Beyond the Boundary

Kagiso Rabada claims his first test wicket, 5 November 2015, Mohali, India. (Image via Cricket South Africa Facebook Page).

On November, 10th 1991, after more than 20 years of isolation from international cricket, the South African cricket team played a One Day International against India in Kolkata. Nelson Mandela had only recently been released from prison. The National Party, the party of apartheid, still ruled in South Africa. The scores were low. Sachin Tendulkar was beginning his career.

Two and a half decades later, in 2015, South Africa once again travelled to India for a series of One Day Internationals named after Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Things had changed. In the first match alone South Africa picked five black players including, test match captain and quickest player to score 6,000 ODI runs and 20 ODI centuries, Hashim Amla, senior campaigner and all-rounder JP Duminy (who has also recently captained South Africa) and the talented young fast bowling sensation Kagiso Rabada. This team produced South Africa’s first ever series victory in an ODI series on Indian soil.

Cricket continues to be a political matter in South Africa. Despite the emergence of significant black cricketing talent over the last two and half decades the debate about race and cricket rages on in South Africa’s living rooms, pages of newspapers (like this), online and even the seats of Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meetings. Parliament regularly discusses the opportunities afforded to specific young black players and the media’s ill treatment of black players like Vernon Philander. As the Caribbean intellectual of sports and politics, CLR James, so eloquently describes in his seminal Beyond a Boundary, cricket was born in politics in England and spread across the world imbued with a puritanical value system and not a small dose of habitual racism. It has always managed to “encompass so much of social reality and still remain a game.”

Let’s be clear: five out 11 players is still significantly below representative in a country in which 10 out 11 people are black. For now, Kagiso Rabada remains one of the only black African players being regularly played in the national team despite the population of South Africa,compromising more than 80% of black Africans (Amla, for example, is Indian South African and Duminy coloured).

Kagiso Rabada is 20-years-old. Born and bred in Johannesburg in post-apartheid South Africa he is what is often referred to in South Africa as a “born free”. He is a sensational fast bowler. Standing at 1.91 metres Rabada regularly bowls at over 145 kilometres an hour and often reaches speeds of over 150 kilometres an hour. Translation for cricket muggles: that’s the equivalent of sprinting a hundred metres in less than 10 seconds. But Rabada is not just raw pace and height, he is an intelligent, composed bowler, with all the variations and skills required to succeed at the top level in international cricket. Rabada burst into the limelight in 2015 at the age of 19, taking six for 25 in the Under 19 World Cup semi-final against South Africa’s fierce cricket rivals, Australia.

Since his international debut against the senior Australian outfit later that same year, Rabada has done nothing, but impress in ten One Day Internationals and eight T20 International matches and just played his debut Test Match in Mohali. Highlights include claiming the Man of the Match award in his ODI debut by taking six for 16 away from home against Bangladesh in July 2015.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytVMSiAf65w

Rabada ended the recently concluded Gandhi-Mandela bilateral series in India as the joint highest wicket taker with Dale Steyn, claiming 10 wickets, at a better average, lower economy rate and equal strike rate to the world’s indisputably best bowler. Translation for cricket muggles: he is very good.

He accomplished this in sub-continental conditions which typically do not favour fast bowlers. I repeat. Rabada is a phenomenal player. But why trust me? South Africa’s former captain and fast bowling all rounder Shaun Pollock, when asked on air whether he was a potential future superstar responded: “He is already a superstar.”Allan Donald, South Africa’s former bowling coach says that Rabada is “destined to play for the Proteas for a long time” and has “unbelievable talent.” Makhaya Ntini, South African cricketing legend and South Africa’s most successful black African fast bowler to date, described Rabada as “without a doubt” this next big thing in South African cricket.

Not surprisingly, when it is crunch time – the so-called ‘death overs’ at the end of match, Rabada’s captain, AB De Villiers, has consistently and without hesitation given the twenty year old the ball.And Rabada has excelled.

In the first ODI against India in Kanpur, Rabada was tasked with bowling the final over against India’s captain MS Dhoni. India needed only 11 runs to win. The pressure was on and South Africa’s superstar stepped up. He managed to take two wickets, including Dhoni’s, and conceded only six runs. Cricket muggles: this is like running 100 metres in 9.8 seconds while juggling. He repeated this feat in the next match, again bowling the 50th over to Dhoni, Rabada, as a packed crowd watch in awe at the blunting of their own hero, bowled five balls without conceding a run before being hit for six by Dhoni off of the last ball of the innings.

This is quality cricket. The media coverage has been less so.

