| A village tournament match in progress in King Williamstown, South Africa. (Reuters)
East London: Stepping out on to a less-than-manicured outfield to compete in a tournament that once rewarded winners with half a sheep, South Africa’s rural players are flying the flag for cricket in poor areas in a country where rich Whites have long dominated the sport.
The competitors in the Amacalegushe tournament in the Eastern Cape area play without the benefit of sponsorship, pampered pitches or even a match fee.
Aspiring young bowlers practise in makeshift nets ahead of the competition, hoping to emulate national side heroes Makhaya Ntini and Monde Zondeki, who have both graced the field of the Amacalegushe tournament
A young batsman swings with a rough-hewn wooden bat at a tennis ball bouncing in the dust on the sidelines of the tournament, while other young men with painted faces and wearing traditional Xhosa dress sit in the long grass and watch the games unfold.
Enthusiasm for the tournament always runs high but this year’s World Cup, to be held in southern Africa in February and March, has boosted rural excitement to new levels.
Poor children in the townships are also getting more involved.
“When I go around the townships, five years ago you found six, seven, eight, nine year-olds playing football,” said World Cup spokesman Jos Charle.
“But today, these youngsters, they are playing cricket. No equipment, no facilities or anything, just with a tennis ball and a home-made bat and home-made wickets,” he added.
South Africa’s history of racial oppression has left obvious marks across its sports teams and cricketing success is most often seen as the province of affluent Whites.
Long-smouldering tensions came to a head recently, with South Africa’s United Cricket Board (UCB) and its Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour trading sharp words over whether there should be a quota of non-White players.
Although Zondeki was included in the national squad for the World Cup, he is only the third Black player to make the South African side.
But the strength of tournaments such as the Amacalegushe competition show that cricket’s future in the “Rainbow Nation” is in good hands, says Ray Mali, who played in his first tournament as a 15-year-old all-rounder in 1952.
Since then, Mali has become president of the Border Cricket Board and a member of the UCB general council. He sees these games as a vital part of the fabric of South African cricket.
“These tournaments should be supported because they are an important base of future talent — the Ntinis and Zondekis of the future,” he said.
Mfundo Gwarube, an Amacalegushe veteran who hails from Ntini’s home village, Mdingi, agreed. “It has become a celebration of our culture and the cricket flair we have,” he said.
Cricket’s history in poor Black villages is rooted in the country’s colonial past, when British missionaries introduced the game in schools around the turn of the 20th century.
Mineworkers returning home from backbreaking work in the gold fields around Johannesburg and Kimberley’s diamond mines brought their own enthusiasm for the game when they returned to their home villages, leading to events such as Amacalegushe.
The rural game has grown steadily over the years and is seen as a breeding ground for the sport’s future stars.
Money raised during the 2003 World Cup will go towards providing more turf pitches for rural grounds. Most of them today have dry, mud ruts or concrete strips covered with artificial turf — neither surface conducive to nurturing young cricketers, particularly batsmen.
“It’s good that some of the World Cup legacy money will be spent there and I predict that in the next five years we will see a significant return in terms of players coming through,” Mali said.