Finding optimism in a soccer queue

2010-04-17 00:00

GOLLY it’s good to be back in Africa! Life is so much more interesting. Residents in Sydney spend their time agitating about traffic cops and parking tickets, the two fastest-growing industries in the country. Australia is a gigantic gated community. Admittedly, it has its advantages. Cricket reporters from Pakistan appreciated the way things worked to order. Still, the topics are humdrum.

No such charge could be laid at Africa’s door. No sooner had the plane landed when news emerged that Eugene Terre’Blanche had been slain and that Julius Malema had been beguiled by the wealthy thugs and fake revolutionaries running Zimbabwe.

Years ago I went to hear the Afrikaner buffoon speak. Fearful of guilt by association, “liberal” pals were reluctant to attend, but people spend too much time listening to friendly voices. Notwithstanding his irrelevance and stupidity, Terre’Blanche’s murder was widely covered in the western world, and is likely to hurt ticket sales. Malema’s pronouncements were a ruse to distract attention from the examination of his finances. During the summer he seems to have become a “we”.

At first sight, it might seem that all the news is gloomy. Not a bit of it. After all, it has recently emerged that our municipality has found a leader prepared to dispense with his 12 security officers and drive his own car. Hallelujah! If only all those hundreds of millions were spent on schools and hospitals. Instead the children are rioting and the hospitals are at their wit’s end.

More good news emerged from a visit to the local FNB branch on Thursday morning. To arrive was to discover a long line of people starting at the service desks and reaching deep into the mall. In the line could be found blacks, whites and browns mingling cheerfully, talking energetically. It was like ’94 over again.

Of course they were queuing to buy tickets for the World Cup. The excitement was palpable and the harmony was unmistakable. It was a scene to warm the cockles of the heart, even as the latest farm murder and the low wages still paid to labourers freezes the blood. The achievements of the ANC and other merchants of peace ought not to be underestimated.

Not that crime and corruption can be ignored. Nor, though, are they unique to South Africa. The biggest cricket story of the week was the revelation that two Essex players, one of them a Pakistan Test cricketer, are under investigation for match-fixing. Nowadays some county matches are shown on Indian television and, by all accounts, betting is rampant. Bear in mind, too, that match-fixing does not require fixing results. Money can be made from a well-timed wide or run-out.

It may appear that all the usual suspects are involved — Indian bookies, Pakistani players and so forth — but it is that sort of complacency that persuaded critics to take Hansie Cronjé at his word. In fact, his nose had been in the trough for years. Admittedly it was in good company.

Cricket corruption is not a subcontinental monopoly. Nor is it new in county cricket. Somerset threw a match in 1976, and on the following day their opponents returned the favour. In those days, teams played championship matches from Saturday to Tuesday with a 40-over contest sandwiched in between. Somerset were riding high in one competition; their rivals were pressing hard in the other and so a deal was made. As it happens, I was marooned in the seconds and was not involved. No one ever spoke of it again.

Although hardly common practice, it has happened before. An eminent cricket scribe recalled a similar arrangement being made in 1969. Somerset never lowered themselves again, but other teams were not as restrained. In the 1980s Don Topley, an Essex seamer, and Jack Bannister, the most forensic of cricket writers, claimed that various counties had deliberately lost matches. Saints may be commonplace in heaven, but elsewhere they are thin on the ground. In those days it was not done for money and bookies were not involved. Many cricketers placed bets on horses — Brian Close did little else — but none, to my recollection, ever gambled on cricket.

Nowadays cricket corruption is driven by money, not glory, and resembles insider trading. Boxing and racing have long battled the bookies, but nowadays other sports face similar challenges, not least soccer and tennis. To its credit, golf has kept its discipline. Long may it last!

But the point has not yet been made. Who has truly prevailed, who has found joy, the corrupt or the wonderfully mixed bag queuing patiently for the chance to watch sport at its best, and to support a proudly South African team? One comment lingers from that line in FNB. All and sundry were debating some pertinent issue and then, suddenly, a white man exclaimed: “God, I love this country!”

Let the crooks wallow in their wads and let the rest of us get on with life.

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

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