South Africa celebrate Vernon Philander's dismissal of Joe Root

South Africa's Test team may reflect some of the country's diversity, but its source remains fairly uniform

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Schooling South Africa

The country's best cricketing talent comes from about 40 secondary schools, perpetuating an exclusionist attitude which quotas at higher levels can't counter

Luke Alfred  |  

Fifteen years ago, a widely celebrated schools cricket match took place in Johannesburg between King Edward VII and Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool - the latter colloquially known as "Affies". Two future South African Test captains, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, played for Affies that Saturday, and the fixture featured at least ten cricketers who graduated to first-class cricket.

Besides de Villiers and du Plessis, four went on to play international cricket: Neil Wagner (Affies) played for New Zealand, while King Edwards' Dane Vilas and Vaughn van Jaarsveld played Test and ODI cricket respectively for South Africa.

In the twilight of a long career, Heino Kuhn, Affies' wicketkeeper-batsman, went on to play T20 for South Africa last year before taking the spot of Stephen Cook (another King Edward graduate, although not one who played in this particular game) at the top of the order in the Test side.

The day was not only a hard-fought contest between Pretoria's best in Affies (undefeated in 33 fixtures going into the match) and Jo'burg's finest in King Edward, but an unprecedented gathering of talent. Imagine Alastair Cook and Joe Root appearing in the same schoolboy side, or Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane doing likewise. Even in a country known for its vast and apparently depthless schoolboy reserves, the match was a rare parade of the ambitious and carelessly gifted.

Kuhn, not du Plessis or de Villiers, was the day's standout performer. He scored a first-innings century, although he couldn't prevent King Edward winning by one wicket as wickets tumbled in the second half of their chase after Blake Snijman and van Jaarsveld both scored fifties. Despite de Villiers dropping the catch (he didn't keep wicket on the day because of a gammy elbow) that allowed King Edwards' Richard Das Neves to scamper the winning run, it was a courageous fight from the Pretoria boys.

"'If you say anything negative about us coach, I'll never talk to you again, because this is the best 25 overs we've ever given the school,'" Affies' coach, Deon Botes, remembers young captain du Plessis telling him afterwards. "What could I do after that? I retired to a bench at King Edward and sulked."

When once race politics blighted the country, now class and money restrict access of the many to the kingdoms of the few

An economics teacher, Botes is still at the school, having coached the 1st XI for 18 of his 19 years at Affies. The rise of Afrikaans-speaking cricketers is a relatively recent phenomenon in South Africa, and he says that one of the key moments in the development of cricket at Affies happened when a teacher called Carel Kriek decided to start organising rugby fixtures against the English-speaking schools.

"Cricket fixtures followed," said Botes. "That was important for our traditional rugby-playing school because it meant we were exposed to the best English-speaking cricket schools in the country. We were first invited to Michaelmas Week [traditionally hosted by Maritzburg College, Kevin Pietersen's old school] in 1997 and in the last 20 or so years we have played regularly against the best cricketing schools in South Africa - both English- and Afrikaans-speaking."

In the vocabulary of secondary education in South Africa, Affies is what is called a government school, although it is a school with a twist. While its status means it is theoretically open to all, subject to parents being able to afford their very reasonable fees, the school's medium of instruction is Afrikaans. This exerts a subtle yet pervasive effect on, say, black boys, whose parents would like to send their sons there but who are uncomfortable with both learning in the language and speaking it. While it might not have been intended that way, Affies' decision amounts to a subtle closing of the door. It is, in a sense, a folk school, helping to bring along not only de Villiers, du Plessis and Kuhn but, before that, Jacques Rudolph, a real trailblazer for schools cricket in the province. At the same time, black boys haven't shown themselves to be historically comfortable with attending the school. Black cricketers at Affies are rare, if not non-existent.

The school is unique in another way: it does not offer applicants bursaries. There is a limited form of financial help via a state subsidy to approximately 50 boys in a student body of 1250 (350 of these boys are in one of three boarding houses), but unlike in many other schools in the Pretoria area, the awarding of bursaries is frowned upon.

