Black South African cricket comes of age

South African bowler Kagiso Rabada (R) congratulates South Africa's fielder Temba Bavuma during the second Test match against England on January 2, 2016 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kagiso Rabada (right) congratulates Temba Bavuma during the second Test match against England in January

South Africa may have lost their prestigious summer series against England but the disappointment has been assuaged to some degree by the emergence of Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma as two cricketers who represent the future of the game in this country in more ways than one.

While many would like to dismiss their race as being irrelevant, the fact that the pair are black African is significant in that they have laid the platform to become key members of the Proteas side at a time when greater representivity of the country's majority, particularly in high-profile sports like rugby and cricket, have come under close government scrutiny.

The 20-year-old Rabada, whose best match figures of 13/144 places him second only to Makhaya Ntini's national record of 13/132 in Test matches, became the youngest South African to take 10 wickets in a Test (regarded as the bowler's equivalent of scoring a century).

He finished as the series' leading wicket-taker, despite missing selection for the first Test.

Bavuma, 25, became the first black African to score a Test century for South Africa when he made a polished unbeaten 102 in the second Test in his birthplace of Cape Town, and ended the series as South Africa's third highest run-scorer ahead of several more experienced teammates.

The pair's performances could not have come at a more opportune time for South African cricket, which is in transition.

Having lost world class stars like former captain Graeme Smith, all-rounder Jacques Kallis, widely regarded as one of the best ever to have played the game, and wicket keeper Mark Boucher, the Proteas' rebuilding phase coincides with calls for greater representation of the country's black majority in the national team.

"It's not about me making my debut, it's about being a role model - an inspiration for other kids... black African kids"

Temba Bavuma

A disgruntled group using the title Black Cricketers in Unity wrote to Cricket South Africa (CSA) in November 2014 to highlight concerns over their treatment in national squads, claiming they were mostly being used as drinks carriers.

The group also questioned CSA's commitment to addressing the legacy of apartheid's racial divisions and inequalities.

"The biggest issue black African players have is that they want to be picked for the right reasons. Then once picked, they want to be given a proper opportunity," they wrote.

"The selectors and the coach have to start taking responsibility."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rabada becomes the youngest South African to take 10 wickets in a test match

From the excerpt, it is clear that black African players want to be selected on merit rather than as tokens, and when they are selected, they want to be given a decent chance to prove themselves instead of being set up for failure.

CSA confirmed their transformation policy to parliament last year, which said that at least four black players, one of whom would be black African, are to be included in future national teams.

When race is part of the debate in South African sport, the issue of quotas is almost inevitably central to the discussion.

In this country, there is still a widespread belief among sceptics that when black players are called up for national duty it's because there are quotas to be met, rather than looking at the individual's potential and ability.

'Pressure on colour players'

And when the team loses, quotas (read: Black players) are inevitably made the scapegoat.

But there were no such doubts about Rabada and Bavuma, who both earned their selection.

Rabada was Player of the Tournament at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup, won by South Africa, together with consistent performances for his franchise.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bavuma becomes the first black African to score a test century for South Africa

Bavuma is a reliable source of runs in the local first-class game, as well as delivering the goods for the South Africa A side, including a top score of 162 against their Australian counterparts in August 2014.

The world class performances of players so new to the set up was not only a triumph on the field against top quality opposition but they also showed great mental strength to silence their doubters, of whom there were many.

Kevin Pietersen, the former South African who left for England in 2000 blaming the quota system, is probably still wiping the egg off his face.

He told an Australian newspaper before the Boxing Day Test in Durban: "I don't know who that kid is who bats six, [Temba] Bavuma.

"I don't know why he's batting in that line-up, when I saw some of the players who are playing in the Ram Slam [South Africa's domestic T20 competition] recently."

Unsung heroes

Former captain Hashim Amla, upon complimenting Bavuma's outstanding performances, alluded to the hurdles black players have to overcome when first coming into the team.

"Personally, I know the pressure that players of colour go through when they first come into the set up.

"We both have very similar careers - the first time we do play international cricket, everyone doubts you. Either because of the colour of your skin, even though you've got the stats to back it up domestically, everybody doubts you for various reasons."

The performances of Rabada and Bavuma have earned widespread praise and they both now serve as important role models to the thousands of aspirant black cricketers seeking to emulate them.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ntini, the country's third highest wicket taker, played his last Test match in December 2009

Their emergence also comes at a time when there was a worrying absence of a regular and key black African presence in the team following the retirement of Ntini, the country's third highest wicket taker, who played the last of his 101 Test matches in December 2009.

"When I made my debut for South Africa [in December 2014] I came to be a bit more aware and realise the significance behind it all. It's not about me making my debut, it's about being a role model - an inspiration for other kids... black African kids," Bavuma said.

Achieving the milestone of becoming the first black South African to make a century for his country will strengthen that example.

"I understand the significance but I'm struggling to find the words," Bavuma added, reflecting on his magnificent achievement.

Long way to go

The feats of Bavuma and Rabada should not really come as a surprise to those who are aware of the rich history of black African cricket in South Africa.

Contrary to misguided popular belief, the game of cricket is not a recent introduction to their community.

Andre Odendaal, in his seminal Story of an African Game, records that cricket was first played in black mission schools in the Eastern Cape in the 1850s and 1860s.

And along the way there were many unsung heroes, including the legendary Frank Roro whose prolific run-scoring in the 1930s and 40s earned him the nickname "the Dusty Bradman", in a nod to the legendary Australian regarded as the game's all-time best.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The South African team is dominated by white players

There was also all-rounder Ben Malamba, who was an integral part of Basil d'Oliveira's SA Cricket of Board of Control (Sacboc) team, which beat the Kenya Asians side on their historic tour to East Africa in 1958.

While Rabada and Bavuma have made a major breakthrough in South Africa's still racially divided society, the numbers are still a cause for concern, as only seven of the 91 players selected since readmission to international cricket in 1992 are black Africans.

Of that compliment only Ntini was a regular.

At a time when South Africa is battling with a resurgence of incidents of rabid racism, the issue of racial quotas in sport is still an elephant in the room, but the more emerging youngsters like Rabada and Bavuma continue to deliver on the highest stage, the sooner quotas will be seen as a relic of the past.

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