The Englishman’s game?

In a recent conversation with an Afrikaans-speaking father of a talented young cricketer, he made the following remark (in Afrikaans, of course): “I’m actually a rugby man, but my son plays the Englishman’s game.”

It got me wondering whether this was still the prevailing perception among Afrikaners, that cricket is “the Englishman’s game”.  More so because there is a view that, if anybody, the Afrikaners have excelled most in cricket since South Africa’s international readmission in 1992. 

To understand this perception, one must go all the way back to the late 19th century.  Between the time of the first ever Test match in 1877 and the formation of the Imperial Cricket Conference in July 1909, the only countries to play international cricket were England, Australia and South Africa.  In those years, the ties between England and Australia were strong, but not so between England and South Africa.

Two Anglo-Boer Wars were fought during this period – from November 1880 to March 1881, and again October 1899 to May 1902.  At the risk of over-simplifying the politics of the day, the Boers were Afrikaans-speaking people fighting for the independence of the republics of Transvaal and Free State from British rule.  The British on the other hand were fighting to keep their vast Empire intact.  The Cape Colony and Natal sided with Britain.  In a South African context, the Wars to a large extent pitted Afrikaans- and English-speaking South Africans against each other.

Cricket was a way of strengthening the colonial bond between South Africa and Britain.  Bilateral tours were actively encouraged by prominent businessmen like Cecil John Rhodes, Sir Donald Currie and James Logan (‘the laird of Matjiesfontein’).  But somehow cricket always seemed to get in the way of the conflict between Boer and Brit.  The English team of 1895-96, for example, was disconcertingly caught up in the fall-out of the Jameson Raid, the event that effectively triggered the Second Anglo-Boer War.  The Boers for obvious reasons had no care for cricket.  The sport was a symbol of the ties with Britain, something they wanted to sever whatever it took.

The South African Cricket Association (formed in 1890), too, favoured the interests of the minority English-speaking white population precisely because it consolidated ties with Britain.  The Afrikaners did not feel either welcome or inclined to participate in cricket.  The sport remained an expression of Anglo-Saxon separateness.  South Africa – England Test matches were Anglophile family affairs. 

It was not until South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth in 1961 that the link between cricket and the British Empire was finally severed, and Afrikaner enthusiasm for cricket saw a brightening up.  This was the time that my father, an Afrikaner, and his family and friends took to the game and passed that love on to me.  Unfortunately, South Africa’s expulsion from international cricket in 1971 doused that flame.  The Afrikaner had freed itself of the yoke of British rule, but at the same time burdened itself with a new yoke: Apartheid.

It needed a second shedding of the yoke, the dismantling of apartheid, for Afrikaners to finally embrace cricket without any baggage.  And what an embrace it has been!  Estimates vary of how many Afrikaans-speaking cricketers represented South Africa from 1888 to 1971, but it would be safe to say not more than five.  Can anyone now think of South African cricket without the likes of Fanie de Villiers, Hansie Cronjé, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Morné Morkel?  The Proteas’ last international match, the third T20 against Pakistan in Lahore, featured four Afrikaans-speaking players: Janneman Malan, Pite van Biljon, Heinrich Klaasen and Dwaine Pretorius.

The Englishman’s game?  I don’t think so.

(Source: Simon Wilde England: The Biography)    

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