About 16 years after a united, post-apartheid South Africa made a spectacular return to international cricket, a race row is threatening to split the game in that country again.
The South African Test squad for Bangladesh was supposed to have been announced on Tuesday — the side is due to leave for Dhaka the coming Wednesday. But the naming of the squad has been delayed because coach Mickey Arthur (part of the selection committee) and CSA president Norman Arendse cannot agree on the number of players of colour to be included in the side.
At this point, Arthur has the backing of most of the team, including its senior players — they all believe that a team must be built on merit and the inclusion of players of colour in the squad must follow a systematic process. Arendse reportedly has a different own logic: He wants to use Bangladesh as an experiment and blood younger players of colour there. In an exclusive interview to HT, Arthur talks of South Africa's race politics and of the issue that is threatening to split his country.
Is there a serious problem in South Africa over the inclusion of players of colour in the team?
Yes, there is and the president (Arendse) and I have had a bit of an altercation over it.
Could you explain the issue?
Every time a squad is picked for a tour, it has to be approved by the Board president. The president did not approve the squad we picked for the tour of Bangladesh; he wanted more players of colour in the squad and we had a difference of opinion over it. He believes we can blood younger players of colour in the Tests in Bangladesh, I think the right place to have them prove themselves is the one-day squad. I am looking at Bangladesh as much-needed practice ahead of what will be three incredibly tough Tests against India and we have built a really good Test squad over the last year. We cannot afford to lose that momentum by experimenting with the Test team in Bangladesh, given that after India, we also play strong sides like England and Australia this year.
The president isn’t agreeing?
He obviously has some issues. He asked us to reconsider the squad and we resubmitted a list; it is awaiting his approval. But he has also instituted disciplinary action against me because he thinks I abused him, which I did not. I did not say the things I have been accused of saying and I am preparing my defence.
What happens if he refuses to approve the resubmitted squad?
I'm not sure… but I'm not prepared to compromise on this. The one thing I won't allow is interference in selection matters. We have a really good Test squad that has been built up over time, we cannot afford to let go of this momentum.
Will the issue split SA cricket?
I'm hoping sanity will prevail over this weekend, that we can all sit down and talk this over, that we understand that this is a huge issue that can be sorted out through dialogue.
And if it doesn't — we understand that three big players in the Test squad have threatened to walk out with you if you are not part of it?
I think the media has blown things out of proportion somewhat by talking about my job being on the line, like I said, I'm hopeful sense will prevail this weekend. But yes, I have huge support within the team and Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis have backed me to the hilt and will do so. But like me, most players believe that the best team should play, irrespective of colour.
You have been part of the process of change in SA cricket yourself…
Yes, I think I've tried particularly hard to follow the transformation protocol. That is why these accusations (by Arendse) are a bitter pill to swallow. I have been actively involved in the process of change and believe in it. There is a process of transformation in place, where we're aiming to right the problems of the past under apartheid by including players of colour in the team. There is a target we are looking at, of having four players of colour in the side that walks out (playing XI) and seven players of colour in the squad (of 15). We are trying to achieve it, like in the ODI against the West Indies. But it is a goal we are working towards, not a policy to be implemented immediately if we want to keep winning.
There's been an issue over certain players?
Well, yes, but like in the Herschelle Gibbs (a player of colour) case, it's not my fault. He's a very good one-day player and I've really tried to give him every opportunity in Tests. But the last four years he's averaged 26 in Tests, he hasn't had a hundred since 2005. He's got ample opportunity to prove himself. I've carried him for a long time in Test cricket. Obviously, I have to make a call on him.