It costs R35,000 (about US$2500) per boy per year to attend the school, with boarders paying double that. Student numbers went up by 50 to 1300 in 2017, which are the kinds of numbers that enable Botes and his fellow coaches to field an upper limit of 21 teams across the age groups, from Under-14 level (where he can field teams up to "H") to seniors, for a round of fixtures against a similarly sized school.

(Clockwise from left): A young AB de Villiers at the Affies' 2002 honours awards; de Villiers playing school rugby; Heino Kuhn (left) and Faf du Plessis receiving end-of-season awards in 2002

(Clockwise from left): A young AB de Villiers at the Affies' 2002 honours awards; de Villiers playing school rugby; Heino Kuhn (left) and Faf du Plessis receiving end-of-season awards in 2002 © Anne Laing, Deon Botes

"We can probably field 21 teams but that requires some difficult juggling with fields and transport," he says. "We prefer to go with 18 teams, which is challenging, but we can generally manage that."

Across both 50-over and T20 formats, Affies' 1st XI will play 50 games a season. For Botes, the accent is on fun and technical excellence, but his ultimate ambition is to always allow the boys to motivate and coach themselves, although there is an understandable temptation to fiddle.

He tells the story of he and others being perturbed by du Plessis' grip on the bat handle when he was younger, with his hands far apart and his bottom hand twisting the wrist round to give his grip a closed-off feel. Du Plessis argued that the position of his lower hand on his bat handle allowed him to bunt the ball into the leg side for an off-the-mark single. Reluctantly, Botes let things be, as he did with de Villiers' less-than-orthodox technique on the hook when he was speeding through the ranks.

"Maybe transformation has made the decision to make a career out of cricket just that little bit easier," says Botes. "Seven guys in our current 1st XI will get distinctions for Maths, so the guys realise that the academics are really important. If you are somebody like Willem Mulder [the St Stithians schoolboy who has just broken into Lions' starting line-up this season] then you are certainly going to make it, but we tell our boys that the best cricket they are going to play is schoolboy cricket. For that reason they should enjoy it."

Mulder, currently touring England with the South Africa A side, and a former U-19 captain, wrote his final school exams in November 2016 at St Stithians College in northern Johannesburg. The school's director of cricket, Wim Jansen, played cricket with Willem's dad, Pieter, and still remembers the day when the boy and his father paid him a visit.

Jansen says he believes that the black cricketers at elite schools in Johannesburg benefit from the intense competitiveness of schools like his, King Edward, Jeppe, St John's and St David's, but is less sold on what is happening elsewhere

"I seem to remember that he was a wicketkeeper in the Gauteng U-13 side [although he has since become a powerful allrounder]," says Jansen. "There he was, standing barefoot in my office with all these scrolls down his blazer. For him there was nothing unusual about it. If you went to an Afrikaans primary school on the West Rand, you didn't wear shoes. That's how you went to school and that's how you played rugby."

Like a good handful of others who have made St Stithians arguably the strongest cricket school in the land in the last five or so years, Mulder was the recipient of a bursary. With room for 750 boys, St Stithians don't have the numbers of an Affies (or, for that matter, Affies' traditional Pretoria rival, Boys' High, Chris Morris and Simon Harmer's alma mater) and have to find other means of attracting good young cricketers.

Jansen, who played cricket professionally in places like Sri Lanka and Ireland, started his job as Saints' director of cricket in 2008, when the school's fortunes had basically fallen off the cricket map. "In my first season here I remember losing all 17 fixtures against King Edward," he says. "We needed at least two to three seasons to turn things around."

The last five years have, however, been seasons of conspicuous success for the school. Their most high-profile product has been Kagiso Rabada (who didn't receive a bursary) and they have been churning out South Africa U-19 players like Mulder seemingly at will.

