Hands off: This one’s ours!

2009-12-05 00:00

LAST year I hopped into a taxi in Port Elizabeth and heard for the first time about a young man called Alviro Petersen. Certainly his name had appeared frequently on scorecards but there were so many Petersens running around that it was hard for a foreigner to tell them apart. No sooner had the driver been asked to head for the cricket ground than he mentioned that his lad played a bit, and added that now and then he scored a few runs in provincial cricket.

Dad reported that after years of battling away in the domestic game, his son had been given the honour of representing his country in a few ODI’s. Now he had gone to try his luck in the northern parts, hoping to add that little bit extra to his game.

It was all said without rancour or boasting. Here was a father proud of the boy he had raised but not blind to his limitations. It was up to the lad to prove himself to the selectors. And now Petersen has indeed forced his way into the reckoning. More power to his elbow. Truth to tell, his record is not that of a Test batsman. In an age of heavier scoring, he averages 37 in first-class cricket. Clearly the selectors like the way he went about things in the ODIs against England. Doubtless he was chosen as a back-up batsman, but he’ll get the chance to see Test cricket from the inside and, as Travis Dowling discovered in Brisbane, it’s always possible that a batsman might fail a fitness test. Doubtless it helps, too, that he is a coloured player. South Africa and its cricket are attempting to execute radical change without causing ruination. Presumably they are anxious not to repeat Zim­babwe’s mistake of moving from white imperialism to black imperialists.

Petersen’s rise reminds observers of the strength of rugby and cricket in the Eastern Cape and the vital role this community has to play as standard-bearers as these previously confined activities seek to become truly national games. If they can succeed, anyone can. Of course, the coloured communities are steeped in these games and it takes time to put down roots, but all things are possible with patience and effort.

War-torn, tribal Afghanistan has risen to 12th in the world cricket rankings, and the Americans are about to send another 30 000 troops. China is hosting and taking part in a cricket tournament at the Asian Games in 2010. Without imagination no game deserves to survive.

But Petersen’s rise also confirms another point. Cricketers can came from anywhere. Academies, diets, tracksuits, videos, sponsored kit and so forth all have their parts to play. But a kid can still break through from a tiny fishing village in Guyana, as did Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who practised his batting variously in a community hall, a rolled patch of grass surrounded by fishing nets, and on dying waves. Three boys can emerge from a single school, too. Dinesh Ramdin, Ravi Rampaul and the splendid 19-year-old Adrian Barath come from Presentation College in Trinidad.

And, as English journalist Scyld Berry observed after visiting Gelvandale, a coloured suburb in Port Elizabeth north, cricketers aplenty can break through from scratch matches played with bare feet and between boys from adjoining streets. Petersen learnt about batting in these rough-and-ready games played with the sort of taped balls also used in Indian alleys and in the West Indies. Kolkata has entire leagues dedicated to these encounters. Evidently these confrontations teach a boy to stand up for himself, use his wits and keep his eye on the ball. It is not such a bad combination. In the end all sport is a dogfight. Cricket should not lose sight of the importance of these schoolyard and backyard experiences.

Nor is Petersen the only fine cricketer produced by the township. On the contrary, it is hotbed of sporting success. Ashwell Prince, one of the most redoubtable and underestimated of batsmen, learnt his craft on that same field and in those same 25 over matches. As Berry points out, he began as a swashbuckler and only latterly learnt to be a stalwart. Wayne Parnell is from the same neck of the woods. Although wet behind the ears, he is a superb cricketer and with proper guidance will provide outstanding service.

Cricket is forever becoming more technological. Coaches are constantly trying to improve their methods. But there is a lot to be said for simplicity and strength. It might be worth visiting Presentation College and Gelvandale and studying their methods. Somewhere along the way these places created a tradition. Somewhere along the way they instilled technique, toughness and fighting spirit.

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