One evening, during India’s spirited fightback in the recent Test series against South Africa, I shared an excellent meal with a couple of men prominently involved with the Indian national team.
The restaurant called the House of Mangaldas Girdhardas, featured in a column a couple of months ago so this won’t be a repeat dose of praise and respect for Gujarati vegetarian food. Actually, the subject is extremely meaty.
The gist of what the two men said was that South Africa had underperformed more than any other team for the last 10 years and that the rest of the cricket playing world reckoned that, when push came to mental shove, there would always be a crack in the collective mental armoury of the South African team.
“As hard as you work in the gym, in the nets and in practise matches, as hard as you perfect your technique, the difference between the very, very best teams is invariably decided by the ‘X’ factor which is mental,” said one of my colleagues.
“But South Africa is famous for being mentally tough and resilient, that’s our best characteristic!” I countered.
“It’s an illusion,” said the second man. “If South Africa is so tough how come they have never beaten Australia in a Test series and how come they have won just one major tournament (Champions Trophy 1998) – and that was ten years ago.”
“When ‘that’ moment arrives, when the series or the match is at stake, you need everyone in a team to stand together, to be able to look each other in the eye and know that you can go to war together. It’s a difficult thing to explain, especially as – if you’re batting – there may only be two of you out there with the other nine in the change room, but professional sportsmen will know what I mean. And many times South Africa hasn’t had that – they can’t with all the politics that goes into selecting the team. Half of them aren’t sure why they’re there,” said friend number two.
“That is a ridiculous exaggeration,” I protested.
“It doesn’t bother us,” they both said as the dahl waiter came around yet again. “It only takes one person to doubt his place, or doubt some else’s, and the ‘X’ factor is immediately compromised. Ask any international captain who has played against South Africa. You read the newspapers, you see the politics, you identify the players who might be weak or vulnerable and you attack them. The bigger the game the better it works.”
The two men spoke with the kind of matter-of-factness and certainty that only comes from talking about a problem that isn’t yours.
I have been thinking about what they said for a long time now and two things helped everything start to make sense. The first was an article by a distinguished writer and lawyer and the second a childhood memory of my grandfather admonishing me as a seven-year-old for playing war games with a toy gun.
The article admonished Charl Langeveldt and spoke of the disrespect he had shown to those who had fought in the struggle years. It was well-argued, articulate and thoughtful. It was also very clear that the writer knew nothing of cricket and the young men who play it.
Arguing that young cricketers should be conscious of what their predecessors were denied, and fought for, was as futile as my grandfather telling me not to glorify death because he had fought in the second world war and seen men die. As awful as it may be for those who fought in the struggle to accept, today’s cricketers were small children when Apartheid ended and time marches on. They just want to play cricket and be selected on merit, a fact confirmed in writing by the country’s top 25 players at the start of the season.
A full generation of players has passed on since Unity was achieved. But if my two dinner guests were right about the ‘X’ factor, I fear it will be at least another 15 years before South Africa’s international teams will be free from political interference because it is the current generation of administrators who need to move on, not the players. They fought the struggle and they are going to make sure today’s sportsmen benefit from their suffering, whether they want to or not.
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