Oudtshoorn - They play cricket with self-made, taped-up cricket bats and a tennis ball.
But the skill they display on their gravel patch in Bridgton, Oudtshoorn, could rival that of players privileged to play on lush green pitches.
Young boys, former gangsters, and unemployed youth all form part of the Oudtshoorn Premier League, an unregistered organisation which tries to promote the gentleman’s game as an alternative to social ills plaguing the crime-ridden community.
The OPL is made of 20 teams and the players are aged between 12 and 37.
The league’s “CEO” Gavin Pietersen started the initiative two years ago. He wanted children unable to pay the joining and registration fees with registered clubs in the area to also have somewhere to play.
“Parents here worry about groceries and bills. They don’t have even R20 to spare for a luxury such as a sports club membership when there are hungry children to feed,” he says.
“Membership to our club is free. All you need is a good attitude, discipline, and a love for the game.”
‘Touring’ open fields
The teams come from different parts of Bridgton, and play their matches on vacant patches of municipal land.
They “tour” by visiting other open fields, all within the area.
On Tuesday, the Rollercoasters took on the Pro-Stars on a gravel pitch next to the Smartie Town informal settlement.
The batsmen are quick between the wickets, their broken takkies kicking up dust as they chase their target.
Benzino Lewendal, 12, clutches a bat made by teammate Ricardo Fiellies.
“You should see me hit a six,” he boasts. “This isn’t a bat you buy in a shop, but it’s just as good. I think it’s lucky.”
Fiellies, one of the many jobless youth in Bridgton, made the bat, named “Legend”, with a piece of wood. All the batsmen share it.
The Rollercoasters play with taped up, broken bats which they received from a well-off cricket club.
A ‘constructive battle’
But it’s not the equipment which makes the team, player Maxwell Boesack, 30, points out.
The former gangster is one of the children’s favourite mentors and patiently gives the little ones tips on improving their game.
“If I can keep just one child from walking the path I chose, that is good enough for me. I joined the gangs because I was an angry young man with nothing to do. Now I tell children who remind me of my younger self to come and take out their frustration by hitting a ball.”
He joined the Ugly Americans when he was 16. Now he shows off the gang tattoos that remind him of the life he left behind.
“There is more to life than robbing and hurting people. On the pitch, the two opposing teams don’t hurt each other. We test our skills and improve our game in a constructive battle.”
A simple request from politicians
Pietersen started the process of registering the Eden Rainbow Development Project as an NPO to allow them to apply for funding and seek sponsorship.
The project will act as an umbrella body for the OPL and the soccer and netball teams associated with the club.
“The boys have a rusty and bent soccer goal post. The girls score through a pole we bought from a scrapyard and a BMX bike wheel a local welder turned into a makeshift net for us. But it works,” he says with a shrug.
According to Pietersen, political parties face a simple task if they want to win the vote of their adult players.
“Give us facilities for sport development in Bridgton. Our children and youth have so much talent, but very little opportunity to develop it. We could have the next Herschelle Gibbs running around in our streets.”
When Gavindino Pietersen, 11, is old enough, he will vote for the party which invested in his development.
“We aren’t asking for a lot. We just want to play,” he says.
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