Somewhere, in a township in South Africa, a little boy is running in to bowl, and he is calling himself Kagiso Rabada. Or Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi, maybe even Keshav Maharaj. In years gone by, he may have said Allan Donald, or Dale Steyn, but things are changing, and the next generation of hopefuls now have a more diverse cast to call upon in their field of dreams.
During a recent Test match between South Africa and rival Australia, a poignant picture of Rabada, Philander, Ngidi, and Maharaj was taken as they left the field of play. In that match, they were the four selected bowlers, and they all played a significant hand in the Proteas squaring the four-match series at one apiece.
The picture of the “Fab Four” did the social media rounds, and soon a celebration of four young men became the catalyst for heated debate about “the system.” Sadly, sports and politics have been tied at the hip in South Africa for years now, the latter often rearing its ugly head off the field when the former had come short on it.
The buzzword used to encapsulate many of the changes in South African sport has been “transformation,” as the present regime looks to somehow correct the imbalances of past racial segregation. That is no easy feat, because even the term itself appears to be interpreted differently.
In 2016, Cricket South Africa introduced a quota system to the top level of the sport—it had already been implemented at the provincial level for some time—and since then, the men’s team must include at least six non-white players, two of whom must be black African. The targets are generally met, though there is additional leeway for the number to be balanced out over the course of the season, and not necessarily in every single match. Thus, when injuries and form come into play, there is an understanding if those quotas are not met.
On one side, the targets represent long overdue opportunities for the mass population, while the cynical side views it as a dilution of a once proud team—that spots are awarded based on skin color, rather than merit. Naturally, transformation is blamed whenever the team has a major failure.
That tune is changing, however, as the biggest star on the current team is Rabada. Indeed, the brilliant 22-year-old fast bowler is not just the best his country has; he is ranked as the best bowler in the world.
Rabada, of Setswana descent, and each of his teammates of color despise being labeled as anything other than sportsmen, because they have earned their place at the top. Indeed, each one of them has won a game for their country with a spell of brilliance that emphasizes the point that they are not there to make up the numbers.
Like much around the “rainbow nation,” the face of South African cricket is changing. Slowly but surely, the names on the team sheet and the faces on television screens across the country are starting to represent the wider community, in a country still grappling with its segregated past, and trying to build a collectively prosperous future.
Well over two decades into democratic rule, however, there are still some unsettling issues which undermine the collective goal of a unified country. As in many other countries, sports in South Africa are now a career choice that can alter lives and personal circumstances in an instant. Securing a spot on the national team could be one of those life-altering moments, and the quota system has led to heated debate.
To some, the quota is seen as infringing upon the opportunities of others, even though the stated aim is to address the imbalances of the past. No one likes to lose something they feel entitled to, so when the quota is perceived as the deciding factor in 50/50 selection calls going to a black player, it often leads to resentment.
The two issues are intrinsically linked, though providing opportunities to all would certainly make selection easier (and the team better). Cricket, by its very nature, is an expensive sport to get into. To be sure, its basic requirements have long been beyond the reach of the working class. Cricket requires certain conditions and facilities, and then the equipment itself is an additional burden.
You cannot do it alone. It’s not like shooting hoops, or sprinting, or swimming, or any other sport that you can go it alone for long periods. Cricket is perhaps the loneliest team sport in the world, but your individual skills can only be honed in company. And that company needs proper facilities to train on, or else the whole thing is futile. It is a complicated process, and one that continues to hamstring any significant goals for progress at grassroots levels.
The availability of facilities, and their maintenance, is also an expensive problem because cricket nets require more maintenance than, say, a batting cage, as the cricket ball has to bounce consistently, which places strain on the practice facility with foot traffic.
It’s not just cricket that faces those issues, but cricket is one of the few sporting codes that suffers in adverse conditions. Along with assistance from corporate partners, Cricket South Africa is trying to address these shortcomings.
Like most of the country, the administrators of South African cricket have realized that politicians will say what they want to get into power, but their actions can fall far short of their statements. As promises of land and facilities remain mere promises, they have taken matters into their own hands, with development hubs mushrooming across South Africa. These hubs have specialized coaches, and they have become the initial intake in a feeder system that is designed to eventually lead to the professional ranks.
From the hubs, those underprivileged kids who show promise are given scholarships to schools that have all the tools they need to be the best they can be. Most of the national team’s black stars have gone through this route, but the road to ultimate success is still under urgent construction.
For everyone linked to the game, true success would be achieved on the day when a South African team takes to the field, and there are no grumblings of political interference. By all accounts, that day is drawing closer and closer, because the current crop of players have reached the pinnacle of the game based on their qualities as players, and not because of the color of their skin.
The late President Nelson Mandela, the father of the new South Africa, was a fierce advocate of the unifying power of sports. If he were to survey the rainbow nation now, he would be encouraged by what he saw, especially with the emergence of the “Fab Four,” as well as batsmen like Temba Bavuma rising from a township and making a name for themselves on the international stage.
But, significantly, Mandela would also know that there is still plenty of work to be done before the path from the streets to the stars is not as long and winding.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.