Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid
Reviewed: John Harvey
To be clear, sociology professor Ashwin Desai is one of apartheid’s many victims.
Growing up in Durban, he occasionally joined his father at Kingsmead Stadium, the “cathedral of white cricket”, to witness legends like Barry Richards and Mike Proctor taming the world’s best cricketers in the pre-isolation years.
Kingsmead’s immaculate setting was a far cry from the dusty plains of Springfield on Durban’s outskirts, where six or seven cricket matches were played simultaneously on surfaces spare of grass but heavy with stone.
More significantly, taking his place alongside his father in the non-white section of the ground would leave an indelible mark on the young Desai, one that entrenched the notion that in South African sport, politics is king.
When reading Reverse Sweep, it is important to juxtapose what the author posits with that experience of Kingsmead in the late 1960s.
The trauma of being “othered” while watching a game you love will never be easily overcome, nor should it.
Unfortunately, there are times when he allows that pain to skew certain events.
Makhaya Ntini will undoubtedly go down in history as South Africa’s first black African player. In the chapter “Black skin, white helmets”, Desai references a piece by journalist Patrick Compton, quoting then South African coach Eric Simons: “I believe Makhaya’s real growth this year has been his hunger and desire to learn cricket … During the past year it is as if he has set himself a goal of learning and understanding more and more about the game he plays.”
Desai points out that in the previous year Ntini had been the leading wicket-taker in Tests, but believes for white coaches like Simons he would always be trying to “understand cricket”.
Anyone who knows enough about sport will tell you that almost all coaches are prone to such observations, irrespective of the colour of the player. Indeed, such statements are deemed high praise as they are indicative of that player ascending to a level beyond the capabilities of most.
Where he does excel is in his documentation of the role played by Dr Ali Bacher in South African cricket.
In the 1980s, Bacher worked with the National Party government to bring so-called “rebel” cricket tours to the country, including West Indian, English and Australian teams comprised of players still in their prime.
Exorbitant sums of money changed hands, with Bacher undoubtedly handsomely rewarded for his efforts (he argued that rebel players were taking cricket to the townships through a development programme.
Yet, in the post-isolation years, it was the same Bacher who was named head of the newly-established United Cricket Board of South Africa.
“The present-day defence of Bacher as a naive South African liberal is difficult to maintain when one reads his rationale for the rogue tours. He was clear that the tours were good for white South African morale, ‘a bright ray of hope’. Bacher knew he was doing his bit for apartheid, even to the extent of creating impressions that were patently false,” Desai writes.
Reverse Sweep is heavily slanted towards the political shenanigans in cricket, and does not address the playing aspect adequately enough. Too often, Desai becomes embroiled in off-field skirmishes and ignores the fact that in 26 years, there have also been many positives.