Alexandra High School holds the key to the future of black cricket in PMB

2009-10-10 00:00

OVER the years, South African cricket has relied upon its schools to produce a steady supply of accomplished aspirants, a task they have carried out with distinction. Nor has it been merely a handful of establishments that have provided players for provincial and national teams. Thirty or 40 such places have long maintained a proud cricketing tradition. Other nations have their own sources of talent. Australia has its clubs, England had its mines and upper classes, but is now better described as Durham and the Dominions. West Indian players often came from the sugar cane fields, or rather the informal games played by workers and children in the evenings. Basil Butcher first saw Alvin Kallicharran playing in such a knockabout contest, a mite with pads up to his ears and a range of exceptional strokes. Rohan Kanhai was also playing, as was Joe Solomon.

South Africa depended on its schools. All the more reason to take a particular interest in the Michaelmas Cricket Week recently staged in Pietermaritzburg. Sixteen of the top schools in the country, including all the powerful locals, took part. Thanks to good weather and notwithstanding an attack of the runs on the Saturday that had coaches and mothers rushing to the chemists, the festival produced lots of good cricket and was enjoyed by all concerned. Here was confirmation that the game was flourishing and everything was in order.

Or was it? Closer inspection suggested that little has changed in schools cricket in the last 15 years. Walls have been removed, prisoners freed, systems abandoned, lines crossed, prejudices reduced, fears allayed and still schools cricket looked much the same. Indeed more coloured players took part in the mid-nineties than in 2009. Admittedly that was partly due to the participation of two development sides. Incidentally, some expensive cricket kit went missing from one of the dormitories that year and one of the invitational teams was suspected. Everyone wanted to hush it up. Having spent time with the supposed culprits, confident of their innocence, and anyhow persuaded that thieves were thieves and ought to be exposed, I told the team’s management about the thefts. They were appalled and immediately began a thorough investigation. Eventually it emerged that their suspects had been elsewhere at the time of the thefts.

Fifteen or so years later, one had expected to find the school teams reflecting the diversity detected in the national side and encouraged across the board. Nothing of the sort has happened. Michaelhouse fielded one black player and he turned out to be a Zimbabwean. Hilton were the same and College were entirely white. Gauteng was the same, but then its cricket is notoriously mulish. Among the KZN sides I saw, DHS, Glenwood and St Charles were the most mixed. Doubtless it helps that Durban has a large and rising Indian population that has already produced wonderful cricketers. Despite its newness (in its current guise), and consequent lack of wealthy old boys, St Charles does seem to be striving.

Among those taking part in Michaelmas week, only Hudson Park seemed to be suitably inter-racial. Of course it is located in East London. The Eastern Cape and the schools there have long been strongholds of progressive thought. Anyone arguing that cricket was not played by the non-white populations elsewhere needs to take a closer look at history, and most especially the ground-breaking books recently written by historians, amongst them Aslam Khota’s seminal Across The Great Divide.

Obviously it is simplistic to say that our schools are stick-in-the-muds. Numerous complications crop up. Apparently it’s hard to find black boarders, and most of the leading PMB schools depend on them. Moreover headmasters are under pressure from Old Boys and parents obsessed with rugby. And these schools exist primarily to produce leaders and to serve the rich elite. A few scholarships are given to gifted students from poor backgrounds. It’s too glib to put these schools alongside the fake liberals who condemn Mugabe because of the way he treated the white farmers and not because of the massacres, torture, rape and betrayal of the common man. The sort of liberals whose maids wash in dirty bathrooms. Martin Luther King’s ideal remains far away. No hue and cry was raised in cricket circles about the massacres of the Tamils in the 1980s.

South Africa ought not to ignore its school system merely because the older hands have fallen behind the times. Cricket authorities ought to take a leaf out of Zimbabwe’s book. Much is wrong with that country, but its cricket development programme has been a success. The strategy of sending numerous cricket scholars to the main schools, and especially the main black school, namely Churchill High, has worked well. Closer to home, cricket ought to form a close partnership with Alexandra High School, a splendid establishment. It might take a decade and a lot of backing will be needed as well as like-minded junior schools, but the aim should be to turn Alexandra into a cricket stronghold in KZN. To that end, it was good to hear that Neil Johnson is already working flat-out at the school, and that the headmaster and pupils have been most receptive.

Clearly it’s not possible for the “main” boys’ schools ( the girls are streets ahead) to change in a generation let alone a decade. As far as local cricket is concerned, Alexandra is the way forward.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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