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Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

When Wayne Parnell had his turn at opening the Protea’s batting in the final ODI against New Zealand, instead of appreciating the talents of this young cricketer and the ingenuity of the team’s choices, some commentators thought it fitting to celebrate the fact two Muslims were at the crease for South Africa. I wish we could keep religion out of sport, and everything else. And I mean, everything else.

With the series already in the bag, Proteas’ management showed some creativity in tweaking the batting order to allow aspiring all-rounder Parnell his big chance. Yet again, as on innumerable occasions, religion and sport butted heads.

From the Olympic feats of Eric Liddle and Harold Abrahams at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, which inspired the timeless Chariots of Fire, to Michael Jones’ refusal to play for the All Blacks in the 1991 Sunday World Cup semifinal, religion has meddled in sport too many times. Fortunately, the advent of professionalism (no play – no pay) has significantly reduced the times the Sabbath, or other religious hurdles, have interfered with my weekend sportathon watching. So it was with dismay that I noted the religious beliefs of two international sportsmen were evoking social commentary – rather than their sporting talents.

Parnell’s opening partner was Hashim Amla, who can only be described as a marvel to watch. The way he effortlessly carves up bowling attacks with sublime ease is a joyous pleasure for all Protea fans and sort of a bitter-sweet experience for opposing fans. But things weren’t always so peachy for the Durbanite of Indian descent. Initially, and incorrectly, regarded as token selection on the basis of colour, his foray into international cricket rapidly turned into a baptism by fire.

Soon after being picked to tour India, he was duly dropped after a run of poor scores against England in 2004. He returned to domestic cricket to address his perceived technique deficiency that was sometimes reminiscent of a Zulu in stick-fight. However, it wasn’t long before he was again suited in Protea colours returning a better and stronger–minded cricketer who continues to break South African and ICC batting records. His consistent form over the last seven years have converted all critics.

Amla’s fast-maturing pedigree is likely to earn him acknowledgement as one of the finest cricketers of all time. Currently, he is the top-ranked batsman in the ICC’s ODI rankings, ahead of 2nd placed teammate and captain AB de Villiers. As an opener he is a master manipulator of bowling attacks, scoring at strike-rates that compare favourably with prodigious destroyers of leather like Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist. The difference being that Amla accrues his 50’s and 100’s almost surreptitiously, with a style and grace that belie his aggressive batting nature.

Yet for all his success and match-winning feats for the Proteas, there is one aspect of Amla’s role in the team that irks me. A lot. As a devout Muslim, Amla insists on not wearing the official team’s sponsor logo on any of his team kit, given the religion’s strict stance against the consumption of alcohol. Team management and sponsors set a dangerous precedent by allowing Amla to get away with this rebuttal of the team sponsor on the grounds of his religious beliefs. Wearing a Castle logo on his chest is no more of a violation of his religious beliefs than Riaad Moosa standing in a bar delivering comedic prose. There’s a marked difference in donning a team sponsor’s logo and being pictured getting inebriated on the said beverage. Wearing an alcoholic beverage’s logo doesn’t make you a drinker – as little as standing in a garage makes you a car or going to church makes you a Christian.

At the time the decision was announced, I was ambivalent towards the concession. In fact, I was a little sympathetic to a man who was standing up for his convictions. But now with a second Muslim in the team, the situation is a little different and set me thinking. In Wayne Parnell, the Proteas have a talented player who seems earmarked for stardom on the global stage. And as can be found in many cases of early success, his career could have had a premature end as his fondness for late nights and hard living earned him media coverage for all the wrong reasons and even dropped from his local franchise line-up. But in June 2011, following some kind of personal introspection, Parnell announced his conversion to Islam and with it, a life less drunk.

For whatever reason, and luckily for SAB Miller, Parnell did not refuse to wear the Castle logo like Hashim Amla. But imagine for a moment he did. And imagine for a moment the remaining members of the team all converted to Islam and refused to wear the logo. The result would be that Castle lager would drop Cricket South Africa faster than you could say “return on investment”.

For a sport now mired in deep and troubling turmoil with finances nearing Greek government proportions, CSA should have rather insisted that religion be confined to the mosque and cricket to the playing field. And with CSA struggling for sponsors, the knock-on effect would be that our players would soon be seeking employers with pockets like the various T20 tournaments around the world instead of representing their country for a pittance. Agreed, it’s an unlikely hypothetical scenario, but one that needs illustrating in the context of religious meddling in sport. Besides, if Amla felt so strongly about his faith, why is he foregoing Friday prayers in favour of cricket?

Now with Parnell’s career back on track as touring member of the Proteas squad, he and Hashim Amla are two Muslims in a melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity called the Proteas. But to celebrate this fact is to be discriminatory toward other religions and even atheists. Religion has no place in sport and we should be praising players for their talents rather than their beliefs. If, however, we were to comment on something other than skills and accomplishments, we should rather be lauding the fact our highly capable team fielded five players of colour on Saturday, and that profoundly, no-one even bothered to comment on the fact. DM


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