Leading Edge: New book takes reverse swipe at cricket’s great and good

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Auckland

A book anyone who has written on cricket in South Africa should wish they had authored has been published. 

If after reading it – which should be required – they don’t wish they had written this book, they should not scribble another word that is meant for consumption by a cricketminded public anywhere.

The title is “Reverse Sweep”. That doesn’t tell us much, but the subtitle is more informative: “A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid”. Still more is revealed by the author’s name: Ashwin Desai.

For some, that’s enough to not want to be within the longest boundary of this book.

For others, that’s reason enough to take notice.

As one of this country’s pre-eminent sociologists, Desai asks hard questions of pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. Cricket is, of course, part of those wider realities.

But, like self-harming conservatism everywhere, cricket prefers not to answer those hard questions lest it is forced to do so by, say, a government that will no longer take the suits’ word for it that it will transform if left alone to do so.

Desai, once a member of Cricket South Africa’s transformation structures, is at his best when he is outside the tent pissing in. This tent is aslosh with the stuff.

Some of Desai’s ilk are open to accusations from the game’s more defensive dungeons that they haven’t a clue what they’re on about.

Not Desai, who was born into a cricket family and became a cricketer and a cricket person – which, happily and valuably, he remains – long before sociology called.

His book is the game holding a mirror up to itself, a mirror that might have belonged to both Snow White’s wicked queen and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

It is a story of people who are promised fairness and justice but are hijacked in the cause of those who made that promise; of integrity sacrificed, opportunities lost, and recognition denied; of what happens when we choose to forget, often on purpose, what we have a solemn duty to remember.

It is a story of the institutionalised and informal racism that shaped cricket and everything else in South Africa during apartheid, of the insidious, ongoing prejudice that continues to move in unmysterious ways, and of the selling-out and co-option of those in whom was great trust had been placed.

No-one escapes Desai’s withering truth, not even Nelson Mandela, who is sneered at for telling the US Congress in 1992 that the free market was “a magic elixir” and to hell with the Freedom Charter.

A chapter is dedicated to “Sports journalism and the padding of history”. Its targets include several who are still writing on the game.

Suits are skewered for their sliminess, spinelessness and skelmgheid.

Players from the great to the good are assailed about what is at best their willful ignorance of the past and at worst their enthusiastic complicity in the murderous subjugation of a nation.   

Many are quoted chapter and verse: this is a work of strong opinion, but it is founded on firm fact.

In the interests of full disclosure, this columnist makes appearances, all of them to support Desai’s arguments.

He doesn’t need support, but he deserves our gratitude for doing cricket a great service. Read this book.

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