Ashes are forgotten in bigger picture

Mike Coward in the Weekend Australian, 14 January 2011

LET us put aside the recriminations and inquisitions which inevitably follow an Ashes defeat on home soil and instead pay homage to the power of cricket in the wider society. This past week has provided compelling examples of the reach and influence of the game in disparate societies oceans apart.

It is much too easy to be introspective and shamelessly parochial during an Ashes summer and an event of true significance in Durban in the vibrant New South Africa last Sunday virtually went unnoticed and unreported in this country. A huge crowd headed by the country’s president Jacob Zuma gathered at the spectacular Moses Mabhida football stadium for a Twenty20 bash to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in South Africa and to bid farewell to the country’s first black cricketer, Makhaya Ntini. Gerald Majola, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa, said the South African cricket community wanted to say thank you to Ntini and to the Indian community for the great contribution it has made to the unification and progress of cricket in the republic.

For good measure, the peerless Sachin Tendulkar was felicitated, to use a popular Indian expression, and a trophy was inaugurated bearing the name of the late Krish Mackerdhuj, the first elected non-white president of the then United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).    

Pic courtesy of cricinfo

Given the history and complexity of race, colour and culture in this often confronting but endlessly fascinating country, this was a very special gathering which dramatically illustrated the capacity of the game to heal, educate, and embrace – even love. And every member of the vast international cricket community can take some pride in this celebration.

While a great and appropriate fuss was made of the much-loved Ntini and Tendulkar ended up on the winning side – by 21 runs for the record – it is the poignancy of the occasion that demands attention.

Of Hindu stock, Mackerdhuj was a descendant of indentured labourers contracted by the Natal government from the desperately poor Bihar State in northern India to work the sugar cane plantations of the province. Destined to serve Nelson Mandela’s government as a diplomat in Japan, Mackerdhuj had an outstanding career as a sports administrator and was a pioneer of South Africa’s historic cricket tour to India in 1991 – its first after 21 years of isolation because of the iniquitous institutionalised system of apartheid. And he was a conspicuous and joyous figure when the newly named Proteas famously defeated Australia by five runs in the second Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 1994.

When I interviewed him during Australia’s first tour of the new South Africa in 1994, he conceded he had been anti-white three times during his life. “Certainly I emerged from university to the left and immersed in the politics of black consciousness,” he said. But you have to emerge from that . . . bring yourself out of that situation when you consider every white person is the enemy. When you are young, you can be arrogantly political.”

One of the first initiatives of the UCBSA when it was established in 1991 was to establish a development program able to reach across the racial, cultural and tribal divides of the country. And it was through this program that Ntini, a gregarious, smiling herdsman from the hills near Mdingi village in the Eastern Cape, first came to notice. After the former Border player and respected coach Greg Hayes took him shopping to replace shoes long held together by wire, it was clear Ntini was blessed with natural talent and could provide the new administration with the elite black cricketer it craved to show the world. To the unbridled delight of those who demanded justice and dramatic change to the attitude and complexion of South African cricket, Ntini garnered admirers around the world and in the end captured 390 wickets at 28.82 in 101 Test matches and paved the way for present Test fast bowler Lonwabo Tsotsobe and many more Africans and, indeed, Indians.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Indian Ocean at Bowral in the glorious southern highlands of NSW, cricketers past and present and of pedigree and pretension gathered at the Bradman Oval in aid of charity. Regrettably the weather gods paid no heed to the eminence of the assembled company and captains Mark Nicholas and Ian Healy, who for once escaped the confines of broadcasting eyries around the country, had to entertain an enthusiastic crowd inside The International Cricket Hall of Fame rather than in the middle of picturesque Bradman Oval.

Of course, both are renowned spruikers and, for company, they had no lesser figure than Sir Michael Parkinson who once scored a hundred for Barnsley and for a time vied with Geoff Boycott and renowned umpire Dickie Bird for an opening spot at Yorkshire.

And making up the chorus were, among others, Michael Vaughan, Paul Nixon, Kerry O’Keeffe, Stuart MacGill, Phil Emery and Wasim Khan. Wasim’s name will not come to mind as readily as the others but much attention was focused on him not so much as a former first-class player with Warwickshire and Sussex, but as the chief executive of a cricket charity that is changing the face of cricket in England.

Born in Birmingham to parents from Pakistan Kashmir, 39-year-old Wasim has been a key figure in the Chance to Shine initiative since its inception in 2005. With the support of government, the corporate sector and a host of philanthropists headed by cricket devotee and eminent lyricist Sir Tim Rice, it has already raised pound stg. 35 million of the pound stg. 50 million it has pledged to regenerate cricket in a third of state schools in England and Wales by 2015.

Cricket Australia (CA) is very aware of Chance to Shine and its spectacular successes and Wasim took the opportunity while in Australia to speak informally with CA chief executive James Sutherland and Damien Brown, the head of CA’s Game Development department.

The Bradman Foundation itself is a charitable organisation and has established a relationship with Chance to Shine which it will further develop when Australia attempts to regain the Ashes in the Old Dart in 2013.

Persistent rain put paid to any major fund-raising activities last Sunday although $15,000 was shared by the two organisations – $10,000 coming from the auctioning of the shirt worn by Andrew Strauss at the moment England completed the 3-1 series triumph.

Each member of the team signed the shirt before Strauss changed for the official presentation ceremony. Strauss is an enthusiastic supporter of Chance to Shine which was closely associated with his benefit at Middlesex in 2009.

The significance of the bond between cricket and the wider community was demonstrated again at the MCG last night with the Twenty20 international being nominated as one of the seven Queensland flood relief matches organised by Cricket Australia. In Adelaide on Wednesday night, bucket-toting players from both the men’s and women’s national teams collected $24,899 in a few laps of the ground. In recent years elite Australian players and the game’s passionate followers have been at the forefront of fund-raising activities following the horror of tsunamis, bushfires and now floods. The concern etched on the face of Shane Watson after his thrilling all-round performance on Wednesday night indicated a great deal. Watson is a native of Ipswich which has been devastated by the floods.

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