South Africa cricket: Not just a 'white sport'?

A boy practicing his bowl at a South African cricket club
Image caption The Malekutu Cricket Academy has had constant problems attracting funding

It takes a certain stubborn devotion to play cricket in Malekutu, an isolated rural village in the hills not far from South Africa's border with Mozambique.

There is no pitch, just a stretch of tattered carpet in the middle of an overgrown football field; tin cans balanced on a cinder block take the place of a wicket, and the locals are hardly enthusiastic.

"Most people here don't like cricket. Black people think this is a white sport. They prefer to watch soccer. I say, 'Come play and I'll teach you.' They refuse. Even this [cricket] World Cup... they prefer to sleep," sighs 16-year-old Mongezi Makoena, a keen batsman.

But for 10 years now, the Malekutu Cricket Academy (MCA) has been obstinately pursuing its dream, of helping to transform the sport from an elite, and still largely white-dominated, affair into something every South African child has the opportunity to try out.

"It's a struggle. Look at these kids, they're small, some are malnourished," says Vusi Mathebula, the founder and coach of the MCA as he breaks from a fairly gruelling training, complete with collective punishments for a dropped catch, with the under 16 team.

Image caption The coach at Malekutu enforces collective punishments for dropped catches

Funding is a constant problem. The local authorities have finally provided transport to matches, but years of more extravagant promises of support, including from the national cricketing authorities, have come to nothing.

"They tell us, 'we'll build you a field,' but they've failed us on numerous occasions," says Mr Mathebula.

"We don't have proper equipment, and we don't have a field. There's no structure for these kids to make it.

"It only benefits those kids who go to a private school, or live in town. This is not a white man's sport. If we had the exposure and access to quality facilities, it would be our sport."

Five hours drive away from Malekutu, at the stunning Wanderer's cricket oval in Johannesburg, some of the country's top players are beginning a four-day professional "franchise" match - the Lions against the Dolphins.

A quota system is in force here. There must be at least five non-white players: Indian, mixed-race or black.

Image caption A professional "franchise" match where a quota system is in place for non-white players

"It's necessary... to have quotas," says the Lion's coach Geoffrey Toyana, who still relishes the memory of playing in the 1990s in his home town of Soweto against a touring England side.

But he insists that all the black players in his team got there on merit.

"As a country I think we're moving in the right direction. We need to be patient and get those grass roots levels better," says Mr Toyana.

"The facilities are not up to scratch. I believe if we get the base right in the next three or four years, the top should sort itself out."

But others see quotas, not formally imposed on the national Proteas squad which suffered its heaviest defeat in World Cup history on Sunday, as unhelpful, at best.

"You're either good enough or you're not good enough," says Clive Rice, a former South African captain during the apartheid era.

Image caption Improving grassroots participation could be key to broadening cricket's appeal in South Africa

"Some [of the top-level players] aren't there on merit. They're clearly not good enough to be there and everybody in the country knows that, and the fact that they're still there is a miracle.

"The quota players don't want to be in a team knowing they're a quota player," he says, arguing that it is inevitable that schools with an entrenched cricketing culture are likely to continue producing the strongest players.

Back at Malekutu, the sun is nearly setting over the nearby Kruger National Park, and 16-year-old Mongezi catches a low ball and rolls to the side on the dusty football pitch.

"I love cricket, more than any sport. I've been playing for more than three years. But you should just follow your heart," he says.

"If you love football, play football. If you love cricket, play cricket. If it's rugby, play rugby. This is a free country. This sport is for everyone. Our time will come."

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