Experienced South African cricket journalist Neil Manthorp, writing in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper after the first ODI in Kanpur, credited South Africa’s captain AB De Villiers “genius” in managing to advise and calm young Rabada down, as if Rabada might be completely foreign the match situation or unlikely without AB’s intervention to execute his skills effectively. So fixated is Manthorp on De Villiers, that he even finds space to write about his slow over rate –Note to Cricket muggles:a negative for the captain who may be suspended as a result and the cricketing version of a parking fine– and put even that negative down the his excellent fastidiousness in managing his bowlers, including Rabada.

AB can do no wrong. Rabada can do no right.

Instead in an article titled“De Villiers’ genius shows in Rabada moment” Manthorp commits not a single line to Rabada’s bowling and merely catalogues AB De Villier’s achievements and role in “calming Rabada down.”

Manthorp, as the political scientist (and also Business Day columnist) Steven Friedman observed in a Facebook post, seemed totally incapable of crediting Rabada’s performance, to Rabada’s own talent and temperament. Friedman therefore observes correctly that

“yes, AB de Villiers did very well to give a 20-year-old the final over in a tight match. But when journalists and headline writers can only explain black achievement by pointing to the guiding hand of a white person, then we surely do not need to debate whether racism is alive in well in this country today.”

In the cricketing context there is nothing new about white players being credited for black cricketing excellence or black players cricketing temperaments and minds – as opposed to their exoticised physical ability and power – being ignored. In Beyond a Boundary, CLR James also explained that for decades colonial West Indian authorities could not stomach the appointment of a black captain, especially to play Australia or England, despite the vast majority of their best players being black. Black players were invisible, both in James’s time and, apparently, in Manthorp’s mind. As James wrote then:

There whole point [The white controlled West Indian cricket authorities] was to continue to send to populations of white people, black or brown men under a white captain. The more brilliantly the black men played the more it would emphasise to millions of English people: “Yes they are fine players, but, funny isn’t it, they cannot be responsible for themselves – they must always have a white man to lead them.”

Manthorp’s analysis continues the racist spurt of journalism and commentary that has grown exponentially preceding South Africa’s defeat by New Zealand in the seminal final of the ICC Cricket World Cup earlier this year and the acceleration of Cricket South Africa’s transformation policy to require six black players – of which three must be black African – to play for each team in domestic cricketing competitions.

Vernon Philander, readers of this blog may recall, was blamed for South Africa’s defeat despite his own impressive record, and the fact that Dale Steyn conceded the winning runs at the pivotal moment. Black players are damned if they do and damned if don’t. Succeed and somebody else will largely be credited. Fail and they will be blamed disproportionately not only because of their performance but because of their blackness. White players like Steyn, on the other hand, are praised when they succeed and endured, tolerated and supported when they fail.

Manthorp should not face the music alone. He is just one of many white male cricket journalists in South Africa who continue to suffer from either a total inability to understand the significance of race in cricket or, more commonly, an open contempt for Cricket South Africa’s laudable transformation agenda.

This cacophony of white male voices, constantly claim it is selection “meddling” which “galls” players needs to be put to an end. Unlike Manthorp, De Villiers and the Proteas team appear to feel quite comfortable with Rabada’s brilliance and accept the transformation imperatives which manifest as quotas at a domestic level and guidelines at the international level. White journalists should not mistake their own lack of understanding, discomfort and racist attitudes for nefarious activity in selection and discomfort of players. On the contrary, it is white cricketing journalists who are causing harm to players and disrupting the cricket team’s unity by “meddling” for their own satisfaction, manufacturing of click bait and conservative political agendas.

As South Africa’s cricket players successfully competed in the Gandhi-Mandela series, student activists in South Africa were momentously brandishing the words of black consciousness and ideas of revolution to end outsourcing at universities and eliminate university fees. They are leaving Mandela’s friendly, reconciled rainbow nation behind. Some consider Mandela a “sell out”; they will not tolerate a slow pace of transformation in universities—or cricket teams.

In the same way as Nelson Mandela’s “reconciliatory” politics are being left far behind, so are Neil Manthorp and the white cadre of cricket journalists. They would do well to stop commenting on cricket as if it were capable of being apolitical and the South African team as if it were still the lily white outfit that emerged from isolation in Kolkata in 1991 to face India.

The country is changing quickly. So should they.

Further Reading

Blind to the matatus

The future of Kenya’s matatus (commuter buses) and their inherent place in the capital Nairobi’s culture and society, is all but absent in the government’s neoliberal vision for urban planning.