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An open sports field next to Charles Duna primary school. Picture EUGEN COETZEE
An open sports field next to Charles Duna primary school. Picture EUGEN COETZEE

One question asked on New Year’s Eve in 2005 has always stayed with me.  

Bev and I had been invited by Mark Nicholas, legendary cricket commentator and author, to see the spectacular Sydney Harbour fireworks from a boat on the river. Paul Roos, the Sydney Swans’ coach was on board.

Roos at the age of 32 had coached the Sydney Swans to their first Australian Rules Football trophy for 72 years. Every time a boat came close and recognised him, they burst into the Sydney Swans’ team song and heralded him. He had been one of the best players of his generation and his star now shone even brighter. 

Roos asked: “How is it possible for cricket to have as your top commentator a man [Richie Benaud] who is in his sixties?” He said that, by comparison, Aussie Rules commentators were invariably recently retired players who were usually considered redundant after five years. 

Discussion centred around five-day Test cricket, which required commentators to reflect, add richly to the play, and delve into cricket history and anecdotes. Charles Fortune was one such commentator on radio. Benaud took that to a whole new level on TV. Test commentary is an extended conversation that evolves over days, not the quick bursts of match analysis as in Aussie Rules. The T20 commentators will identify with that. 

The shorter versions of sport have produced rapid changing strategies, as in Sevens rugby. The Blitzboks winning captain, Kyle Brown, once told me that their team had to change tactics every tournament to keep ahead of the exacting analysts used by opposing teams.  

Commentators have to keep up with these changes to add value, as do journalists and columnists. 

I have felt in the past few months that I am too far away from our ever-changing game. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to express my views, (which, I must say, haven’t changed much) and it has been a privilege to write a fortnightly column for the renowned and respected newspaper, Business Day.  

As always I tend to see the glass half-full, it is heartening to see Cricket SA in better shape now than three years ago, when I  wrote my first article. The new independent Cricket SA board has calmed the waters. Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher handled the arduous racial slur allegation “charges” with great maturity, hurtful as they were. Smith, as director of the SA20 tournament, has given the board a chip in the big financial T20 game. However, sustainable finances remain one of cricket’s biggest challenges. The national teams have settled under new coaches and captains; batting remains a concern. 

The recent Cricket SA “bosberaad” was transparent and authentic. The Cricket SA executive, provincials heads, coaches and the SA Cricketers Association were able to openly grapple with the issues. This achieved a key ingredient to build the future together, which for years was lacking in trust. While actual changes put in place will determine its success, it was an encouraging, positive start. These collaborative discussions focused on the senior game. 

We know that while sport at the national level does act as a nation builder, sport cannot heal historical wounds or fix the broken structures of our society. Yet sport and after schools activities and life skills can with education build confident, positive young adults, providing a platform for positive generational change. 

The 6% of schools with sports facilities is a national disgrace. It is the grassroots programmes at schools and local clubs that will in time produce a raft of successful Protea teams. The regional hubs developed by the government and some national federations, including Cricket SA,  have not been the answer.

The various academies and scholarships to “cricket schools” remain the only route for the disadvantaged young cricketers to reach the top. Until, of course, there is equal opportunity in schools with proper facilities. Talent scouts play a crucial role in this feeder system. 

Introduce sport/life skills and reasonable facilities one school at a time and watch the snowball effect. The route to generational change starts with schools, churches and hospitals. These institutions in the neglected communities assist and support their communities face to face, every day, and will continue doing this for decades. They are the angels of change. 

Building capacity in these institutions is the only way to build a positive next generation and great national sports teams, businesspeople, community leaders and importantly politicians who will genuinely serve their communities.  

A final thought: if President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet were members of a cricket team, the selectors would have dropped them many years ago. Sports teaches many lessons and being accountable is just one of them. Successful sports teams are the product of a positive value culture, strong collaborative leadership, teamwork, good ethics and hard work. They have a deep commitment to the family environment and values, a sense of responsibility and involvement in the communities they serve. 

This nation is rich in talent, not just sport. The best example, though, remains the three World Cups won by the Springbok rugby team, picked from merely a handful of the country’s 25,000 schools. Just imagine ... just imagine what is possible. 

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