New spirit of THE Wanderers

The runs that rained from the bat of GIBBS at the Wanderers may just about be the beginning of the recasting of South African cricket, writes N. U. ABILASH.

During the innings break of the `greatest one-day match ever', something significant happened. The cast and crew of the South African feature film `Tsotsi', which won this year's Oscar for the best foreign film, took a lap of honour around the Wanderers.

The film is about the experiences of a young black gangster from post-apartheid Soweto, the black Johannesburg township. The hero crosses over to the affluent suburbs of the city as he flees, eyes full of rage and frustration, from a barrage of questions directed at his bitter past, about which he does not want to talk.

Just as the movie propelled post-apartheid South African films into the global stage, the three and a half hours of cricket after the architects of the movie took their well-deserved bow clearly sent signals that the country's young multicultural squad is not behind any other team when it comes to `pure' global cricketing excellence. One can almost visualise Graeme Smith, and the country's cricket administrators, running away in rage when confronted with questions about the past from people with vested interests. Questions relating to the country's selection policies that were allegedly intended at keeping cricketing excellence out of the team.

Young, liberated, white cricketers such as Smith and Jacques Rudolph have played crucial roles in South Africa's process of rebuilding. Smith initially found himself out of the 2003 World Cup squad, and came in at the last minute because of the injury to Jonty Rhodes. Rudolph had been controversially overlooked in favour of Justin Ontong during the team's tour of Australia in 2002-03.

Though certain sections of the media went to town about these exclusions, both Smith and Rudolph handled it with maturity and patience. "These may have been controversial decisions for others," Smith remarked during South Africa's tour of England in 2003. "But, they were in line with the long-term policy of cricket in our country keeping in mind our unique history. Everybody with talent has to be given a fair chance. We are mature enough to understand that our system will reward those who grab their opportunities irrespective of colour." The attitude mirrors the change in the mindset of the new-generation, liberal, white South African. This is a theme brilliantly portrayed in her post apartheid novel `The House Gun' by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer through the character of Duncan, whose wealthy professional parents have to suddenly come to terms with their son leading a "different and dangerous life".

In cricketing terms, the change occurred when Shaun Pollock, on being appointed captain in place of a disgraced Cronje in 2000, visited black townships in the major cities, spending hours interacting with underprivileged youngsters, giving them cricket tips and attending social gatherings such as the funeral of Khaya Majola, the pioneer of the Development programme of the UCBSA and elder brother of CEO Gerald Majola.

A good many of young, liberal, white South Africans prefer looking at the future along with fellow countrymen rather than getting plugged in to insular family traditions. Just as Oscar Wilde wrote that being called a `Peeping Tom' is the worst form of abusing an average Englishman, any accusation of racism is sure to get the hackles of the young, liberal, white South African rising. The anger of Smith in Antigua last year on being wrongly accused of making a racial barb aimed at Dwayne Bravo is well documented.

Smith — who was cleared by an ICC inquiry panel after extensive hearings involving players and officials and recordings from stump microphones failed to give any evidence — insisted that Bravo publicly apologise to him long after the event. Mark Boucher's exhortation to the South African crowd to `have a go' at the Australians before the ongoing tour is a result of the racial insults subjected to South African cricketers by the Australian crowds in December and January. Boucher is another cricketer who took his omission for three Tests last year against England in the right spirit. "Tami has been very consistent in domestic cricket for some years and he deserved to be selected," said the man, who hit South Africa's winning runs at the Wanderers, about the non-white cricketer who replaced him, Tami Tsolekile. "Competition from him will only enhance my performance."

The victory in the Standard Bank ODI series over world champions Australia is not only a vindication of the long-term selection policies of the country's cricket administrators since 1998, it is South African cricket's first major statement of intent about what can be expected in the future, at least in the one-day code.

New-age cricket following in the country, like in the Subcontinent, is all about the shorter version of the game. Just as the Springbok rugby shirt, a symbol of the apartheid age, was given a new inclusive cultural meaning in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa when the country's talismanic President Nelson Mandela wore it on the day of the final, one-day cricket has been selected over Test cricket in the new nation's quest for social lubrication.

The runs that rained from the bat of Herschelle Gibbs at the Wanderers may just about be the beginning of the recasting of South African cricket. Smith will be dreaming of a first World Cup win next year, an achievement that was beyond the reach of Hansie Cronje's talented side.

The `lost generation' of Test cricketers — Barry Richards, Mike Proctor, Graeme Pollock et al — will be a blur in public consciousness then.