Magazine article The Spectator

Cricket's Quota Quandary

Magazine article The Spectator

Cricket's Quota Quandary

Article excerpt

South Africa's sporting quotas have a laudable aim. Is that enough?

Sport is a serious matter. If you have any doubts on that score, shed them now, because this is to be a South African year. The South African cricket team comes to England in the summer to play four Test matches, three one-day internationals and three Twenty20 games, and as they do so they will ask a million questions -- not only about cover drives and reverse swing, but also about the way to make a society, about the way to redeem a society, about idealism versus practicality, about short-term advantage versus long-term goals and about the nature of justice.

There is an argument doing the rounds. It goes like this: South Africa should be banned from participation in international sport because of the government-level discrimination against white athletes. And while this is an obvious piece of mischief-making, it raises legitimate questions about the nature of sport. What is it for? And what's it got to do with national and international politics?

These questions go back to the quota system, under which the South African government insists that at each level of representative sport there must be a certain number of non-white players, including a smaller number of 'African black' athletes. The exact specifications have varied across time and from sport to sport. In 2007 they were done away with altogether, only to be brought back.

Cricket South Africa currently insists that teams should have six non-white players, including two black Africans. The Test team already has that, including the brilliant Hashim Amla and the vastly promising Kagiso Rabada. Domestic franchise teams should offer six and three. Sports that fail to meet the quota are banned from bidding for international events, which has prompted many cries of woe from white sporty types.

The counter-argument to the quota is that sport is supposed to be the one unadulterated 100 per cent meritocracy in the world, and to sully it with selection criteria based on race is a crime against sport, natural justice and humanity. The counter-counter-argument is that during 50 years of apartheid, South African operated a quota of 11 whites, zero non-whites and zero black Africans, and it's time to redress the balance.

The quest for sporting excellence is the first casualty of the quota system -- not that anyone English has cause for complaint. England's glorious victory in the Ashes series of 2005 was delivered after an afternoon of brilliance from Kevin Pietersen, a South African who came to England to escape the quota. Jonathan Trott and Keaton Jennings are more recent England-qualified South Africans.

Every question about South African sport goes back to that curious experiment in government called apartheid -- and not the least curious part is the vivid and central part played by sport. The history of South Africa can never be told without sport and can never be understood without a grasp of sport's power and meaning.

The policy of apartheid eventually led to South Africa's international isolation. This was led by sport and was most conspicuously and dramatically demonstrated by sport. All sports -- some with great reluctance -- refused to play with apartheid South Africa, creating a hunger for international sport in that country. The country was banned from the summer Olympics from 1964 to 1988. …

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