Tsotsobe and De Villiers celebrates the dismissal of Nasir Jamshed (c) AFP, Cricinfo

Watching the Proteas beat Pakistan last night, I found myself thinking about the irony of the spectacle. I’m not referring to the two suicidal run-outs by South African batsmen (where have we seen that before?; and in any case, that would be satire) or the way South Africa ‘choked’ Pakistan into submission. Instead, I was contemplating the long road cricket has traversed to this match, played by two former colonies of England, on English soil, with barely an Englishman in sight. Pakistan fielded a team of Pakistani origin, South Africa a team of diverse origin: six white South Africans (Ingram, Millar, McLaren, Morris and two Afrikaans-speaking, De Villiers and Du Plessis), two Coloured* South Africans (Duminy, Peterson), Hashim Amla whose grandparents hail from India and Tsotsobe and Phangiso who are black South Africans. More surprisingly, the crowd was predominantly of Pakistani origin, perhaps immigrant Pakistanis or first-generation Brits who still support their parents’ country-of-origin.

England is, of course, the home of cricket. Cricket began to be played in rural southern England in the sixteenth century, not far from Birmingham where the game was played last night. It traveled abroad with the soldiers and officers of the British empire, to the Caribbean, and South Africa, and India, and Australia and New Zealand, and many places in-between. But today, cricket is not an English game anymore; it is an Indian game accidentally invented by the English, as a famous quip goes. As Fahad Mustafa writes in a new paper in The Journal of Global History, “this represents a remarkable transformation: a game that was hardly played by the millions that inhabited the British colonial territories in South Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, less than a century later turned out to be the most popular sport in these erstwhile colonies, followed with a passion that is in stark contrast with the popularity of cricket in England”.

Why did cricket so easily transfer to colonial subjects? From the colonial masters view, cricket was, according to Arjun Appadurai, “seen as an ideal way to socialize natives into new modes of inter-group conduct and new standards of public behaviour”. Schools were established in the colonies to train the next generation of colonial administrators, and a diet of athleticism was supposed to transfer vigour and manliness to the ‘lazy native’. Especially in India, Pakistan and the Caribbean, “cricket’s role as an educating and civilizing device found many supporters in colonial administration”.In South Africa, cricket took much longer to establish itself among the colonial subjects. Albert Grundlingh writes in The International Journal of the History of Sport about the slow take-up of cricket by Afrikaners (Afrikaans-speaking South Africans descended from early Dutch, German and French settlers). Even though an Afrikaner – NJH Theunissen – represented South Africa as a fast bowler against England in 1889 in Cape Town, Afrikaners did not take up cricket in large numbers. English colonial officials were also dismissive of Afrikaners’ ability to play the game:

Writing shortly after the devastating Anglo–Boer War of 1899–1902, John Buchan forcefully vented such views. ‘It is worth considering the Boer [Afrikaner] at sport’, he wrote, ‘for there he is at his worst. Without a tradition of a fair play, soured and harassed by want and disaster his sport became a matter of commerce (shooting game for profit)’. Afrikaners to him ‘were simply not a sporting race’… (Grundlingh 2011: 99).

For much of the early twentieth century, then, cricket in South Africa was the domain of English-speaking white South Africans. Only after 1948, when the Afrikaner-backed National Party gained power, did things change.

In language reminiscent of current black demands that sporting teams should reflect the composition of the ‘nation’, it was argued in 1956 in Afrikaner circles that ‘until the Afrikaner takes his place on our cricket fields no Springbok team can be said to be truly representative of our country’s cricketing ability’ (p. 102).

How was this to be achieved?

This quest was not formulated in terms of present-day transformational charters, but a different route was suggested. Emerging Afrikaner interest had to be channeled into the ‘establishment of Afrikaans clubs, or rather clubs where the atmosphere is Afrikaans so that the newcomer will readily feel at home and will be able to concentrate all his endeavours on the mastery of the game itself’ (p. 102).

Was this strategy successful?

Although some predominantly Afrikaner clubs were formed, in a broader context Afrikaner interest in the game benefited from socio-economic and attendant cultural changes which permeated white society during the 1960s. With an average growth rate of 6% during most of the decade, South Africa experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity. In tandem with this there was a trend among Afrikaners away from unskilled or semi-skilled, relatively poorly paid, labour to skilled and better remunerated positions with stable career prospects in the burgeoning nationalist bureaucracy and other associated enterprises (p. 102).

The rapid economic growth of the 1960s, especially of Afrikaner incomes, created the opportunity for many young Afrikaners to attend better schools, with better facilities, and to learn the game from a young age. By 1992 (note: thirty years later), when South Africa returned to international cricket in a test match against the West Indies in Barbados, five of the eleven players were Afrikaans-speaking.

Even though 80% of South Africans are black, few black cricketers have played for South Africa at international level. Cricket remains an expensive sport, which is the reason some commentators, including Makhaya Ntini, has suggested that it is easier for black South Africans to become bowlers than batsmen, as the demands on expensive gear is less stringent.
As with many problems permeating South Africa, the solution (from our own history) seems to be higher economic growth. If we manage to grow South Africans’ incomes, expect more black batsmen to emerge and prosper. Not only will we see a transformed team, but, hopefully, also a Cup or two in the trophy cabinet.

* Coloured South Africans are descendants of liaisons between Europeans, slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and Mozambique, and indigenous Khoesan.