For the love of the game: The writer expounds on a game that started full of hope in post-apartheid SA, but along with political and economic compromises contributing to keeping in place race and class privilege, it was not helped by the hurried hollowing out of the ‘politics of cricket’ that didn’t challenge transformation.   Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
For the love of the game: The writer expounds on a game that started full of hope in post-apartheid SA, but along with political and economic compromises contributing to keeping in place race and class privilege, it was not helped by the hurried hollowing out of the ‘politics of cricket’ that didn’t challenge transformation. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

In the early 1970s, almost every summer weekend, I made the journey from the centre of Durban to the Springfield grounds. Springfield is now home to huge business complexes and highways hemming it into the city sprawl, but in the early 1970s, it was very much on the outskirts.

At the weekend, six or seven games of cricket were played, simultaneously, on ancient matting wickets, according to rules first written in the 18th century.

There were no sightscreens. Irregular boundaries were marked by misshapen whitewashed stones. Clumps of grass and mole-hills hid crevices that tested the most flexible of ankles. In a script that veered between comedy and tragedy, I could not wait to get the call to don my whites and be drawn into the drama of a Springfield middle.

On a Saturday afternoon, you would arrive and drag the mat from a wood and iron shed. The mats were crusty and mouldy and came in all sorts of grotesque shapes. We would lay the mat on the pitch.

The holes in the mat were huge. If you tried for a quick single, more often than not you would get stuck, so you had to run alongside the pitch…. We were playing cricket but running like baseball players.

It was impossible to play cover drives that stuck to the turf. The ground was too spotted with holes and mounds. To score, one had to loft the ball.

This created its own problems. Once a big-hitter was in, the fielders in the adjacent ground needed eyes in the back of their heads. The fields were on top of each other with no sightscreens, so as the sun descended, one sometimes saw two bowlers coming at you.

What did a 50 mean under these conditions? What did five wickets mean when you managed to hit the hole in the mat and turn the ball sharper than Shane Warne?

Occasionally, my father and I would go to Old Kingsmead, the cathedral of white cricket.

Here was a completely different world of wonder; turf wickets, picket fences, sightscreens, a scoreboard that flashed lights while invisible hands moved the score.

Everything was so beautifully white, pristine and ordered. My father carved out a space under the clock for us to sit. A small blanket, two paper cups and a bottle of Coo-ee forming our own boundary within the tiny nonwhite section.

I watched the Springboks (as the national team was then still called) crush the Australians in 1970. It was my joy also to witness many a provincial innings by the majestic Barry Richards.

During one provincial game against the Transvaal my father, who was light of hue, snuck into the white area in search of a cup of tea. On his way back, he was man-handled and unceremoniously pushed over the fence, all the while trying to hold onto the cup of tea. People on both sides of the divide clapped and laughed. He took his place on the blanket, this most gentle of men, and without saying a word, picked up the binoculars to follow Mike Proctor’s run-up that started near the sightscreen.

In one of my father’s greatest gifts to me, CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary, I marked these words: "The British tradition soaked deep into me was when you entered the sporting arena you left behind the sordid compromises of everyday life. Yet for us to do that we would have to divest ourselves of our skins."

We never went back. The incident sparked a sense that, in order to understand the game, one required more than a pair of binoculars. Yet it never killed my passion for the game. How could it, given that its first seeds were planted in a son’s fond memories of trips to the ground with his father and nourished by a whole boyhood’s excitement and play?

In 1990, as Nelson Mandela strode out of prison, Springfield and Kingsmead edged closer. In 1991, the two worlds of cricket united, at the top at least.

After years of sports boycotts against SA, international recognition beckoned.

When India toured in 1992-93, we went to Old Kingsmead, my father and I. He was like a child; taking in everything as we perched high up on the Umgeni end. As was his way, avoiding trouble, he insisted on bringing his own flask of tea.

These stories, small as an individual spectator, played themselves out everywhere in SA, lost against the dramatic backdrop of apartheid coming to an end, Mandela meeting FW de Klerk and cricket supremo Ali Bacher meeting the ANC’s sports commissar Steve Tshwete.

The game ended. My dad spied other men on the stands with whom he had batted through the 1960s and 1970s. They clasped hands. They spent a long time looking down at the empty pitch and then said goodbye. Men who played the game with such dignity, under conditions that mocked them.

As I helped him into the car, little did we know that he would never see Kingsmead again, as Parkinson’s enveloped his body and eventually ended his life.

In post-apartheid SA, I followed the Proteas avidly as they made their way to the World Cup in Australia and wherever else in the world pitches were laid, boundaries marked out and willow swung. Expectations at home were high that the deep creases of inequality in the game would be steadily ironed out by the rollers of development and transformation, buzzwords that were all the rage at cricket headquarters in Johannesburg.

My book is an account of cricket in post-apartheid SA; from the tumultuous Gatting tour in which, ironically, the seeds of cricket unity were sown, to the Hansie Cronje saga and the change of leadership from Ali Bacher to Gerald Majola, and more recently, to Haroon Lorgat.

It is a story of a new pitch; a quick start full of hope, followed by a steady erosion of the commitments needed to fulfil the promise of a level playing field.

Economic and political compromises contributed to holding back the piercing of the covers of race and class privilege. Alongside this, the hurried hollowing out of the "politics of cricket", aided by black administrators assuming the accoutrements of office, saw very little internal challenge to the lack of transformation.

Meanwhile, global realignments in cricket initially gave SA some respite. But soon, the big three of Australia, England and India were collaborating to claim the lion’s share of global funding, thus limiting further the resources necessary for development in the domestic game.

In a sense, we are back to the Springfield-Kingsmead divide. But there will be no posthumous honours, however grudgingly given, to lovers of the game who are keeping it alive in townships or side streets.

Those whose innings are defined by lumpy mats and broken gear garner far less sympathy or note. For, is cricket not now open to all, just like the Ritz Hotel; a game of money, dazzle, dancing girls and quick results?

This is an edited extract of Desai’s latest book, Reverse Sweep, published by Jacana. He is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg.

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