Apart from individual performances (Olympic & Paralympic gold medals, major golf titles, world boxing crowns, etc.), it has always been South Africa’s national rugby and cricket teams that gave the country stature in the international sporting community.
When Clive Rice led the South African team onto Eden Gardens in Kolkata on 10 November 1991 for the first ever international match against India, it signalled our country’s return to international sport after the turbulent 70’s and 80’s. Our participation in the Cricket World Cup in Australia in February & March 1992 followed and the return was completed when the Springboks crossed swords on consecutive weekends in August against the old Southern Hemisphere foes, New Zealand and Australia.
At that time a snapshot of our international rugby and cricket status would have looked roughly like this:
- The Springboks had a positive win ratio against each and every other rugby playing nation, even New Zealand. In fact, up until that point New Zealand had never won a Test series in South Africa but the Springboks had done so once in the Land of the Long White Cloud – famously in 1937 under the captaincy of Philip Nel. Against Wales the Springboks had never ever lost a Test match. To put it plainly: Since 30 July 1891 (i.e. for more than 100 years) nobody was better than the Springboks. Full stop.
- The 1970 South African cricket team that whitewashed Australia 4-0 in a Test series was one of the best in the history of international cricket. It included legends like Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and Mike Procter. Unlike rugby which continued to have morsels of international action between 1970 and 1992, South Africa’s international cricket participation was abruptly halted in 1970. But the legacy of the 1970 team was continued by the likes of Clive Rice, Vincent van der Bijl, Jimmy Cook, Peter Kirsten, Garth le Roux, Kepler Wessels and Denys Hobson. Compare these players’ first-class records with their contemporaries from other countries (a fair comparison because in those days international cricketers still played a lot of first-class cricket) and you’ll find that, with the exception of the West Indies, South Africa had cricketers better than any other country could put on the park.
In a nutshell, in 1992 the Springboks were statistically the best rugby team ever and South Africa had a generation of incredibly gifted cricketers who would have ruled the cricketing world.
Fast forward 24 years: South Africa has lost its proud international rugby record and never capitalised on the foundations laid by the great cricketers of the 70’s and 80’s.
Apart from two World Cups, the Springboks have very little else to crow about. From having a positive win ratio against New Zealand, it’s dropped to 38%. All other major rugby playing nations have now beaten the Springboks at least once (even Japan has done it!). The Springboks’ biggest ever defeat came post-1992: 3-53 against England at Twickenham in 2002.
The Proteas have only one (minor) global trophy in the cabinet. Under Hansie Cronjé in the late 1990’s and Graeme Smith from 2012-15 there were glimmers of hope that the Proteas could rule the cricketing world for a long time. Alas! These periods of hope just flattered to deceive.
But how can it all go wrong in a matter of two decades? Was it politics? Did we miss the boat of professional sport? Has our currency simply been too weak for our abundant talent pool to compensate for it? Somewhere we’ve lost the plot.
If you look around you, boys still play cricket in summer and rugby in winter. Our schools still keep on producing rugby and cricket players of the highest quality. The problem lies somewhere once they’ve left school…