machine” right now after the pitch laid by the ANC threatens to destroy the game.

For me, this book was a Christmas cracker. A beautiful book; from the achingly stunning front cover, a painting by ex-WP wicket-keeper Richie Ryall; to the evocative black-and-white and grainy colour photographs of yesteryear; to the sensitive portrayal of the heartache of black cricketers; to the lyrical quotes; to the highs and the lows of 100 years of cricket at Kingsmead — “a homage to those cricketers whose sublime, gladiatorial feats at the wicket stirred up in boys like me heartfelt gasps and cheers”.

Unlike the recent Test match at Newlands, a book like this — written by an academic with the hand of a novelist and the heart of a cricket lover — not only comes around once in a hundred years but will be savoured for a century. DM

Darryl Earl David is is an Afrikaans lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and author of 101 Country Churches of SA; A Platteland Pilgrimage and BookBedonnerd: The Road to Elsewhere.

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