Grow black Protea cricketers at school level

Temba Bavuma often returns to inspire Langa’s young cricketers but for them to advance in the game, their schools will need support. PHOTO: John Young

First published in Mail & Guardian 29 April 2016.

Sports’ Minister Fikile Mbalula’s announcement this week that prominent sporting codes may not bid to host international events is only the latest contretemps in a long line of rows between politicians and sports’ administrators.

          Ironically, it was the African National Congress which pushed for South Africa’s re-admittance to world sport in the early 1990’s, long before the administration of most sports was evenly remotely transformed. As a government the ANC has consistently been impatient to see teams that reflect how the country looks — particularly in rugby and cricket.

          Now a scorecard has been created, the Transformation Barometer, and the minister has used the result of this first report to announce the prohibition from bidding to host international events. Mbalula has promised to re-visit his decision based on the scorecard for 2016/17.

          National selectors and coaches have often argued that their hands are tied because the level below them is not producing enough black players to choose from. Former Protea’s cricket coach Mickey Arthur wrote in his book Taking the Mickey that the six presidents responsible for sacking him in 2010 had a total of ten black Africans registered to play professional cricket.

Cricket South Africa (CSA) has since then introduced quite radical quotas in first-class cricket (six ‘players of colour’, three of whom must be ‘black African’) and even insists that for club teams to qualify for the national championships, they must be compliant (ie, two ‘players of colour’, one ‘black African’).

          CSA has also started a programme to work in black areas with regional performance centres and hubs. Universities are also being roped in to help keep talented black cricketers active and involved after school.

          It is that level — schools — that is decisive. A word that is often bandied about is ‘academy’, a loose term that encompasses everything from a few extra practices a week to a fully-fledged full-time programme covering everything from nutrition to biokinetics. The reality is that cricket and rugby already have academies, dozens of them, in the form of the excellent schools that organise thousands of fixtures every week. 

          A mistake often made is to imagine that only a few elite schools are supplying talent that goes on to represent South Africa. While it is true that three Afrikaans (state) boys’ schools have produced 15 Proteas in the modern era, it is also true that at least 70 schools have produced at least one Protea across all formats of the game (Test, limited overs and T20).

          Statistician Andrew Samson has calculated that Protea caps have come from 85 schools, but two of these are foreign and some schools were counted twice because a player moved schools while at high schools. So it would be fair to assume a total of 73 schools for the total of 150 players who have been awarded Protea colours. That is a very broad reach and suggests that planners should pause before rushing to judgement about where to spend money.

          Although the elite (boys’ schools and private schools) tend to dominate selection for Test matches, 35 state co-educational schools account for 42 Protea caps overall.

The most recent black African Protea selections attended private schools, but the overall mix since unity shows tremendous diversity. Temba Bavuma (St David’s), Kagiso Rabada (St Stithian’s) and Aaron Phangiso (CBC Pretoria) may represent a new trend, but consider that three Proteas attended state boys’ schools (Victor Mpitsang, Makhaya Ntini and Monde Zondeki; Grey College and Dale College), two went to co-ed state schools (Thami Tsolekile and Lonwabe Tsotsobe; Pinelands and Westring) while another two went to school where they were born — in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth (Mfuneko Ngam, Douglas Mbopa HS) and Welkom (Thandi Tshabalala, Thotagauta SS).

          Lancashire’s 2015 opponents Glamorgan had probably not heard of St Thomas Senior Secondary (Ashwell Prince’s school), nor Gelvandale and Otto du Plessis (the high schools attended by Alviro Peterson) but the two Port Elizabeth old boys managed to put on a record partnership of 501 for Lancashire, despite their high schools not being fashionable.

A total of nine schools in traditionally coloured areas have 13 Proteas between. So if the township statistics (3 schools, 3 players) are added to the coloured schools (9 schools, 13 players) and the state co-educational schools (35 schools, 45 players) you have an impressive 47 schools providing 58 Protea caps.

Three national players learnt their cricket at Pinelands High School. Here Buntu Mawisa lets fly against a visiting Australian school. The umpire is Shamiel Jappie. PHOTO: John Young.

          The key point here is that these are not expensive ‘elite’ schools, these are neighbourhood schools with cricket programmes, a fixture list and some enthusiasm for the game. Some of them are more ambitious than others, some of them are struggling, but a small intervention could make a difference: an extra coach or money for covers would go a long way. A bursary (or some support) to get talented young players into one of these schools would be far less expensive than a bursary to an ‘elite’ school.

          Of the boys’ schools who provide multiple Proteas only Grey College (Mpitsang) and Dale College (Ntini and Zondeki) have black African Proteas among their alumni.

          Getting the best black African cricketing talent into one of these schools might still represent a good investment but there are many other schools where success can be achieved. 

The Morkel brothers and Tertius Bosch went to school in Vereeniging, Brett Schultz and Robbie Peterson are Alexander Road High School (PE) old boys, Paul Harris attended Fish Hoek High School and both of the Matthews brothers and Thami Tsolekile went to Pinelands High School. Among the list of schools that have provided Proteas, some are in places quite far from big cities: Dundee, Tzaneen, Heidelberg, Fraserburg, Warmbaths and Cloetesville.

          Enthusiasm for cricket can be found all over the country. The next Protea could come from any number of schools. How many of them will be black Africans remains to be seen.