Batting for a better life

2013-09-15 14:00

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A dusty soccer field in rural Mpumalanga has become the training ground for some of the country’s most talented young cricketers.  Sizwe sama Yende and Leon Sadiki visit the Malekutu Cricket Academy

On a soccer field at Malekutu Primary School, 11-year-old Mphile Mlotshwa is cheering on a team-mate.

“Come on, Mthokozisi, let’s get a wicket, boy!”

Hang on ... a wicket? On a soccer field?

Welcome to the home of the Maleketu Cricket Academy in Mpumalanga’s Ehlanzeni region.

Malekutu, a rural area northeast of Nelspruit, is dusty and its residents are poor.

This poverty is evident in the “uniforms” worn by the 30 or so young men who troop on to the school field every afternoon to practise their batting, bowling and fielding under the watchful eye of coach Sizwe Shiloane.

There are no cricketing whites or top-of-the-range sports shoes here: The players, aged between seven and 21, play barefoot, in their black leather school shoes or worn out takkies.

They wear ragged pants and tops. Gloves, helmets and thigh pads are in short supply, and the players have to take turns using equipment that more privileged young cricketers take for granted.

But while their attire is ragged, their form is the polar opposite: One graduate has gone on to play for the North West province’s Under-19 team, and others have scored places at top Mpumalanga schools with full scholarships because of their prowess.

The academy works with 22 schools around Malekutu.

Shiloane (23), who is employed by the Mpumalanga Cricket Union, coaches at the other schools three times a week.

There are 160 boys and 26 girls being tutored by the Malekutu Cricket Academy.

“Twelve schools are playing mini cricket at present while the rest have been introduced to hard-ball cricket,” Shiloane says.

The academy has more than 20 players in different age groups playing for Mpumalanga’s provincial teams, and nine of its players were selected as part of an amateur South African team that competed in Portugal in June.

Their most successful alumnus is Gerald Ngwenyama (18), who plays for North West’s Under-19 team and has been selected to represent the national team at that level.

“We’re trying hard, but we’re short of cash and cannot travel to compete often enough,” Shiloane says. “We can’t even have home games because we don’t have a field.”

Academy president Vusi Mathebula is scathing of provincial and national cricket authorities.

“We’re producing black players but all Cricket SA does is host fancy gala dinners. How does that help the development of cricket? They have made so many promises and even came down here, but nothing has happened,” says Mathebula.

Jaco Visagie, the Mpumalanga Cricket Union’s general manager, says they are aware of the academy’s plight and are trying to get funding from Cricket SA to build them a proper pitch.

“They are one of our hopes for the development of cricket in black communities and have been doing very well on their own. We give support to train their coaches,” says Visagie.

Beyond the politics and the money worries, though, there is still the humble field at Malekutu Primary, with its snicks of leather on willow and the happy cries of youngsters enjoying the gentlemen’s game.

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