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OPINION: The power of alternative sport histories

Whether we like it or not, the complexity of race remains part of the master narrative of South Africa. It permeates most of our discussions and nowhere more so than in sport. As the Springboks reel from yet another defeat against Argentina at the weekend, there are (rightly) calls for a more diverse team.

It seems untenable that coach Heyneke Meyer deems it fit to travel to the World Cup in England with a team so depleted of talented black players. Heated discussions abound about that old chestnut - merit. Yet we know that players like Siya Kolisi, Lwazi Mvovo and others have plenty of talent. Both played off the bench on Saturday against the Pumas along with Trevor Nyakane. Bryan Habana and Tendai Mtwarira were the only black players in the starting line-up on Saturday. And so the debates have raged, though minister of sport Fikile Mbalula has said that transformation will not happen 'overnight' ahead of the World Cup.

Then, of course, there is cricket and the constant jibes about the quota system and insinuations that black players are not good enough. One needs only listen to Fanie de Villiers to see how deeply ingrained the sentiment of black players simply not being good enough is.

Remember the debacle about Vernon Philander after the World Cup? A world-class bowler was virtually singled out for vilification and labeled as a 'quota player' by some. As if Philander was single-handedly responsible for our rather disastrous exit from the Cricket World Cup!

The recent passing of Clive Rice again brought some of these arguments to the fore. There is no doubt that Rice was a talented and outstanding cricketer. The English Sky Sports channel ran a tribute to Rice during the Trent Bridge Ashes Test match last week. Rice was praised for his prowess, yet oddly some in South Africa remember him with ambivalence for his complex relationship with cricket post-apartheid.

In Rice, Kevin Pietersen found a sympathetic ear when he left South Africa to pursue a career in England because of the quota system. Rice had said the system was driving cricketers away 'in droves'. Sometimes the facts don't bear out wild assertions and Pietersen found out soon enough what it meant to compete for a spot in the team and be booted out by the English establishment. Many a South African cricket fan might have looked upon Pietersen's rather unintelligent fall from grace with not a little schadenfreude.

And so, as we continue the messy debate about race and merit in sport, one is inevitably drawn back to reflect on The Blue Book: A History of Western Province Cricket (1890-2011) by Andre Odendaal et al, which was published in 2012 yet is more relevant than ever.

The book was the first real attempt to consolidate the statistical history for Western Province cricket and the new Cape Cobras franchise over 121 years. The book was a serious attempt to move away from the 'official' statistics of Western Province cricket that encompassed only the records of white players. In fact, as the book points out, there was a rich tradition of cricket in coloured, Cape Malay and African black communities in the Western Cape. Some part of that history was written a few years ago by Moegamat Allie in _More than a game, _but many stories remain untold, many heroes still unsung.

What the cleverly named Blue Book did was to "overturn old, exclusive, 'official' accounts of the past". It records over 500 unrecognised Western Province players and 250 new WP matches. In a sign of how divided our past really was, the book notes that the current WP Cricket Association (WPCA) was preceded by no fewer than nine different Western Province boards whose records are all included in the book. While there are some statistics which could not be provided because records were not always accurately kept, and memories had faded, the records that have been uncovered show consistent, high standards among 'players of colour'.

When the book was launched ex-players of all the former incarnations of the WPCA took to the field in a sign of both inclusion and recognition. While it is always difficult to acknowledge all players who played through different eras and boards, from the WP Cricket Union, the Peninsula and Districts Cricket Board, the WP Bantu (sic) Cricket Union, the Hottentots Holland Cricket Union, the WP Women's Cricket Union and the WP Cricket Board, to name but a few, the welcome to Newlands then and subsequently was significant. As the book notes, "the cricketers who played on the wrong side of the colour line in the old days inhabited deep cricket cultures". It immediately therefore puts paid to the notion that cricket is "the white man's game".

The book traverses the colonial years, the d'Oliveira saga, the 'stop the tour' boycotts and, of course, the rebel tour eras and the subsequent years of unity. All have their place in the difficult tapestry that is Western Province and, indeed, South African cricket.

Importantly though, as the book pointed out, those who played then were not merely "passive victims of an oppressive system", they were "characters who, through cricket, said yes to life itself". And so, apartheid may have consigned them to poor wickets and dusty grounds, but games were being played with regularity and precision over decades, and cultures formed and rich stories and traditions were being passed down from one generation to the next.

Of course, there are many more stories to be told and perhaps those might fill a subsequent edition, who knows? For the storytellers of the game remain at large, in communities in Cape Town and beyond, though the numbers are dwindling.

Interestingly, the book also tells of the first Western Province Cricket Union of 1890 that met in Greenmarket Square, the founding clubs of which were Sea Point, Cape Town, Claremont and the WP Cricket Club. The latter had built Newlands. The other clubs had met to "wrest from WP cricket club the monopoly which they held in the administration of cricketing matters in the Western Province". And it was ever thus, some might say!

Meanwhile, years later, in 1959, the WP Cricket Board (representing 'coloured' players) was formed at Immaculata Girls' High School in Wynberg and competed inter-provincially, with the board players dominating the winnings for four seasons between 1963 and 1970. And it was during those years too that some board players found their way to play in the English leagues; Coetie Neethling, the Abed brothers, Rushdi Magiet, Des February and Dickie Conrad. And some remained, while others like Owen Williams emigrated to Australia.

In Langa and Guguletu, the Blue Book tells us that cricket had been played for decades - William Magitshima, Cannon Ziba, Ashton Dunjwa and Ben Malamba were but a few names that made their mark in the late 1960s.

The imprint of the Blue Book is 'fanele', meaning, "this is a necessary book". It is necessary, not only for those of us who love cricket and its eccentricities and statistics, but also for anyone interested enough in understanding the past in a way which is constructive and paradoxically, despite its pain, affirming. For even out of the despair and oppression of apartheid came great cricketers. Cricketers who had they lived in a different time, would surely have graced Newlands?

The book is a tribute to those players. Arguably, it places an even greater responsibility on today's players who slip into Western Province and national kit simply because there were many who missed that singular privilege of representing a united province and country.

Perhaps it also places a responsibility on those who speak so loosely about merit and being black as if the two were mutually exclusive? One might hasten to add that such records of alternative histories are needed for all sporting codes, not only cricket or rugby, especially in these times of confusing and polarised debates on sport and transformation.

_Judith February is a senior research associate at the ISS, is interested in matters of sport and transformation and has been listening to family cricketing anecdotes for as long as she can remember. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judith_february