SRI LANKA’S TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA, 2020-21
“If we have to go through certain hoops, albeit very strict things, to get us to play a game of cricket then we have to do it.” © Getty
South Africa’s complicated relationship with anti-racism gestures is back in the spotlight. Having refused to take a knee in the T20I series against England last month, they could do so – or do something in the same vein – in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Centurion on Saturday. That follows a public outcry and high level disapproval, including from CSA’s interim board, over the team’s lack of action.
“We appreciate the board isn’t looking to compel the team into doing anything one way or the other, and that they are happy to allow the team to go through their process and come up with something meaningful to them,” Mark Boucher told an online press conference on Thursday (December 24). “We are happy to engage further with them and what they would like to discuss at a more appropriate time.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions since we’ve come into the bubble about this, especially after the board statement. The guys have come up with a meaningful gesture and you will see that. That’s something the players will share with everyone before match day.”
Nineteen of the 24 players in South Africa’s squad for the series against England were part of the 3TC match at Centurion on July 18 – when all involved took a knee and raised a fist in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM). But, in the national team’s first engagement since BLM swept the world and fuelled a fiery debate over racial injustice in the game in South Africa, they somehow lost the will to do so. Instead, tacked to the stands for two of the three T20Is against England were banners that read: “We stand in solidarity against racism and gender based violence. CSA stands for equality.”
The players released a strong statement on November 25 making clear their commitment to working for a more just society, but their lack of action on the subject stirred anger in many – particularly as many teams in a range of other sports had and are continuing to show their stance by kneeling before competing.
“I would have thought the one set of sportspeople in the world who should have been taking the knee was in South Africa, to send a signal to the world that South Africa actually understood its apartheid history,” Peter Hain, a veteran anti-apartheid activist and former UK cabinet minister who spent his childhood in South Africa, said on December 2. “What’s struck me about the contemporary debate, especially around cricket, is that attitudes among some of the white cricketers haven’t changed. Viewed from outside, it’s as if people simply haven’t imbibed the nature of change.”
The interim board weighed in on December 18 with a release in which chairperson Zak Yacoob highlighted the team’s stated pledge to “[explore] the significance of taking the knee and a raised fist”. Yacoob had “expressed concern about the implications of this statement. The interim board believes that the subsequent public and media criticism has justified these concerns.” The board “reaffirmed the significance of the current worldwide movement against systemic racism in sport, noting that it was not a sectarian political cause but a broad social justice campaign garnering wide support from athletes all over the world, bringing together a coalition of support across national, racial, class, religious and generational lines”.
That seems to have goaded the team into expressing themselves more visually. But they are in dangerous territory. If they kneel on Saturday, why didn’t they save themselves a lot of bother by doing so against England? If they do something else intended to have the same effect, why couldn’t they simply kneel like so many others have and still are doing? Either way, how are their compatriots meant to believe their gesture is sincere and not prompted by the reaction to their refusal to kneel?
Boucher and his team have already lost that fight. Best they stay on the right side of the battle against COVID-19, especially in the wake of England abandoning their tour without playing half their six matches because of positive tests inside the squads’ shared bio-bubble. CSA say they have tightened restrictions – which were loosened at England’s behest – for Sri Lanka’s tour. So far this time, all the South Africans have tested negative, most recently on Thursday.
Asked what he thought of England going home in a huff, Boucher said, “I don’t like to micromanage. There are certain people who have been put in places to do certain jobs. My job is coaching the team. So if it’s not my job to control the bio-secure environment, it’s not my job to speak to England to see how they are feeling or speak to Sri Lanka to see how they are feeling. We get given information from our medical staff on what they feel is going to be the best and the safest way for this tour to go ahead.
“Do I want to play cricket? Absolutely. There’s no cricket going in South Africa at the moment, which is disturbing. We want the best for the players and we want to try and get these guys onto the field. It’s no use talking about the game of cricket. The best way to better yourself as a player is to get out there and play.
“If we have to go through certain hoops, albeit very strict things, to get us to play a game of cricket then we have to do it. I will drive that from a coaching perspective. With regards to the other stuff, that’s not my job to worry about. I will abide by what I have to do.”
Saturday’s match will be both teams’ first Test since the onset of the pandemic and Sri Lanka’s first in any format.