Opinionista Yanga Sibembe 14 August 2019

Out: The Proteas stars who kindled my romance with cricket

The retirement of Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla marks the end of an era for the Proteas, in my eyes at least.

Last week was an emotional one for South African cricket fans and the cricketing community in general. In the space of three days, two legends of the game announced their retirement.

Dale Steyn announced he was stepping away from Test cricket, while Hashim Amla brought the curtain down on a stellar international career. For a die-hard cricket supporter as myself, it symbolised the end of a very personal era and connection to a generation of Proteas players.

Retired Proteas stars Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla.

The beginning

I’m 11 years old, living in the township of Lamontville, south of Durban. Everyone around me is football crazy; so am I. We play it at school, at home, in the living room (where we’re likely to get smacked after breaking a vase; it doesn’t stop us though). We’re always kicking something. On days where our feet are sore from kicking and running, we drag bins into the street, grab flat planks to use as makeshift bats and tennis balls to use as cricket balls. And we play.

Until we get bored or lose the tennis ball. Then it’s back to football.

As one can imagine, watching cricket in that environment was never a thing. Then, one day an uncle of mine came home with an actual cricket ball. A rock-hard, maroon ball, with Allan Donald’s signature to boot. I had seen a ball like that a few times on TV. But I’d never held it.

It’s safe to say that ball planted the seed that would eventually blossom to the gigantic baobab tree which is my love and passion for the game of cricket. When I left my grandmother’s house in Lamontville, to live with my mother in Johannesburg, I lost my beloved red ball with the Allan Donald autograph. But I didn’t lose what it had sewn within me.

The Protea blooms

In high school, I began watching more and more cricket. This on top of football, which had long been my staple diet. I used to hog the TV, watching a Test or One Day International (ODI) match the whole day. To the irritation of my mother. Eventually though, after I had imparted the little knowledge I had of the game to her, she started watching matches with me. Those matches became our bonding sessions.

One of those matches was the now historic battle between South Africa and Australia that took place at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on 12 March 2006.

My knowledge of the game of cricket at the time ranged from minimal to zero. However, the excitement that emanated from within the country in the aftermath of that game told me that something significant had happened.

I would later find out the significance – the first time that a team (Australia) had scored 400 or more runs in an ODI and the first time a team (South Africa) had successfully chased down 400 or more runs in an ODI, all in one breath.

A year on from that historic match my knowledge of the gentleman’s game had grown exponentially. I knew fancy jargon like leg-before-wicket, spin, seam, yorker and cover-drive. I was very much a scholar of the game. Just in time for 2007 Cricket World Cup too.

I’ll admit, I don’t remember a great deal from that World Cup. Except for a couple of stand-out incidents (in my eyes at least). I remember the tragic death of the Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, I remember Herschel Gibbs’ six sixes in one over versus the Netherlands, Matthew Hayden’s batting master-class throughout the tournament, and of course that South Africa didn’t win the World Cup (again).

However, I can say without a doubt that it was during that edition of the World Cup that I fell head over heels with cricket.

The South African team that represented us consisted of some of my favourite cricketers to date, including one man whom I consider to be the greatest cricketer of all time – Jacques Kallis. Yes, Sachin Tendulkar was a marvel to watch as a batsman; so was Muttiah Muralitharan as a bowler. However, Kallis stands hands and shoulders above his peers as a complete cricketer.

Other than Kallis, that team had Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock, Graeme Smith, Herschel Gibbs, Mark Boucher, Andre Nel and AB de Villiers. It was just missing the recently retired trio of JP Duminy, Dale “Phalaborwa Express” Steyn and Hashim Amla – whom I like to call Rubber Wrists.

It is this group of players that I associate the most with my relationship with cricket. And the fact that all are now no longer part of the national set-up has given me a strange feeling. I grew up with them, they became equivalent to a childhood toy enshrined in sentimentality.

I see them as the golden generation of cricket in South Africa, and it pains me that they all went out having not won a single World Cup.

Looking to the future

The current crop of players doesn’t inspire the same confidence or hope in me, the recently concluded 2019 World Cup being a case in point. But to be fair, the squad is relatively young and inexperienced. There is massive room for improvement going forward. Kagiso Rabada is one of the best bowlers in the world, Rassie van der Dussen was a star for the Proteas in a miserable World Cup campaign, Andile Phehlukwayo has the potential to become a great all-rounder and Quinton de Kock is a born leader.

Cricket South Africa also recently announced a structural overhaul in how the Proteas are managed, more murky and muddy waters for me as an avid supporter of SA cricket. However, if it is a change that will improve the Proteas and ensure that the current generation can bring a World Cup home, I’m happy to embrace it.

If it is a matter of just reinventing the wheel, it’s going to be a long rest of my life as a Proteas supporter. Time will tell.

In the interim, as I find myself transitioning into another phase of my life, I am hoping that in another 15 years I will look back and reminisce about memories that I associate with this new generation of Proteas. DM

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