Proteas deserved better

2012-11-10 00:00

I HAVE got nothing against water sports of any kind. In fact, I have always enjoyed swimming of the lazy, recreational variety as well as body surfing, which I was taught by my mother at an early age. On the other hand, competitive swimming, which I enjoy watching, had no attraction for me or most young cricketers of my generation.

Very few of my cricket contemporaries at Hilton College ventured anywhere near the school pool for fear of attracting ridicule from the heavies who regarded the area as their private domain.

One Hilton cricketer who did make a foray into swimming was Mike Macaulay, a fast left-arm bowler who went on to play for the Springboks against England in 1965.

With all his bowling, Mike had developed powerful shoulders which he thought would be ideally suited to the open one-length butterfly event in Hilton’s annual gala. He reasoned that at over just 33 yards, the pool was short enough for him to get the job done without sinking.

To general astonishment, Macaulay not only survived the race but won in record time. His trouble, however, had just begun. His surprising victory entitled him to swim the open butterfly event in the annual inter-school gala in Maritzburg. At 100 yards, this race was further than Macaulay had swum in any style, let alone butterfly, the most demanding of all strokes.

A less worldly youth would have realised his limitations and cried off on the grounds that the race would interfere with his cricket, but Mike was attracted by the thought of the large female contingent that always attended this gala. He had no intention of foregoing the chance to line up against the likes of Titch McLachlan, the College superstar who became an Olympic swimmer. He foresaw no need to have a private rehearsal at this longer distance. Additional training never crossed his mind.

On the night, Macaulay sprung into a lead which, amid immense cheering from his school, he held for first the 30 yards of the race.

From that moment he entered troubled waters. He did not so much as slow down as come to a dead stop. Unable to lift his arms out of the water, he reached the end of the first lap in a feeble imitation of a dog paddle.

A full length of the pool remained. To his own embarrassment and the mirth of the College boys, Macaulay abandoned his dog paddle halfway down the home stretch. He completed his race on his back with lifeguards lining the pool and the swimmers for the next event waiting for him to finish. His brief swimming career was over.

Much as I admire swimmers and rowers for the long, lonely hours they spend training in pursuit of success, I find argument with the awards given to them at Sascoc’s recent ceremony to honour the most outstanding sporting achievements in 2012.

Normally, I would pay no attention to anything done by Sascoc, which has achieved for itself some sort of controlling interest in South African sport that is neither deserved nor welcomed by its reluctant members. I believe, however, that their awards this year have not taken into account the performances of the Protea cricketers.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that Sascoc would want to show some recognition for Olympic success, but does it genuinely believe that Chad Le Clos and the lightweight rowing four deserve to be named the sports star and sports team of the year respectively in a year when the Proteas reached cricket’s top ranking?

Surely the entertainment value and extended drama of the winter Test series against England should have placed the Proteas ahead of all contenders for the team of the year award?

How many readers of this newspaper can name more than one of the gold medal winning rowers. I certainly cannot apart from their coach, Roger Barrow, who is the son of friends.

Rowing is a vibrant sport with dedicated participants, but if a team of the year award is to mean anything, it should usually reflect the larger public consciousness and pride in the country’s successful efforts on the fields, pools or water courses of battle.

That is the trouble with these awards. The bigger sports, particularly rugby, and cricket, where we are invariably close to being the best in the world, will dominate team awards over any length of time. It is only during an Olympic year that the minor sports come into any sort of prominence, but this should not mean that exceptional performances such as those produced by our cricketers should be ignored once every four years.

For me, the single most outstanding individual performance of the year on several accounts was Hashim Amla’s 311 not out in The Oval Test match. Firstly, this was the innings that laid the foundation for the Protea’s victory in that match as well as the series win that propelled the team to the its current top ranking. Secondly, it was the highest score made by a South African in any Test innings let alone against the then number one team in the world.

Thirdly, it was an innings of uncommon beauty and endurance much admired by friends, foes and neutrals alike. Finally, it was a performance by a player whose skin colour would have precluded him from being in any Springbok team prior to 1992. It was arguably the single most significant sporting performance of all time by any South African.

It will be a long time before Sascoc is confronted with an achievement of similar magnitude when it comes to its annual awards.

Hopefully, Sascoc’s life as a controlling body of South African sport will be short, but if its awards are to ever mean anything, it would be wise not to ignore something as rare as Hashim Amla’s great innings at The Oval.

So congratulations go to Chad and the rowers for their awards which were not undeserved, but my own votes would have gone elsewhere.

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