It is a beautiful country, South Africa, and if you haven’t seen it by road you have missed an entire era of civilisation. It is a dangerous country mind you. My host would call ahead to his home when he left office with me during a trip there and the electronic gates were timed to open just as the front bumper made the turn toward them. If the car didn’t enter fast enough there was a danger they would hit its rear bumper as they were designed to close as quickly as they opened. This wasn’t the case everywhere but in Johannesburg yes, electronic gates and security were as much in demand as flights out of Islamabad on the last day before Eid.
If you haven’t taken the train from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, known as the Garden Route, they say you haven’t seen the most fairytale-like countryside of all. Yet it has been a nation fraught with some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind: Apartheid.
It is the escape from this monstrosity that has made the South African cricket team a much different side to watch. It has changed completely in character than when it first appeared; there was an aggression that was like that of a lion freed after days of hunger. Bowler after bowler led by Alan Donald would get into your soul and shake it up. Those guys looked as mean and menacing as the neighborhood gangs in downtown Los Angeles.
It has completely mellowed down by my reckoning. Perhaps the infusion of non-whites and more moderate whites has taken away that authoritarian spirit. The team till the late 1990s was almost all white, with Hershel Gibbs categorised as a coloured cricketer rather than Black. In the times of Apartheid, Whites were the only people who had freedom and lived in luxury. A non-White couldn’t lay foot in the area where Whites resided unless he was employed as a servant. And then he had to leave the area before sundown. Or he could be hunted down and shot.
The next category was that of the coloureds, who had at least a white father; as having a black father and white mother was quite unimaginable then. They had some of the privileges of the whites but only when necessary. Then ranked the Asians, who were almost all from the Indian subcontinent, and were brought in to work on the plantations and railways. Last were the Blacks, the original residents since thousands of years. They lived in the worst conditions possible, in colonies of shanty huts far away from the urban delights of the Whites.
Other than one Charles Bennett (Buck) Llewellyn, who was sporadically selected to play for the South African side over a hundred years ago (some said it was a political statement being made), no coloured cricketer could play for the national side, let alone an Asian or Black. The non-Whites in fact were never allowed to watch cricket in the stadium. A South African once told me that once during a Test match a special concession was granted. The non-White spectators could come in and watch the cricket standing up only, caged in by bars all around.
South Africa had been ostracised from international cricket after their proposed tour of England was called off fearing that the Commonwealth Games in July would be boycotted by Asian and African nations. England, which had a growing Asian and Black population and continuous immigration from the commonwealth countries, and needed their markets, decided that they wouldn’t play cricket as long as the Apartheid policy was in effect. Australia and New Zealand followed suit. It was business as usual in trade and logistics among the White countries of course. They had to have their diamonds and gold.
I have recounted this because an entire generation here has no idea what the non-Whites have suffered and what they have broken through to see such players playing for the national team. There is now a minimum limit of four to five non-Whites comprising the match XI. They should understand what struggle men like Hershell Gibbs, Makhaya Ntini and Hashim Amla have had to endure to play like they do. Before the ’90s non-Whites could not play quality cricket because they couldn’t afford the paraphernalia and the standard of pitch needed. You can imagine the fast track to skill the earlier cricketers like Adams and Ntini had to make to break through once it was mandated that at least one player in the 11 would be non-White.
It is a credit to the white cricketers currently in the team and in their domestic circuit that they have gelled so well; and the past hatred and feeling of superiority is no more, at least in their actions. However, it has also made them a softer side even though Steyn’s stare keeps the flame going.
Commonalities and controversies
South Africa is possibly the only country against which Pakistan has won more Tests on their home grounds than it has in Pakistan, and each time after losing the toss; once when sent in and twice when asked to field first. That number of away wins to home is 2-1. Quite a pleasing and amazing stat that, considering the continuous strength of the South African side ever since it came out of the wilderness and back into international cricket in 1992. The mauling earlier this year is fresh in mind, but they had eight Test wins against us before that compared to our three; better selection and we could have actually won a Test on the recent tour.
Pakistan’s history of cricketing contests with South Africa is quite interesting, and not just because these are the only two countries where their most high-profiled cricketers have been convicted of match or spot fixing. The late Hansie Cronje was the one who officially brought that shame on to this gentleman’s game, after a hue of innuendos had plagued the game ever since the unsigned statements in 1995 by the hypocritical Australians, Warne and Waugh, that they had offered money to play badly. For a long time Gibbs couldn’t set foot in India despite him and another lesser known bowler serving temporary bans, due to their implication along with Cronje.