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One afternoon in Johannesburg last week, I passed a group of black men dancing in the road outside Houghton golf club. They were toyi-toying – performing a protest dance – and they turned out to be workers at the club demanding higher wages.

They waved their placards at every passing car. One driver toyi-toyed in his seat in solidarity, while a black man turning his BMW into the club’s driveway grinned uneasily. Later a couple of workers sang a jocular appeal to the president of Zimbabwe: “Mugabe, come and save us.” Simultaneously, at the other end of the country, the South African cricket team was beating England in a one-day game.

The point is that most South African blacks, like the golf club workers, seem to have other concerns than cricket. Black Africans (as distinct from “Coloureds” or “Asians”) make up three-quarters of the population, but few of them have been spotted in the stands during the series that ends tomorrow. Black newspapers have mostly ignored the matches. Cricket still appears far from the “new South Africa”.

In fact, appearances are deceptive. South African blacks are discovering cricket, and this is good for the country.

Blacks here have played cricket since the 1850s, when the British began sending the sons of chiefs to schools that used the game as a “civilizing” influence. Many blacks learned cricket at mission schools.

The English cricketer C. Aubrey Smith, later a Hollywood actor, wrote in the late 19th century: “I noticed while driving through the suburbs of Cape Town that every spare patch of grass was used by blacks to pitch wickets – or paraffin cans in some cases – in order to play cricket.”

Little was heard of black cricket after that. J.M. Coetzee, reviewing a book of pre-1910 photographs from South Africa, concludes: “Many of [the pictures] are poignant, less for what they represent than for what they promise and what failed to arrive – a snap (dated 1900), for instance, of ragged black children play- ing cricket (untutored, unsupervised) in the veld outside Aliwal North.”

Coetzee is too dismissive. Many blacks played cricket throughout apartheid, particularly in the eastern Cape, usually on terrible pitches. The great-grandfather of the future Test player Monde Zondeki, for instance, founded a cricket club at King William’s Town in 1939.

The game was most popular among better-educated blacks. Andre Odendaal, the only white first-class cricketer to join the non-white leagues under apartheid, notes in his magnificent Story of an African Game that black cricketing and political families often belonged to the same small African elite. It’s no coincidence that Zondeki’s uncle, Steve Tshwete, was a senior ANC figure and later sports minister. Further north, the cricket-loving former mission schoolboy Mugabe is another example.

But black matches under apartheid were not televised, not reported in the white press, and not played against the world’s best teams, and so they were forgotten. It came to appear as if only whites played. Twenty years ago, visiting my grandparents in Johannesburg, I attended a cricket
camp where every single kid was white except a little Indian boy. The others persistently called him “Ranji”, after the great Indian cricketer Ranjitsinhji. To these boys, the notion that blacks might play cricket was as ludicrous as the notion that women might.

Then, 15 years ago yesterday, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison and the transition began. The whites who ran cricket spread the game ever wider. Pitches were built in townships, and black kids learned the forward defensive.

Watching the series against England, you’d think little had changed. South Africa’s sole regular black international is Makhaya Ntini. Only three other black Africans have ever played Test cricket, none for more than four Tests.

Yet the blacks are coming. On the playing fields of the posh white schools that traditionally produce South Africa’s international cricketers, you now see a few flannelled black boys. Soon they’ll start making the national team. Say that you need to start playing cricket by the age of seven to become an international; and say you generally make your international debut in your early thirties; then the kids who began playing during the transition will be ready in a year or two.

Already blacks watch cricket on television. The golf club workers do, for instance. If they don’t go to games, it’s partly because the grounds are in white neighbourhoods and the tickets expensive. But BMI-Sport Info, a market research company, found that since 1992 the number of adult South Africans who follow cricket has grown by about 4 per cent a year. Cricket is now the second most popular sport among South African fans, after soccer, and the third most popular among black men, after soccer and boxing. Johan Grobler, a director of BMI, told me: “The nice thing about cricket for me is that it’s got a good spread profile among the different population groups.”

This is good news for South Africa. Firstly, everyone should have the right to discover this maddening game and waste years of their life on it.

Secondly, in every country sport is part of the national conversation. One of South Africa’s problems is that blacks and whites have little in common to chat about: their life expectancies, neighbourhoods and chosen sports don’t overlap much. If only blacks could join whites in moaning about Kevin Pietersen playing for England instead of South Africa, it would help to build the nation.


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