In 2016 they provided five of the 13 boys in the Gauteng U-19 team, and such is their 1st XI's strength that they have recently played against both of Johannesburg's university teams, beating Wits but losing to the University of Johannesburg's powerful 1st XI.

Like Botes, Jansen prefers it if St Stithians cricket coaches teach at the school. Outside coaches don't share the school ethos and neither do they see - and therefore get to know and understand - the boys in the classroom. The geography and English teachers are employed as coaches and his Head of Science, Fergus Gray, is one of the two 1st XI coaches. Unlike, say, ten or 15 years ago, St Stithians 1st XI do not tour overseas. They play 55 matches a year in both limited-overs formats and find sufficient competition locally to make touring redundant.

Instead, Jansen has introduced a twinning arrangement with five schools in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including King's in Taunton and Leinster in Dublin. The exchange programme, which lasts ten weeks, has been the making of some boys because it allows them to escape their parents and fend for themselves. "They go as boys and return as men," says Jansen.

Willem Mulder, a St Stithians' alumnus, is now playing for Lions and South Africa A

Willem Mulder, a St Stithians' alumnus, is now playing for Lions and South Africa A © Getty Images

Situated on 46 hectares of rolling land, with security booms at the main entrance, the St Stithians facilities are the envy of many a poorer establishment. They have six cricket fields (two of which are floodlit) and have just built a new cricket pavilion at substantial cost. Their facilities were deemed so attractive that the Socceroos, the Australian football side, practised at the school during the 2010 World Cup, bequeathing the school a practice pitch when they left. It costs the parents of one of the school's 610 day boys R110,000 per annum ($8000) and St Stithians has room for 140 boarders, bringing the numbers up to 750.

Given that they are a smaller school than Affies, St Stithians - or Saints, as they are nicknamed - tend not to field as many teams. Their optimum number is 16 teams, with Jansen broadening the fixture list at U-14 and U-15 level to play against schools outside of the sacred circle of about 40 that produce the bulk of South Africa's first-class and international cricketers.

Jansen's first job upon returning to South Africa after his years on the road as a professional cricketer was to work at the Gauteng Cricket Board as a development officer in 1997. He recalls ferrying young development cricketers from their homes in townships and poorer suburbs like Ennerdale, Eldorado Park, Kagiso and sections of Soweto to play against good school 1st XIs in suburban Johannesburg.

Gulam Bodi, suspended during South Africa's domestic match-fixing scandal last year, was in one such development team, and Jansen remembers being directly involved with a generation of talented black cricketers like Sonnyboy Letshele and Glen Zondani. With shrinking budgets and the cutting back of development staff, the interventions that Jansen once made on behalf of Gauteng Cricket are not practised on the same scale anymore, a situation that causes him to ruefully shake his head.

If anything, the splendid efficiencies of schools such as Affies and St Stithians have removed them even further from the bulk of inner city and township schools than was the case when he drove the Saturday morning Combi. He says he believes that the black cricketers at elite schools in Johannesburg benefit from the intense competitiveness of schools like his, King Edward, Jeppe, St John's and St David's but is less sold on what is happening elsewhere. Indeed, he has his doubts that the system is working at all for the less privileged, corralled as they are in many of the province's dysfunctional and semi-functional government and township schools.

This aside, there is no better way to understand the centrality of the schools to the health of South Africa's cricket system than to realise that all 12 of the Proteas who did duty against England in the third Test at The Oval last month were educated at cricket-playing schools, mostly ones with long traditions. They don't, say, come through a club system, or like in India, through a sports school- or academy system.

The schools are the very bedrock of South African cricket, accounting for both its phenomenal strength as well as its strange institutional reluctance to embrace the suppleness of mind required, say, for effective T20 cricket. Their ambitions are often narrow - to win at all costs, and field the best side irrespective of race - which doesn't necessarily harmonise with the system's need for cricketers of savvy and skill.

