Under-representation of non-white players in South African team triggers debate

Sandip G
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Kagiso Rabada is a genuine match-winner for South Africa. The SA XI for the first two Tests featured only four non-white players, including one black player.

Two days before the Boxing Day Test, members of the Johannesburg-based Black African Cricket Clubs met at the Wanderers to discuss their apprehension over the new Cricket South Africa (CSA) regime, headed by former skipper Graeme Smith and largely comprising white players, most of whom are ex-colleagues. Over-riding was a cynicism on the new dispensation's adherence to the transformation policies of the board, on the inclusion of non-white players, especially black Africans, in the team.

Though Smith allayed their distrust and emphasised his adherence to the transformation agenda, their doubts resurfaced after non-white players went under-represented — four, as opposed to the prescribed six, and one black African player instead of the mandated two — in the first two Tests of the England series, thereby reopening the meritocracy-versus-racial quota debate in the country's sporting landscape.

What is the sudden trigger for the debate?

Since the rule's inception in 2015, the debate has seldom abated. The immediate trigger was the under-representation of non-white players in the first two Tests. On both occasions, South Africa fielded only three non-whites (Keshav Maharaj, Vernon Philander and Zubayr Hamza) and a lone black African (Kagiso Rabada). The requirement is to accommodate six non-white players, but on an average over a course of 12 months. Though the numbers could be made up over this period, it’s the timing of the non-selection of prescribed number of non-white players, shortly after a regime change, that has escalated the cynicism.

Cricket South Africa is being headed by former skipper Graeme Smith.

There were two catalysts too. A: Faf du Plessis's press conference before the second Test in which he said that form, and not colour, decides the team. The idealism of Du Plessis words would have been perfect in most cricket-playing countries except his own. After all, sport is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy, the sporting field a place where background, colour, creed and class — at least of the social kind — are irrelevant. But in the context of South African sports, society and history, he could sound grossly insensitive. B: The skipper walked the talk, overlooking Temba Bavuma for Rassie van der Dussen.

Why was Van der Dussen preferred to Bavuma in the second Test?

Purely for cricketing reasons. Chiefly, Bavuma, the first black South African to score a Test hundred, has failed to make the best use of his opportunities. He has yet to add another century to his first against England four years ago. In the interim, he managed just 1,565 runs at 30, sprinkled with glimpses of promises like the 95 not out against Australia in Melbourne, but couldn't crack the code of consistency. In his last 12 innings, three times he got out without scoring and reaching double figures only five times with a best of 47 against Sri Lanka in Durban.

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 The skipper walked the talk, overlooking Temba Bavuma (with the bat in the picture) for Rassie van der Dussen. ( AP)

Secondly, the sole vacant slot in the line-up was an opener's after Aiden Markram sustained an injury. So the selectors went for debutant Pieter Malan, who turned out to be South Africa's top-scorer in the second innings. Van der Dussen, who was at the receiving end of scorn, couldn't be dislodged because he had scored a defiant 51 in the second innings in Centurion.

Is it an isolated incident?

Not quite. There have been several incidents wherein pigmentation of the skin had to be considered as much as cricketing logic. For instance, the inclusion of Philander in the 2015 World Cup semifinal at the expense of the in-form Kyle Abbott was attributed to the CSA meddling with the team's composition. Reportedly, the coach and captain wanted Abbott in the side. There are precedents too — it's one of the reasons representatives of Black clubs are apprehensive of Smith, who has spoken openly about the outside pressures that impacted negatively upon his captaincy. When he wanted to leave Makhaya Ntini out of what was effectively a World Cup quarterfinal against England in Barbados, he was able to do so only after a lengthy one-to-one meeting with the chief executive of South African cricket, Gerald Majola. Smith's predecessor Shaun Pollock had to drop the promising Jacques Rudolph to accommodate Justin Ontong upon the intervention of the late lawyer Percy Sonn.

Why is the quota system still relevant in South Africa?

