The Nosebleed Section #8
Cricket writer Firdose Moonda yesterday pointed out on Twitter that only 5 'black' Africans have played Test cricket in 200 Tests since 1992. Rightfully there's an outcry because it's a whimper of an effort if the aim is to produce 'representative' national teams. But that's not the mandate is it? South Africa is surely trying to produce winning teams first? My transformation argument when it comes to cricket, rugby, football and any other sport is that it's not about the numbers representing the country, it's about opportunity.
Firstly, opportunities for non-white elite athletes to play for national teams must not be created, a la quotas… Let me pause while I cleanse my mouth from that dreadful term! That, I believe was the initial flaw in cricket's transformation plans. How can we ask selectors to pick the best team if they have to work within such constraints? The terminology has been changed to targets, but that's still problematic. The issue here is that it may actually have limited the selection of players of colour. Maybe I'm right? For years, reaching targets has been top of mind, not exceeding them. Why not? Forget about targets, stop measuring numbers.
Instead we should be measuring the development of more professional black athletes.
It really does start in primary school, where athletes can be identified. Skills can come through in high school, but by then children with excellent athletic ability must already have been identified. High school sport must be competitive in all communities. A strange and obvious thought for some, but I can guarantee you sport was and is not a priority in schools struggling with more basic education challenges. Facilities, coaching, nutrition and all the other benefits enjoyed by private schools with a rich sporting heritage are great for those who can afford it. For the rest I believe tough competition will breed superb athletes if they have something to aspire to. Perhaps the option of professional sport as a livelihood? At the moment black athletes will look at that as a high risk, low return option, since so few make it through to the highest level. That must change.
American pro athletes come from all walks of life, but one common thread is they are the conquerors of a highly competitive school and college sporting structure. This is where the South African government needs to intervene, take control and throw their weight around. Don't mess with team selections at national level or wave the big stick when white athletes dominate in sports like rugby, cricket, golf, swimming and tennis.
Leave that to selectors. Government must concern itself with the development of a culture of competitive sport from primary school right through to tertiary level. Create that environment and athletes, white and black, will develop even faster.
Not everyone can be a professional or elite athlete and represent the country, but everyone must be given the opportunity to attempt it. There's a lot to be admired about the American system, but the stand-out for me is that athletes from some of the worst backgrounds make it in leagues like the NBA and the NFL without necessarily attending the best private schools or having the most supportive upbringing. Unfortunately that's not the case in South Africa. We need our public schooling system sport to beef up competitive participation, not mass participation. Public school sport cannot just be an add-on and must rival the competitive structures enjoyed by private schools. It must be taken seriously and exist within a very competitive environment, so that athletes can standout and be identified.
The flip side of 'opportunity' is that non-white players, who show the ability to play at the highest level and compete with the very best white players, must get opportunities to prove themselves. They must be selected on merit and be treated equally. White athletes in sports like cricket and rugby are a dime a dozen, but black athletes are few and far between. That's fine if merit is the only criteria. Unfortunately black athletes are held to a different standard. They have to prove themselves and then better not fail because they'll quickly be discarded as not good enough. That's what it seems like to me.
Thami Tsolekile versus AB de Villiers is no debate, because de Villiers is there for his batting and he's better in that department. However, does the team really need or want de Villiers to keep wicket. When Boucher was playing, everyone raved about the balance in the team. Do we not trust or believe in Tsolekile to step into that role? Let's for a moment agree he's the best wicketkeeper in the country for the sake of this debate. If he was white would he be playing? Maybe, maybe not.
I don't really want to bring up the Springboks, but Lwazi Mvovo is one of the best wings in the country, yet did not play a single minute in three Tests in November. Francois Hougaard was moved out of position to play wing instead. Jaco Taute was brought into the team to play fullback, but ended up starting at outside centre ahead of Juan de Jongh, who has been one of the best in Super Rugby, has a proven partnership with Jean de Villiers and has Bok experience. Those examples are glaring to the extent that they're blinding in terms of missing an opportunity to give opportunities on merit.
My argument is not about the numbers. I believe that the less opportunities we give deserving black players at the highest level, the less interest there will be from black athletes to participate in sports dominated by white players. That means national teams will take a very long time to become representative, but for me that's not even the point. We are missing opportunities to broaden the talent pool and uncover new strengths.
Surely changing that attitude will make our sport even stronger?
Wesley Petersen is the EWN Sports Editor.