Bowling for glory: South Africa's cricket (almost) redemption

2015 Cricket World Cup India vs South Africa match. Image by Tourism Victoria from Flickr (CC BY 4.0 DEED).

On November 16, the charismatic Temba Bavuma, captain of the South African men's cricket team (also known as the Proteas), led the squad onto Eden Gardens in Kolkata, India. Their adversary: the formidable five-time champions, Australia. This clash marked one of the two thrilling semi-finals in the pursuit of the coveted International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup trophy.

The Proteas, having already secured a commanding 134-run victory over the Aussies in the group stages, found themselves on the brink of the final, fueled by the ambition to surpass their prior achievements. The team's performance had been remarkable, defeating all teams save for the hosts, India. However, their path took an unexpected turn as the South Africans succumbed to Australia by a narrow three-wicket margin.

Derisively labeled “chokers,” the Proteas, despite their gallant loss, displayed unwavering resolve on the field. Coach Rob Walter, acknowledging the team's heartening effort, expressed his profound disappointment at losing; defending his team against the “choke” narrative, Walter remarked, “I guess you need to define what a ‘choke’ is. For me, a choke is losing a game that you’re in a position to win. In this instance, we were behind the eight ball right from the word go and we actually fought our way back into the competition … ” 

This defeat highlights the Proteas’ enduring rollercoaster of successes and setbacks, which has caused them to be considered the best team never to have won the Cricket World Cup. South Africa's cricket history, marked by transitions, now points to a future deeply rooted in culture, opportunities, resilience, and global potential.

Formative years

The Proteas, known as the “Springboks” during the apartheid era, standing as Africa's foremost cricketing nation, have a storied history dating back to the inaugural cricket match played on South African soil in 1808. The encounter, featuring English officers, marked the genesis of South Africa's cricketing journey. South Africa played a pivotal role alongside powerhouses England and Australia in forming the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1909.

The narrative of South African cricket follows complex socio-historical threads. In 1892, William Henry “Krom” Hendricks emerged as the first Black player deemed worthy of the national team but faced exclusion due to racial discrimination. The racial biases witnessed during Hendricks’ time continue to echo in contemporary debates on selection, inclusion, and diversity within South African cricket.

The triangular tournaments of the early 20th century, involving England, Australia, and South Africa, exemplified the harmonious relationship between these cricketing nations. The era, marked by tours across the seas, became a pivotal chapter in the British colonial legacy.

Despite being a crucial part of the cricketing fraternity, the team faced a dark period in the 1970s because of apartheid-related bans. This hiatus didn't halt individual players like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, and Mike Procter from making their mark in international Test cricket, often seen as the pinnacle of the game

In the turbulent era of the Rebel Tours (1982–1990), South Africa's cricket resilience shone. Branded illegal because of the country's exclusion from the cricketing fraternity, these tours became a stage for players to flaunt talent amid global censure. Despite the bans, controversial West Indies, England, Australia (earning the then PM Bob Hawke's ire), and Sri Lanka (as AROSA Sri Lanka XI in 1982) teams entered the country to play.

The ban on South African cricket was lifted in 1991, marking the country's return to the international cricketing arena. South Africa and Zimbabwe represent the African region among the 12 teams holding Test playing status

Reinstatement and core Test status

During the 1992 Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the newly-named Proteas impressed, reaching the semi-finals. While other sports actively integrated communities, cricket remained exclusive, catering predominantly to a Whites-only demographic. Not until 1998 did the cricketing landscape welcome its first officially recognized Black player, Makhaya Ntini.

Raymond Booi, a Border Cricket development officer, pioneered a mini-cricket program that showcased Ntini's skills, catching the attention of talent scouts. Within two years, Ntini ascended to the Under-19 South Africa national team, initiating a groundbreaking tour of England. His journey marked a historic symbol of African representation in South African cricket.

Though a renowned fast bowler, Ntini faced a lot of racism and difficulty integrating into the Proteas squad. He disclosed during an interview with SABC 2's Morning Live that he often felt lonely during his international cricket career, as he was often being excluded from social plans by his teammates. He resorted to running between stadiums and hotels to avoid using the team bus, as his teammates would avoid sitting close to him. Despite these challenges, he played a pivotal role in securing the Proteas’ first major tournament win — the ICC Knock-out Trophy in 1998. In the same year, he helped the team win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games as part of the List-A team, triumphing over the Australians in Malaysia.

Ntini's journey shattered barriers and served as a catalyst for change within South African cricket. His contributions paved the way for a more representative and inclusive future in the nation's cricketing history. 

Still no World Cup glory

South Africa's batsman David Miller, left, leaves the field as Pakistan's bowler Saeed Ajmal, right, celebrates at the end of their 2nd One Day International cricket match at St. George's Park, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. Image by said. ssacbd on Flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

In the early 2000s, the Proteas embarked on cricket tours that underscored their significance in the global cricketing landscape. The year 2003 marked a pivotal moment as South Africa, alongside Kenya and Zimbabwe, co-hosted the Cricket World Cup. However, the tournament was marred by controversy, with the English team's forfeiture against Zimbabwe as a protest against President Robert Mugabe's rule.

Complications escalated when New Zealand declined to play Kenya in Nairobi, citing “security concerns.” Despite hurdles, the tournament hinted at African success. The Aussies secured their third World Cup title, defeating the Indian team in the finals. The Proteas, missing a home soil victory, earned the enduring “chokers” label that has persisted into 2023.

Against this backdrop, South Africa adopted a racial quota policy, promoting a more diverse team. Revised in 2016, the policy mandates a minimum of six Black players of colour per team, including at least two “Black Africans,” in any season — “Black African” is defined as individuals of African descent, whereas the broader term “Black” encompasses individuals of African and mixed-race heritage. Since the adoption of the racial quota policy, there have been several black players on the team.

Breaking boundaries: A captain's journey

Cricket South Africa's commitment to inclusivity took a significant stride in 2020 with the establishment of Cricket for Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN). This initiative emerged in response to an incident involving West Indian cricketer Daren Sammy, who exposed a degrading nickname within the Sunrisers Hyderabad, an Indian Premier League franchise.

South African bowler Lungi Ngidi rallied the cricket community to take a stand, garnering support from 36 prominent players and coaches. The culmination was a symbolic taking of the knee at Centurion's SuperSport Park in Gauteng, South Africa, in July 2020, laying the foundation for CSA-SJN

In South Africa's cricket history, diversity in leadership emerged with Ashwell Prince, the first mixed-race captain (2006–2009), followed by Jean-Paul Duminy (2009–2010) and Justin Ontong (2012).

By 2012, the Proteas achieved the top spot in the ICC Test Championship, across all three cricket formats. In 2013, a historic moment for the Proteas occurred with Temba Bavuma becoming the first Black African batsman. He joined the Test squad in 2014, making his debut against the West Indies. In March 2021, he continued making history as the first Black African permanent captain, leading the limited-overs side.

Under Temba Bavuma's captaincy, the Proteas have witnessed a resurgence, drawing inspiration from successful rugby counterparts for consecutive World Cup victories. Bavuma's leadership emphasizes the imperative of inclusivity and equality in the pursuit of cricketing excellence.

In yet another World Cup, the Proteas secure another semi-final finish, prompting introspection amid perceived under-achievement. Cricket stands as an enduring force in the Rainbow Nation, steering the Proteas’ narrative.

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