Quotas (also known as affirmative action, positive discrimination, transformation) have been the means by which South African cricket has tried to re-balance decades of injustice. For more than 50 years, black athletes were prohibited from representing their national sides under the draconian white-minority rule. A recent United Nations survey showed that only eight per cent of South African schoolkids of non-white descent have access to sport. Moreover, the progress of black players in South Africa at all levels remains hampered by poverty and lack of facilities. And for all the initiatives, the sport is still dominated by whites. As many as 85 players have been blooded in since the end of white rule in 1994, but 57 of them, close to 66 per cent, have been whites, who constitute roughly eight per cent of the population. Only nine have been black South Africans, that’s nearly 10 per cent of the estimated 80 per cent of the population.

So to bridge the gap, the sports ministry believes, the quotas should be in place. In a country where there was a deliberate effort to suppress such talent, this was a necessity to counter decades of discrimination.

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Quotas have been the means by which South African cricket has tried to re-balance decades of injustice.

Why do some sections oppose it?

The critics say quotas go against the central tenet of professional sport, that an athlete be chosen on merit alone. They point to the exodus of white South African players to English counties.

None as larger-than-life as Kevin Pietersen, born to an English mother and Afrikaner father, who left his native South Africa for England in 2000, aged 19, because he felt his career was being hampered by post-Apartheid race quotas. So many others have done so before and after him.

There’s another argument too — that quota system stigmatises the players who come through it, even if they had climbed the rungs on talent and merit, that it insults them. It was possibly an aftermath of the blunt way in which the government tried to impose racial quotas on national teams in the 1990s and 2000s.

Take for instance, the non-whites in the current South Africa eleven — all of them have merited their spots. Zubayr Hamza is easily one of the most talented batsmen to come through the ranks, Keshav Maharaj is their best spinner (arguably the finest they have had since readmission), Philander is their most experienced pacer and Rabada arguably one of the finest pacers in the world. Still, black players carry the “quota player” tag. So the really talented non-whites, they argue, don't need quotas to earn their stripes.

How does it work in other sports?

In rugby, historically the white man’s sport, non-whites have to comprise nearly 50 per cent of the team. The transformation has been vigorous and smooth in the last decade — there have been times when non-whites have exceeded the stipulated numbers. When Rassie Erasmus took over the reins as coach, he was briefed to oversee the transformation process, lest it resulted in the withdrawal of government funds. And he did it creditably.

Perhaps the most powerful metaphor of South Africa’s transformation programme was their first black skipper, Siya Kolisi (a close friend of Faf du Plessis), lifting the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo.

Ironically, Kolisi sparked outrage last year when he said he did not believe the country's iconic former president Nelson Mandela would have backed quotas for the national team. “I would not want to be picked because of my skin colour because that surely would not be good for the team,” he said.

Football, the other big sport in the country, never needed it, because it was predominantly played by black Africans. In fact, their first eleven players in the 2010 World Cup opener had one player of white descent and none of Asian origin.

The current squad has three white players — goalkeeper Darren Keet, midfielder Dean Furman and striker Bradley Grobler.

Philander (R) is their most experienced pacer and Rabada arguably one of the finest pacers in the world.

A history of discontent

It is not the first time the colour of South African cricketers has triggered controversy.

The flashpoint: The South Africa eleven for the first two Tests featured only four non-white players including one black player—Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada. The norm is to average six non-whites (two African players) over the span of 12 months. Rabada was the only black African, as Lungi Ngidi is still recovering from a shoulder strain while Temba Bavuma was nursing a hip injury. Though he was fit for the second Test in Cape Town, he was overlooked as Rassie van der Dussen was in fine touch. Moreover, the only vacant slot was that of injured opener Aiden Markram. Bavuma is a middle-order batsman, so Pieter Malan was handed a debut.

Past instances: Several critics pin South Africa's semifinal exit in the 2015 World Cup to the quota system. Buckling to the pressure from CSA, South Africa picked Philander at the expense of the in-form Kyle Abbott. The latter was South Africa's most economical bowler — conceding only 4.19 runs an over — but was benched for knockout match. Philander, never a limited-over material, leaked 52 runs in eight wicketless overs.

There was also a bitter showdown between Graeme Smith and the board over the out-of-form Makhaya Ntini in the semifinal against Australia in the 2007 World Cup. Smith had his way, Ntini didn't play, but South Africa lost tamely to the eventual champions.