Read of the Week

Divided Country: The History of South African Cricket Retold 1914-1950s

Andre Odendaal, Krish Reddy and
Christopher Merrett

Published by BestRed

Review: John Harvey

Divided Country is the second volume in the three-part The History of South African Cricket Retold series, among the aims of which is to introduce a modern audience to the African, coloured and Indian South African cricketers whose feats were largely overlooked during colonialism and apartheid.

The first book, Cricket and Conquest, exposed how “racism came to be built into the very fabric of cricket’s imperial ‘culture’ and ‘traditions’,” according to the authors, and focused on the period 1795 to 1914.

In cricket parlance, day three of a five-day Test match is often referred to as the “moving day”, as this is when both players and fans will begin to have some idea as to where the game is heading. Divided Country represents the series’ “moving day”.

The standout point about this 40-plus year period are the schisms that occurred within non-European (black) cricket, almost all of which coincided with the National Party’s growing stranglehold on the country and its implementation of segregationist policies.

As the white South African Cricket Association enjoyed the fruits of its privilege, including facilities that very quickly came to match those of England and Australia, non-European cricket branched and polarised into various organisational structures based on ethnic, racial and political lines.

No fewer than seven overlapping national boards emerged during this time, which included two world wars and the roll-out of apartheid’s most enduring and despicable acts.

Keeping up with the various administrative bodies and the competitions organised under their auspices requires extremely focused reading, but it is also a tribute to the authors’ painstaking research that this vital history is able to be chronicled, not forgetting that black cricket rarely featured in the prominent white newspapers of the day.

Despite the enormous challenge of debilitating governmental policies, the determination of African, coloured and Indian cricket administrators to not only play the game but organise tournaments that bred world-class players was nothing short of phenomenal.

One such player was Frank Roro, a Kimberley-born cricketer who played for the Randfontein mine team before being selected for the Transvaal Bantu XI. So prolific was Roro in scoring more than 100 league centuries (with an average of well over a 100 a season), that he became known as the “Dusky Bradman” in reference to the greatest batsman the world has ever known, Don Bradman.

While divulging previously little or unknown events of South Africa’s sporting past is obviously the intention, the impact on readers who were weaned on a diet of “white” historical accounts cannot be understated.

In 1991, a South African team under the late Clive Rice undertook a three-match tour to India, an occasion that marked South Africa’s return to the international sporting fold post-apartheid. Images of the players meeting Mother Teresa were beamed across the world, the significance of the moment not lost on anyone.

Yet in November 1921, Indian South African soccer and cricket players from Durban ventured to India on a two-month tour – the first sports tour by South Africa to the subcontinental powerhouse.

“The historic trip to India confirms what these volumes of cricket history show with great clarity: black sportspeople in South Africa from the outset had a vision far wider than the compartments into which the dominant classes wished to box them.”

Page after page, chapter after chapter, Odendaal and his team deliver astonishing revelations that shine a light on what was essentially a parallel cricket universe running within the broader apartheid context. This included women’s cricket, which had to overcome not only racial but also gender prejudice in the “gentleman’s game”.

The names the authors bring to the fore – the Majolas, Salies, Roros and Abrahams – should have lined up alongside the Nourses, Tayfields and Mitchells who represented white South Africa abroad. Sadly, history determined otherwise.

Yet as lamentable as this is, this extraordinary work provides a strange kind of solace, proving that in even in the darkest days, heroes do emerge on the sports field, and even though it may take decades, their legacy will one day be recognised.