Behind the rich history of black cricket players in SA
Local historians are championing the rich history of black cricket players in SA. It’s a story we should all know about
When Temba Bavuma reached his 100 runs at Newlands against England on an early January afternoon in 2016 it was a landmark in a cricket tradition that went back 150 years. It was as if the first black SA batsman to score a Test century was carrying a torch for his Xhosa forebears who had been forgotten and their history written out of the game.
Over the past two years that history has been resurrected in Cricket and Conquest (2016) and now Divided Country. The books are largely the efforts of cricketer-historian André Odendaal, with Krish Reddy, Christopher Merrett and Jonty Winch batting with him in an innings that has lasted four decades. Two more volumes, Batting for Freedom and Correcting the Record, are still to come to complete The History of SA Cricket Retold.
The four books, for the first time, cover all cricket in SA from 1795 to 2016 and acknowledge the most neglected part of the history: games played by black Africans. The books debunk ancient myths about black people not having a cricket culture and tradition, and that cricket was only a white man’s game.
Odendaal is no ivory-tower academic. At Stellenbosch University in the 1970s he followed Eddie Barlow and Peter Kirsten as captain of the first XI and led the team to its first premier league title in 10 years. Among the players in that team were Garth le Roux, the fast bowler who was among Kerry Packer’s first recruits to World Series Cricket, and youthful Kepler Wessels and Adrian Kuiper. He made runs regularly as a top-order batsman for Cambridge University while obtaining a doctorate. In 1980 he made the highest score of 74 for Combined Universities at Edgbaston against Warwickshire’s England fast bowlers Bob Willis and Gladstone Small.
Odendaal’s dreams of playing cricket in England began as a 13-year-old growing up in Queenstown and being coached by a Queens High old boy, Tony Greig, who would later captain England. Even before the cricket journey had been achieved, the political one had begun in the 1970s. As a 23-year-old student he published his first book, Cricket in Isolation, "a lament for a great SA team being unfairly excluded from cricket".
"In the very process of writing that, I came to realise that cricket’s problem was located in the heart of the system and that the system needed to be changed, and that the [sports] boycott was actually the right thing." When this belief later took him into nonracial sport, he says, it "radically changed my life".
It was while writing his first book that the idea took hold of a new history of SA cricket, one that would embrace all cultures and traditions of the game. During his master’s research on African politics of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and while reading cabinet papers from Cecil John Rhodes’s premiership of the Cape in the 1890s, he found "a trunkful of treasure" in the Cape Town Archives, then housed in the Centre for the Book in Queen Victoria Street.
Fragile, yellowed copies of early Eastern Cape newspapers, written and published by black people, revealed not only politics, but also something unexpected. Opening the first edition of Imvo Zabantsundu, an independent Xhosa newspaper, dated November 4 1884, he found an editorial in English on cricket. Further searches of Imvo and other Xhosa newspapers produced detailed cricket scorecards, hundreds of them in subsequent editions.
He had been told there were no sources on the beginnings of black protest politics, let alone on black cricket. "It just blew me away," says Odendaal, who has written a book on the early years of the ANC, The Founders, and on the beginning of black protest politics, Vukani Bantu! His eyes opened to "an amazing generation of young intellectuals who were engaging with what it meant to be black in a colonial society, and playing cricket with sophistication and skill".
Forty years since that discovery, Odendaal still gets as excited as he did on that day in the archives.
"It was an incredible moment. At that stage you are the only one who knows this stuff. And I was determined that the whole story must be told."
Uncovering the history of black cricket was the beginning of "hard work and needle-in-the-haystack stuff". He says cricket’s past, which until then had been about Test and provincial matches played only by white men, "can never be looked at in the same way after these volumes". The counternarrative to whites-only cricket, he says, was found in the colonial newspapers that the mining magnates read. Currie Cup (white) and Barnato Trophy (black) matches were carried on the same pages at the same time. In later years, the coverage of black cricket in mainstream newspapers dwindled and even disappeared. The proof of a parallel history of cricket in SA, where occasionally black played against white — and often won — is obvious, he says.
What is still not obvious to some is how to deal with the new discoveries. Cricket’s mandarins might be ever eager for money-making gimmicks like T20, but they remain conservative when it comes to the game’s statistics.
Odendaal will have no truck with that. He says the new statistics are "an authority that’s been built up on four decades of struggle and intellectual work".
Colin Bryden, the editor of the SA Cricket Annual, the local version of cricket’s bible, Wisden, almost agrees. "The games fully deserve recognition, but the degree of recognition is maybe the debating point," he says. "Do some of these games get classified as first-class? Do we find some other category for them? Once the four volumes are complete there needs to be a proper discussion about how these statistics are categorised in order to give credit to the people of the past who were clearly good players."
The counternarrative to whites-only cricket was found in the colonial newspapers that the mining magnates read. Currie Cup (white) and Barnato Trophy (black) matches were carried on the same pages at the same time
Odendaal says it’s his dream to have an international conference to look at the new research and to make a declaration that these matches are first-class or at least are official provincial cricket. But first, he says, people in cricket need to acknowledge the exclusion of black cricket.
"The entire system has been against us," he says. "The silences that have held back [transformation] … are now being smashed. They can’t deny this [history] any more."
Odendaal, who is the first chair of Cricket SA’s transformation committee, believes the difficult issues over selection of the national team in the early 1990s, soon after unity, were the fault of a historical mindset.
"We’re only starting to get over that," he says, pointing to the emergence of black African stars, of whom Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada are the more prominent. "It comes from these old mindsets that these people don’t play [cricket]. Meanwhile people were playing all the time, and they even persisted when structural restraints and laws were implemented to hold them back."
He also believes cricket’s transformation indaba of 2013, which looked at speeding up the Africanisation of the game, helped SA cricket avoid its "Rhodes Must Fall" moment. "We avoided the frustration of the exclusion of African players, on a practical, psychological and unspoken level."
When it’s hard enough keeping up with the Proteas’ playing programme, and with the IPL and cricket from around the world coming live to our TVs, how important, really, is old history? Odendaal believes it is vital that we know our cricket history for us to succeed on the playing fields of the future.
"There’s something absolutely heroic about the human spirit in this story, about how people adopted this game, gave it an African character and persisted with it," he says.
"It’s that richness that must become part of the fabric of a united SA’s future. If we want to win the World Cup, that kind of resilience — that kind of love — if it’s not recognised, if it’s not part of a new culture, if it’s not woven into our new culture, we’re never going to be a team that’s united, and draw on all the strength we have to get to that pinnacle that evades us."
In seven attempts, SA’s national team, the Proteas, have never won the World Cup. The Proteas will meet England on May 30 next year at the Oval in the opening match of the 2019 World Cup.
Cricket and Conquest (1795-1914) and Divided Country (1914-1950s) are published by Bestred, an imprint of HSRC Press