Time to get the quota monkey off Smith’s back

2008-12-30 00:00

WHAT a time it is to be a South African sports fan, and even more so to be a follower of Graeme Smith and his burgeoning troop of talented cricketers who can now lay claim to being the finest Test outfit in world cricket. That they are not nearly the finished product only serves to heighten the optimism that surrounds the Proteas set-up.

Twice Smith’s men were staring down the abyss as Ricky Ponting’s stumbling stars sought a way back into the Perth Test and again at the MCG. And twice, Smith’s men didn’t blink, refusing to shrink in the unforgiving light that precedes historical landmark achievements.

A sustained period of domination surely looms, and it has been one whose platform was laid a long time ago. It is almost unnecessary to be controversial in these heady times, but one small matter still rankles about our national cricket team.

Smith has made a mountain of runs, silenced critics and won over reluctant fans the world over with his ice-cold demeanour in the fiercest of battles in the ovals of this world, all the while looking over his shoulder at the circling politicians eager to meddle.

It is perhaps his greatest triumph that he has managed to stay calm, even in very trying circumstances, and forged a way forward for one of the most naturally gifted generations of cricketers to emanate from these shores.

The quota question still hovers uncomfortably, even now when not one member of the current squad needs this “interference”.

Makhaya Ntini, the ageless workhorse, has risen to become the leader of the pace pack. Perhaps not with bags of wickets or a barrage of pace, the “Mdingi Express” has cemented his place in the history books as one of the finest South African bowlers ever, up there with Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.

Waiting in the wings, the likes of Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Monde Zondeki have cut their teeth in the franchise competitions, both ending as leading wicket takers in the last two completed SuperSport Series. Both are more than able replacements for Ntini when he finally decides to call it quits.

Hashim Amla, after an uncertain start internationally, went back to the franchise system to tweak a quirky technique and has returned as a player oozing class and time at the crease.

The find of the summer, JP Duminy, has also waited patiently, all the while churning out a pile of runs domestically. An enthralled Australian commentary box has compared the classy left-hander to none other than Brian Charles Lara, so meteorically has his stock risen.

The man whose injury opened the door for Duminy, the indefatigable Ashwell Prince, has climbed the ranks to become Smith’s lieutenant, with several match-winning centuries — including one in Australia and two in England — illustrating his pivotal role in a vastly succesful middle- order.

None of these players are looked at within the team, or around the world for that matter, as inferior players of colour dependent on a favourable selection process to make the grade. They are key to Smith’s plans, heroes around the country and good enough to hold their own in any conditions.

2008 has seen the emergence of several, iconic victories by black men all over the world. Usain Bolt dropped jaws and world records in Beijing with a demonstration of breathless speed and panache. Similarly, Lewis Hamilton left a trail of former champions in his wake as he became the youngest Formula One world champion in history.

Even more significantly, Barack Obama, of part Kenyan descent, rewrote history and became the first black president-elect of the United States.

All these achievements have one common thread. Not that the protagonists were men of colour; far from it. They got to the top on merit, and the colour issue was a soundbite for those whose thinking is still defined by colour and creed, instead of character and capability.

South Africa, as a nation, stands on the brink of sporting greatness. Like the irritatingly brilliant Australian rugby and cricket teams at the turn of the century, the Proteas and the Springboks have the world at their feet.

Blessed with young champions eager for even more success, both these sides do not need any distractions. It is worth remembering that it was in Australia, in 2001/02, that the full force of the quota system was felt. The late Percy Sonn’s insistence that Justin Ontong play ahead of the precocious Jacques Rudolph left Australians puzzled, South Africans embarrassed and two young men stuck in the uncomfortable glare of the media. Both careers suffered, and the team took a long time to recover.

And just when one thought it was a thing of the past, it reared its ugly head again earlier this year. Charl Langeveldt, short of form and confidence, was picked ahead of Andre Nel for the tour of India. Riddled by guilt and common sense, the prison warden from Boland took a stand, saying he wouldn’t play as he did not feel he warranted a spot on current form.

His courage can only be commended and one hopes it sowed the seeds of enlightenment in the likes of Butana Khompela and company in the sports commission.

Cricket South Africa chief Gerald Majola has slowly relaxed his insistence on the quota system for Smith’s team. He has backed them unflinchingly, much to the chagrin of some politicians with apparently little else to do, but the results speak for themselves.

Majola openly admitted to weeping joyfully when South Africa gallantly chased down 414 at the Waca. He was again at a loss for words when Hashim Amla flicked the historical, series-winning two runs yesterday, thus justifying his faith in the process.

This is a side on the cusp of greatness. The last thing Smith needs is to fight against politicians who know little or nothing about googlies, bouncers or reverse sweeps. Much rather he should be left well alone to focus his considerable powers on continuing a rampant march towards immortality.

He has the tools, and now it is time that the powers that be let him build his castle. For the good of the nation, gentlemen, let us cut this quota crap. For good.

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