Cricket: Bat & Pad - Grassroots Talent Is Thriving As: The Rainbow Nation's Cup Continues to Run over; When the Carnival of Cricket That Is the World Cup Arrives in South Africa Next Month It Will Lift the Spirits of Many Nations. Telford Vice and Photographer Mike Hutchings Discover None More So Than the Small Communities throughout South Africa for Whom the Sound of Leather on Willow Is Already a Way of Life

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Byline: Telford Vice and Mike Hutchings

Stepping out on to a less-than-manicured outfield to compete in a tournament that once rewarded winners with half a sheep, South Africa's rural players are flying the flag for cricket in poor areas in a country where rich whites have long dominated the sport.

The competitors in the Amacalegushe tournament in the Eastern Cape area play without the benefit of sponsorship, pampered pitches or even a match fee.

Aspiring young bowlers practise in makeshift nets ahead of the competition, hoping to emulate national side heroes Makhaya Ntini and Monde Zondeki, who have both graced the field of the Amacalegushe tournament

A young batsman swings with a rough-hewn wooden bat at a tennis ball bouncing in the dust on the sidelines of the tournament, while other young men with painted faces and wearing traditional Xhosa dress sit in the long grass and watch the games unfold.

Enthusiasm for the tournament always runs high but this year's Cricket World Cup, to be held in South Africa in February and March, has boosted rural excitement to new levels.

Poor children in the townships are also getting more involved.

'When I go around the townships, five years ago you found six, seven, eight, nine-year-olds playing football,' said World Cup spokesman Jos Charle.

'But today, these youngsters, they are playing cricket. No equipment, no facilities or anything, just with a tennis ball and a home-made bat and home-made wickets,' he added.

South Africa's history of racial oppression has left obvious marks across its sports teams and cricketing success is most often seen as the province of affluent whites.

Long-smouldering tensions came to a head recently, with South Africa's United Cricket Board (UCB) and its Sports Minister, Ngconde Balfour, trading sharp words over whether teams should field a quota of non-white players.

Although Zondeki was included in the national squad for the World Cup, he is only the third black player to make the South African side.

But the strength of tournaments such as the Amacalegushe competition show that cricket's future in the 'Rainbow Nation' is in good hands, says Ray Mali, who played in his first tournament as a 15-year-old all-rounder in 1952.

Since then, Mali has become president of the Border Cricket Board and a member of the UCB general council. …