This is how to transform cricket in South Africa
What South Africa’s first match against Zimbabwe in this year’s Cricket World Cup made abundantly clear, is that Zimbabwe’s national cricket team is much more representative of their country’s demography. Not one ethnically black (or ‘African black’) player was in South Africa’s starting eleven; our country’s demography (roughly: 80% ethnically black, 9% Coloured, 9% white and 2% Asian/other) is nearly the exact opposite of our national team demography (in the last Test match: 9% black, 18% Coloured, 64% white and 9% Asian/other). That is disappointing after two decades of democracy.
But it’s not as if there’s many black players clamoring for selection: Aaron Phangiso is the only ethnically black player in the group, and he will find it difficult to replace our incumbent spinner, Imran Tahir, who has become an ODI wonderkid. The pipeline is also pretty empty: I don’t know whether Kagiso Rabada, a right-arm fast bowler that destroyed Australia in the semi-final of the u/19 World Cup last year and ended the tournament as the highest South African wicket taker, will be a star Protea bowler one day. All I know is that he has the potential to be a star, which is why the national selectors thought it wise to select him for the national T20 side, only to be smashed by Australia. Let’s hope he learns, hopefully with his self-belief and confidence intact, and that he isn’t pushed too hard too fast.
Unfortunately, Kagiso is the exception rather than the rule. Since the democratic transition in 1994, very few ethnically black players have played in the Test side; Makhaya Ntini being the only one that could keep his place for an extended period of time. Of course, this is not a problem unique to cricket; the current Springbok side is as white as what it was in 1995 when it won the World Cup for the first time. But cricket’s failure to grow ethnically black talent seems to be particularly acute.
No one is disputing the fact that we need more black players to be selected for the Proteas. I think it is fair to say that Makhaya Ntini was a favourite not only among black fans; he was a favourite to all because he was entertaining and hard-working and brilliant. Yet no more Ntini’s have come through the system. I’ve written before on why that is. To summarize: cricket is expensive, in terms of time and resources. It is incredibly difficult for a young kid from an impoverished background to have access to good coaching, facilities and family support that will allow him to compete on a level playing field against richer kids. In South Africa, the poorest 80% of the population is almost entirely black. And because cricket skills are developed from a young age, black kids in poor schools simply cannot compete against their wealthier white compatriots. It is also why, if you really want to change the system, you have to start in school.
Which is exactly the opposite approach Cricket South Africa has taken. Last year, the University Sport South Africa (USSA) Cricket Week enforced quotas for different race groups. Each team had to field 3 ‘players of colour’, one of which had to be ethnically black. Teams struggled to fill the quota, some having to field only 9 players because they could not meet the quota requirements. In 2015, the quotas will increase to 4 players of colour, 2 ethnically black. In 2016, it will be 6 players of colour, three ethnically black. It is impossible to see, given current trends, how most universities will be able to adhere to these requirements without 1) putting players without the required ability at risk of injury and 2) without discouraging good players from playing cricket.
Quotas are useful when there is evidence of racism: if there are enough black players that can be selected but coaches or managers choose to ignore them. Such racism is irrational because coaches are supposed to pick the best players to win the tournament, and if they discriminate against black players then they hurt their own chances of success. In such an environment, quotas would force racist coaches to pick the black players instead of the inferior white players.
I doubt that this is what is happening at universities, though. In my discussions with university managers and players, they spend an inordinate amount of time scouting for black talent. The few black players that are available are headhunted by all universities, with promises of bursaries and free tuition. And in some cases, the really good ones, like my Masters student and former Stellenbosch captain, Omphile Ramela, are drafted to the provincial side, where quotas also mean that those coaches are frantically looking for even more promising black players.
Let me phrase this in terms of economics. Racial quotas shift the demand curve for black players, but does nothing about the supply side. The only way you shift the supply side, as any first year Economics student should know, is by improving technology and thus productivity. So the standard response to ‘how do we get more black kids in sport’ is not ‘force teams to play them’ but ‘build better facilities in schools’.
Yet we are clearly not building better facilities in schools, or providing better coaching, or, at least, we are not doing it fast enough. And yet, politicians and, in most cases, fans (myself included) want to see faster progress. A different answer is clearly needed.
So, Cricket South Africa, here is my suggestion: allow the private market to develop black talent. Economists know that the best way to ensure a steady supply of any good is to get the incentives right. And to get the incentives right, in this case, would require some financial support. Instead of a quota at the USSA Cricket Week, allow teams to pick any player they want to. But for every ethnically black player they field, pay them R500 000 (or R100 000 per match). For every Coloured player, pay them R250 000 (or R50 000 per match). If all teams pick only black players, Cricket South Africa would need a maximum budget of R50 million to stage the tournament. Do this every year for at least 10 years. (To ensure that universities play to win, give an additional R5 million in prize money.)
What is likely to happen? University coaches will react to these incentives swiftly. They will realise that it can be incredibly lucrative to field a team with several black players. They can therefore plan to invest their future earnings today; spend the next two years finding black players, nurturing and developing them (an expensive exercise), offer them bursaries (even more expensive), and fielding them in three years’ time. Intermediaries – good development coaches with an eye for talent – will realise that if they invest in black young kids with potential, universities will be willing and able to buy these players from them: expect the creation of numerous (profitable) cricket academies around the country that will improve access for black kids to better facilities and better coaching. The result is that a much larger pool of black talent will emerge, allowing provinces to pick and choose and the national team to prosper.
R500 million over a ten year period is a lot of money. But I suspect not more than R200 million will be needed, as good white players will still be selected (especially if there is a financial reward for winning). If the government (perhaps with the help of sponsors) are serious about transformation in sport, they need to put their money where their mouth is. And because much of the money will go into bursaries, this type of spending has large positive externalities too.
Quotas, although easy to enforce, won’t solve the shortage of professional black cricketers. If we want to produce a Makhaya Ntini or Kagiso Rabada every year, a well-funded system that gets the incentives right is the only viable alternative.