More than a game
‘…cricket can be a unifier or divider…It is up to us.’
(Mike Marqusee, 1997). This is a story about a piece of turf that entranced me throughout my childhood years. In the mid-1960s, my father and I walked across the bridge from Prince Edward Street (now Dr Goonam), turned right, and wended our way to my old man’s Old Lady. Kingsmead.
Grass. Picket fences. Everything in its place. And so were we. Near the Siedle clock, under the sign that ticked, ‘Non-European’, we sat. How minutely the adult spectators of the times analysed things. My vocabulary rioted with new words and phrases: the composition of an innings, the rhythm of a bowler and a pitch that was a featherbed.
Geography lessons were imparted too, such as the demonstrable influence of the tide on the bounce of the ball and zoology too, with one memorable discussion on whether Bunter’s dismissal was a golden or royal duck. History was not to be ignored either.
An archive of tongues recalled how a captain failed to enforce a follow-on a decade before and arcane statistics were bandied about: the average score achieved by batting first and the number of five-wicket hauls in a career.
These cricket lovers, veritable encyclopaedias, condemned to the very margins of the game, welded commonplaces into poetry, words at once evocative and confounding.
What to make of the seeming oxymoron ‘not batting well enough to get out’, ‘a good toss to lose’ and imagine my delighted confusion as Pat Trimborn walked to the wicket in a provincial game and my father remarked to his mate, “Now, he’s a reliable nightwatchman”. In my neck of Casbah’s concrete, White nightwatchmen were as rare as a patch of grass.
At the grounds of Springfield, where those defined as not-white played the game, the setting and atmosphere were a world away from Kingsmead.
The mighty Umgeni River was close, softening the soil, feeding life to tiny gardens that fell onto a hopscotch of cricket fields, with long leg in one match snatching a slip catch in another.
Misshapen rocks on the fields deflected twos into fours, and one room changed ten teams.
Here, I was part of the action. Nervous players asked me to throw a few balls, which they blocked or stroked away.
All the while, building in me was a hunger for lunchtime. A pot of breyani would arrive, and my father would scoop a helping, ensuring I had a sliver of a potato. Like the Springfield wicket, the bit of starch dissolved with the slightest touch. As the sun fell, shadows scattered and gathered, chasing and lingering over ghostly, white-clad figures all intently peering at one among their number. Here we had Omar Khayam’s “Magic Shadow-show, Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun, Round which we Phantom Figures come and go”.
This book is a homage to those cricketers whose sublime, gladiatorial feats at the wicket stirred up in boys like me heartfelt gasps and cheers. More enduringly, the feats of these champions galvanised an ambition to be good at something too, when we would grow big.
The pages ahead also recognise the horrible exclusions based on race, which shattered dreams and spurred stubborn quests to play on level playing fields.
For, through the long twentieth century, cricket revealed itself as more than a game.
It demanded that umpires in every facet of life had to be fair. “It’s not cricket” became a synonym for resistance to racial discrimination.
For two decades, my father and I turned our backs on Kingsmead. In 1992, we returned.
Our first embrace was hesitant, but soon we took guard together as if we had only returned from an extended lunch break.
By 2023, my father is long dead. One thinks of John Berger’s (2012) deceased parent reminding him “everything begins with a death”. “Isn’t the beginning a birth?” Berger responds. “That’s the common error, and you fell into the trap as I thought you would!” “The births happened precisely because they offered a chance of repairing some of what was damaged from the beginning after the death. That’s why we are here, John, to repair … to repair a little of what was broken.”
This book is about re-pairing divided fields, trying to blend the good in them, challenging us to ‘slip’ our ‘chains’ and craft a new innings (Coetzee, 1992).
African News Agency