The Oval Test squad's alma maters

Dean Elgar: St Dominic's in Welkom

Heino Kuhn: Affies, Pretoria

Hashim Amla: Durban HS

Quinton de Kock: King Edward VII, Johannesburg

Faf du Plessis: Affies

Temba Bavuma: St David's, Inanda

Vernon Philander: Ravensmead Secondary, Cape Town

Chris Morris: Pretoria Boys' High

Keshav Maharaj: Northwood, Durban

Kagiso Rabada: St Stithians, Sandton

Morne Morkel: Hoërskool Vereeniging, Gauteng

12th man Aiden Markram: Pretoria Boys' High

Two of the Oval 12 (Morris and 12th man, Aiden Markram) were educated at Pretoria Boys' High, Eddie Barlow's (and Oscar Pistorius') old school, which is a stone's throw away from Kuhn and du Plessis' old school, Affies, in Pretoria.

Of the 12, nine were educated at government schools, while three (Elgar, Bavuma, Rabada) were educated privately, a revealing statistic because private schools only account for 4% of all final-year matric learners throughout the country. Of the 12, two (Philander and Morkel) were educated at co-educational schools, with the team being drawn from ten schools overall.

While the government-versus-private school divide still holds in South Africa, to the outsider the distinction can look specious, particularly as both systems are fee-paying and, to all intents and purposes, elite. Generally, however, the distinction holds in the country itself, with two issues being important: the government schools adopt a government-sanctioned curriculum, while the private schools often have a broader syllabus, writing university entrance exams of a higher standard, sometimes with links to overseas universities.

Secondly, the government does provide financially for schools under its aegis, although increasingly such monies have to be supplemented by parents paying some kind of fees and governing bodies raising independent revenues, some of which amount to sponsorship for rugby and cricket teams. As a rule, their fees are not nearly on par with those required by private schools.

For all the health at the top, what makes the system cumbersome is that development has, by and large, become trapped in the very places where it serves the least number of the disadvantaged - i.e. the private and elite government schools. Evidence of this is seen in the fact that the two black cricketers in the Oval 12 - Bavuma and Rabada - were both privately educated. Private schools, furthermore, are not beholden to quotas and government stipulations, their status meaning that, in effect, they can do as they please, whether that's in the classroom or on the cricket field.

What one also tends not to see when one is simply looking at where the national players were educated is the fact that so many good schoolboy cricketers become becalmed in the system in the immediate post-school years. De Kock and Rabada are stellar players, so their pathway to the top is assured. For those talented but not precociously so, it is easy to get lost. This is particularly true in the semi-professional strata, where the latest quota stipulations require a team of 13 to field seven "players of colour" and three "Black Africans" within that seven, which leads to widespread disenchantment from young white cricketers. Such cricketers still tend to be the most talented members of the young cricket-playing population because they are institutionally advantaged - they come from upper middle-class families and have access to the best facilities, schools and coaching opportunities.

The Socceroos train in St Stithians ahead of the 2010 football World Cup

The Socceroos train in St Stithians ahead of the 2010 football World Cup © Getty Images

Each of the Test-playing nations has its wellsprings of talent and pathways to the top, whether these are well grooved like England's, or fulsomely informal, like that of Pakistan. South Africa's cricket, by contrast, is largely kept alive by 40 or so secondary schools, which has to count among modern sport's least-known miracles.

If there is a problem in all of this - and some would argue there isn't - it is that the elite system is probably more restricted now than it was under apartheid, although for entirely different reasons. When once race politics blighted the country, now class and money restrict access of the many to the kingdoms of the few.

Schools like Affies and St Stithians make up only a small proportion of South Africa's thousands of secondary schools, so if your criterion for spreading the game is simply to grow it, providing pitches and decent coaches for all, then South Africa's cricket revolution remains a revolution deferred. This might have been inferred one Saturday 15 years ago, when, in 2002, King Edward hosted Affies. The game featured two players who went on to captain South Africa, one of whom scored over 8000 Test runs at over 50 per innings. Yet, unforgivably, there was no black boy on either side that day, the kind of structural imbalance that is proving extremely difficult to redress.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg