Not a happy week

2014-10-25 00:00

IT began last Thursday morning with the sad news of the death of Brian Bath and ended with Judge Masipa sentencing Oscar Pistorius to five years in jail for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp.

In between, the West Indies tour of India fell apart and the world’s highest ranked golfer will soon lay down his clubs in preparation for his time in court against a fellow Ryder Cupper.

The further sport drifts into its professional era, the more damaging and complex its aberrations become.

Brian Bath was among the last generation of amateur sportsmen who played without any consideration for financial gain. For all that, he was no less skilled an opening batsman than many of the modern players who have gone on to play for South Africa and few of the modern, highly paid cricketers are as competitive as was Bath.

Given the nickname “Bubbles” by a raucous Rhodesian in Salisbury, he played for Transvaal for the best part of a decade, starting as a bespectacled young lad with a sound defence and finishing up as an accomplished opening batsman of great reliability. It says something for his ability in an era of erratic selections that he was never dropped from the Transvaal team. He wore a look of fresh-faced innocence throughout his career, but beneath it lurked a cricketer who expected no quarter and gave none away.

On a sweltering day at Newlands, Bubbles spent the afternoon patrolling the boundary in the shade of the great plain trees behind the railway stand. I spent this time on the opposite side of the field, not so quietly succumbing to sunstroke. Whenever our paths crossed, I begged him to give me a break in the shade, if only for a few minutes. He resolutely refused.

Eventually, I wore him down and he agreed to swop for “one over only”. As luck would have it, no sooner was I in position than Chris Stephens swept Pieter de Vaal towards me and I completed a decent running catch. Not a man who believed in rewards or mercy, Bubbles quickly dispatched me back into the sun.

The following morning, I was woken by a call from him. “Thanks for the catch, Whitey.” The Cape Times had attributed the catch to him. I spent years to no avail trying to get the record books straightened.

Several years later, after both of us had retired, I persuaded Bubbles to make a once off return to the Transvaal side for a Gillette Cup semi-final against Natal. We needed someone to open the innings against Mike Procter and Vincent van der Bijl on a lively Kingsmead pitch. Bubbles reluctantly agreed to play, but he batted soundly in difficult conditions to make a splendid half century and set Transvaal up for a huge score.

Unfortunately for Bubbles, rain stopped play with about an hour of the Natal innings left. Play was resumed the following morning, but Bubbles was so stiff that he could hardly move. The 12th man, Michael Hooper, took his place in the field and at a crucial moment brought off a spectacular, running, diving catch of a kind that Bubbles would not have caught even in his dreams.

Mike Procter strolled over to where Brian was sitting in the pavilion and bitterly said, “Nice catch Bubbles”. He was not, however, credited with that one.

Bubbles served just less than one year as chairperson of the Transvaal Cricket Board before he decided to emigrate to Australia in 1986. His departure was a loss for many of us. He could have become one of the great administrators of cricket. He had a sharp, analytical mind, allied to a calmness of thought, and a lovely sense of humour that would have served cricket well in the tricky days following the euphoric birth of the Rainbow Nation.

Bubbles fell ill with cancer earlier this year. It was a sickening blow, but he accepted his fate with grace and the peaceful acceptance of a life well lived. He is survived by his wife, three children and five grandchildren.

I cannot believe society achieves anything by committing Oscar Pistorius to prison. It merely adds to the misery of a man who, in the space of a few moments of irrational thought in the agony of the moment, lost everything. Nothing that happens to him in prison will assuage the young man’s anguish nor bring Steenkamp back to life.

Oscar is not a criminal. The State attempted to shoehorn a murder charge against him despite a lack of evidence. The trial itself, from beginning to end, was a monstrous waste of time and money. It should have been done and dusted within a month. The decision to televise it prolonged the agony for all concerned, not least for the distressed families of both the deceased and accused. The desire for retribution and vengeance that hung heavily over both the chattering classes and ignorati has not been becoming of a civilised society.

The West Indies fiasco involving a pay dispute could almost have been written by Tom Sharpe, so quickly did the farce of it unravel. If further damage is not to be suffered by international cricket, the whole matter needs to be resolved with a degree of urgency, which is not common in the Caribbean.

Cricket South Africa has more than a detached interest in this matter. The Windies are due to tour here over the festive season and no viable option exists to replace the Windies if the dispute lingers on through our summer. The first official tour of the Windies to South Africa was almost derailed by a similar problem when the entire team, bar one, returned to London almost as soon as they had arrived. Sanity prevailed then, but should it fail to do so now, it would mean that in the space of a year the highest ranked team in the world will have played just three Tests.

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