A look at South Africa‘s 15-man squad for the 2019 Cricket World Cup brings up one notable statistic.
There are three black players in the squad but no black batsmen (barring the all-round capabilities of Andile Phehlukwayo).
This has long been a puzzling trend in a country where, more than anywhere else, racial divisions have often dominated the agenda within elite sport.
South Africa has consistently churned out world-class black bowlers – Makhaya Ntini and Kagiso Rabada being two examples. But only four black batsmen have ever earned an international cap for the Proteas.
Despite the introduction of a new quota system in 2016, which stated a minimum of six black cricketers must be included in every national squad, these are usually mostly bowlers.
Temba Bavuma has made headlines for his batting performances for South Africa in recent years. The most recent inclusion was of 20-year-old Sinethemba Qeshile who made his debut in a Twenty20 International this March.
Qeshile believes one of the problems is that black cricketers often get pigeonholed by coaches at an early age.
“There’s a stereotype that black players should be bowlers,” said Qeshile.
“The first thing we’re taught is how to bowl. Not a lot of guys actually get taught how to carry a bat until much later. Also, many of us come from disadvantaged areas which makes it difficult to get spotted. For a long time, most scouts wouldn’t actually look at the poorer communities which meant you had to stand out even more in order to get somewhere in the game.”
Four years ago, Cricket South Africa (CSA) launched a full investigation to try and delve a little deeper into this issue.
As Qeshile pointed out, it soon discovered that black batsmen growing up in poor townships often lack opportunities, while their white counterparts who attend elite private schools have far more chances to hone their skills at an early age.
“We saw that many black kids in these areas get to play just six matches in a year. They are then competing for spots on regional and national age-group teams with kids who’ve grown up playing 50 matches a year,” said Edward Khoza, CSA’s cricket services manager.
But while a combination of raw talent and athleticism has enabled bowlers like Ntini and Rabada to make up for these early disparities, the technical nature of batting means playing catch-up is harder.
Since 2016, CSA has attempted to correct this by creating a player performance plan across the country, introducing academy scholarships for talented black players from the townships as well as increasing the funding for cricket coaching in schools all over South Africa.
A player can qualify for this support by playing a minimum of 20 matches a year.
“Since we did that, we’ve found that more kids are now playing 25 matches a season,” said Khoza. “This means they have a better platform to develop all the necessary skills.”
To ensure that black batsmen have the chance to progress to the professional game, CSA also set quotas specifying that there be three or more black players per side in a franchise and provincial cricket and that at least two must be batting in the top six.
But they soon found that there were hidden problems.
Khoza explained that coaches remain reluctant to select black batsmen as their most valuable run-makers, in the number three to five positions, which would give them the chance to showcase their talent to national selectors.
During the 2016 and 2017 seasons, 86 percent of black batsmen were selected to open or bat at number six even though many had grown up playing at three or four.
“I experienced this when I made my debut in provincial cricket for North West back in 2012,” said Kagiso Rapulana. “For the first two seasons, I felt the coaches didn’t believe in me. I was always put in as an opener, even though it wasn’t my best position because I wasn’t technically good enough to bat there.”
CSA has since introduced stricter regulations about team roles. If a black player has grown up batting at three, provincial and franchise coaches are instructed to bat him there.
Rapulana now bats at number four for the Lions, where he scored a series of hundreds last season.
But while enforced role clarity and selection targets ensure more opportunities for black batsmen, there is another issue that prevents many breaking through.
Batting is a particularly unforgiving discipline from a psychological standpoint, and the quota tag weighs heavily in the minds of many players.
“The first thing which happens when a black player comes into the team is he’s referred to as a quota player,” said Grant Mokoena, who plays for the Knights franchise.
“That stigma plays a big role in a player’s confidence and can mean black cricketers can find it very difficult to fit in. You also have to constantly prove yourself which can be exhausting. Two or three bad performances, then there are questions and you always feel you’re going to be dropped.
“You try harder and harder, but mentally you can end up doing more harm than good to yourself.”
The quota system can also cause rising tensions between white and black batsmen competing for spots, leading to many quitting the game altogether.
“It’s an everyday thing,” said Rapulana. “When the side is announced and a white guy, who’s been doing well, misses out for a black guy, it can get tough.
“There was an incident at the Cobras franchise this season where a white batsman was omitted for a black batsman for the first four games and the latter wasn’t performing well. He was chosen for the fifth game as well and that’s when the white guy lost his temper and said: ‘You’d better make use of this opportunity.’
“Everyone got involved. Black players stood up for black players, white players stood up for white players. It caused a lot of division within the team. Later in the season, I got a message from the black guy who said he was struggling emotionally and was thinking of asking the franchise to release him at the end of the season.”
Hopes for the future
As a result, Rapulana said the quota system was not good for cricket in South Africa.
“Over the past few years, we’ve lost a lot of good white players who would have played for the Proteas and are instead going to make it in England or New Zealand.
“I just hope that, in the future, the sides are chosen according to the players’ abilities and not the colour, but I don’t think the system will ever go away.”
But for CSA, it is the only way to ensure that black batsmen get the opportunities they need to reach the top.
“There are more and more black African batters starting to put up performance benchmarks,” said Khoza.
“Temba might seem to be the only shining light right now at the national level but I can assure you there are more Tembas coming through.”