Peter RoebuckNew cricket talent is growing and we need to help it along

2009-03-20 00:00

SEARCHING for encouragement after the self-inflicted wounds suffered by South African cricket over the last fortnight, your correspondent took the chance during the week to attend the annual general meeting of the University of Western Cape Cricket Club (UWCCC).

Suffice it to say that Mike Proctor is a good man, but not much good at communications and without reliable judgment. Ashwell Prince may have become hot under the collar, but he has a point. He has been treated without due consideration while others such as AB de Villiers have been pampered. As captain, Prince ought to have been allowed to nominate his own place in the batting order.

De Villiers ought to be opening or keeping wicket. Hopefully these are merely short-term setbacks.

As can be told from its somewhat forbidding architecture and location, UWC is a former black university required to turn out enough qualified black graduates to keep the wheels turning.

Nowadays it is a cosmopolitan campus and, judging by the number of smiling faces and the way my host did not bother to lock his car, moves along without undue difficulty. UWC takes pride in its cricket and aims to become the strongest cricket university on the continent, a task it is already halfway to achieving. My reason for pottering along was to catch up with their progress, resume friendship with the leading lights and to visit five adopted sons studying at UWC and playing for various of its cricket teams.

Obviously the AGM was confidential, but one matter was raised that permits wider dissemination. Students pointed out that cricket was UWC’s strongest sport and wondered, in that case, why it did not garner a bigger following and financing. The elders replied that cricket is still seen as an elite sport and until this barrier is broken down it has remain tolerated rather than appreciated.

Soccer is the people’s game and rugby has the glamour. Contrastingly, cricket does not quite capture the popular imagination or attract youthful ambition.

Although it hurt, it was true. Try as it might, cricket has not yet changed its image as a larney sport. Admittedly, the game little deserves its supposed reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, but of late it has tried. Not so long ago the game was as divided as the country, with communities existing in a state of barely concealed loathing. On that count the game has advanced.

Half the current Test squad is coloured, and chosen on their merits. The sport does not reflect the nation at large, but a lot has been achieved in a few years and against formidable odds. After all, cricket’s primary source of talent was the top schools and even now they are beyond the reach of vast sections of the population.

Although it is understandable, South Africa cannot focus entirely on colour as it spreads the game. Economics is also important. If cricket is to establish itself as a game for everyone, it must provide more pathways and pitches. Only then can it hope to fill grounds and excite a wider public. Only then can it command space in the township newspapers and so forth. Only then can it cause as much commotion as Bafana Bafana and the rest. A concerted campaign is needed not least to build on the success and variety of the current team. Far from remaining defensive, cricket ought to seize the initiative.

Happily the game is starting to reach into the nooks and crannies of the country. Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn come from different corners of the landscape, but they are sharing the new ball in Cape Town. Neither had an affluent upbringing. Too much ought not be made of a few cases, but these players at least prove that the talent scouts have big ears.

However the process has a long way to go, and the universities have a part to play. It might sound odd to suggest that colleges full of bright youngsters have anything to offer to a game.

But then, true universities seek to produce more than corporate fodder. To look around the room at UWCCC was to see 30 or so fit and resilient youngsters from tough backgrounds listening intently and joking occasionally as serious topics were debated. Apart from the grey matter and sporting ability, none of them has an elite bone in their bodies. A UWC student played for the Cape Cobras last week.

Not that UWC is an isolated case. Under Reggie Smith’s direction, UKZN is also striving to strengthen and widen its cricket base. Scholarships have been created. Before long it will be sending numerous superb and well-educated players of all sports to try their luck in the domestic game. Everyone is eager to find black talent and some are taking steps to produce it. Schemes of this sort are crucial to the game’s future in Africa.

In the end cricket, like the country, will either belong to everyone or become a basket case.

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

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