Review: Archie Henderson
Cricket and Conquest and Divided Country, part of a planned four-volume history on South African cricket, by Andre Odendaal, Krish Reddy, Christopher Merrett and Jonty Winch (BestRed)
Austin Ngcumbe is not a name that will be familiar to many South African cricket fans, yet in his day he was as popular – and as good – as Kagiso Rabada.
Like the Proteas man, Ngcumbe was a feared fast bowler wherever cricket was played in South Africa. At that time, the 1880s, the game was played only in the Western and Eastern Cape.
Ngcumbe was among the mission-educated indigenous middle class of King William’s Town where cricket was popular among white and black players. He played for the King William’s Town Champion Cricket Club that won the first Native Inter-Town Tournament, a competition copied from the whites of the area, who were reluctant to embrace black players. It was the beginning of sporting apartheid in South Africa.
Ngcumbe took 10 wickets twice in matches against Gaika CC of East London, Fear Not CC of Grahamstown and Ethiopian CC of Port Elizabeth. The tournament established cricket as a sport among black men in the Eastern Cape; it was already popular among the whites. There were matches between the race groups, and black teams often won, but the white colonial mindset would not allow this to thrive and so the myth emerged in South Africa that black people did not have a cricket culture or tradition.
Andre Odendaal, a former first-class cricketer, a renowned history academic and a former cricket administrator (he was for 10 years the chief executive of Western Province cricket) has led an amazing team to rediscover the missing parts of South African cricket.
The authors have produced the first two of four books that will rewrite this history, which previously focused on white participants – at least until 1992 when cricket unity was achieved. Before then, cricket in South Africa was split into seven different cricket bodies.
The first book, Cricket and Conquest, deals with the history from 1795, when the British military brought the game to the Cape, up to 1914 when segregation was becoming entrenched. It revives not only the wonderful human stories, like Ngcumbe’s, but also establishes the statistics – the DNA of cricket.
The second book, Divided Country, deals with the tragedy of white supremacy. From 1914 to the 1950s, black cricket was virtually written out of South African history. Before that black cricket had flourished in most parts of the country and its games – both black and white – were extensively reported in the mainstream media. From 1914 onwards, black cricket was virtually ignored. Women’s cricket suffered a similar fate.
Within the next two years the third volume, Batting for Freedom, is due and the fourth, Correcting the Record, will finally establish the full, statistical record of South African cricket.
It is a phenomenal publishing event in South African history, and big stride towards turning a game once divided into a united sport with a unified following.