Soweto Pioneers Cricket Club: A club merger with the potential to transform cricket in South Africa

Soweto Cricket Club

Twenty six years since South Africa was welcomed back into international cricket, one of the chief dilemmas that continues to keep administrators up at night it is the Gordian knot that is racial transformation.

Of the 98 players who have played Test cricket for South Africa since readmission in 1991 only eight are black African. What’s more concerning is that apart Mfuneko Ngam, the menacing fast bowler, whose career was curtailed by debilitating stress fractures, all attended a private or elite school.

With access to dedicated coaching, manicured facilities and state of the art equipment, these privileged and well-resourced institutions remain the best paved and most frequently trodden pathways to a professional contract.

It is against this backdrop that the two leading cricket clubs in Soweto – by far South Africa’s largest township with a population of just under 1.2 million people, 98.5 percent of whom are black African – have merged to form one team in the hopes of not only strengthening the sport in the region but to drive organic racial transformation across the country.

After years of persistent underachievement, where Soweto Cricket Club had become perennial bottom feeders in the top tier of Gauteng club cricket and Dobsonville Cricket Club had continued to languish in the second division, executives from both clubs decided to combine their resources and talent pools. At the start of the 2016-17 season, the Soweto Pioneers Cricket Club was formed.

Eighteen months since the merger, important questions need to be addressed. The most pressing one concerns the Gauteng Cricket Board’s ability to sustain and cultivate cricket in Soweto. Does this amalgamation indicate that a largely poor and almost entirely black community is unable to field more than one competitive club?

Sadly, the answer to that question seems to be a sobering and emphatic “yes”. A recent report published by Stats SA, South Africa’s national statistical service, found that 64.2 percent of black African people live on less than R992 per month – nowhere near the amount required to pay for club fees, equipment, private coaching, adequate nutrition and transport to faraway grounds.

Considering that the Soweto clubs were asked to compete in a league against teams from affluent suburbs stacked with mostly white players who are graduates of the aforementioned schools of sporting excellence, one gets a sense of the unequal playing field that still exists within the fabric of the game in South Africa.

According to Koketso Muller, a member of the board at the Gauteng Cricket Board and the man primarily responsible for the merger, it was this economic reality that drove the decision.

“It was the historian Lewis Manthata [a Soweto native], who opened my eyes,” Muller tells Cricbuzz.

“He explained that only in a country like India, where cricket is mass participated, can an underprivileged region sustain multiple teams. In South Africa, soccer is the game of the township and if we wanted to rise beyond our ceiling we had to maximise our potential.”

The original plan was to dissolve both clubs entirely and start anew – an idea vetoed by members from both clubs as well as the GCB who were concerned with the political and social implications of losing a black managed club in a township.

At the behest of Thabang Moroe (former GCB president, now acting chief executive of Cricket South Africa after Haroon Lorgat stepped down in September), a compromise was reached. Soweto CC and Dobsonville CC would continue to exist as development hubs to serve as feeders to Soweto Pioneers who would have their pick of the bunch to field four senior teams.

There were some teething issues at first, most notably the struggle to convince members and players from both clubs that this merger did not signal the dissolution of their proud legacies. The loudest protests came from Soweto CC who can boast the late Khaya Majola and current Highveld Lions coach Geoffrey Toyana amongst their alumni.

Muller admits that this first hurdle was the most difficult to clear: “That is why we chose the name ‘Pioneers’. That was the name of the original cricket team in Soweto which was established by migrant workers from the Eastern Cape. We could say to any concerned members, ‘This merger celebrates our history, we’re not turning our back on it.'”

Despite these assurances there has been a mini exodus from the two clubs with some players leaving for neighbouring teams like Florida CC and others abandoning the sport entirely.

Where there were once numerous opportunities to play cricket now there were only 44 slots available on the weekend. What’s more, some players who had been playing in their club’s first or second team now found themselves in the thirds or fourths.

But selection headaches are a part of cricket at all levels. A few casualties along the way are justifiable as long as the end product is an improved team that can compete on the field. So how has the newly formed team fared since the merger?

Muller has declared that last season has been chalked up as a “transition year” and says he was happy with the side’s sixth place (out of nine) in the 50 overs format and their fourth place finish in their seven team T20 group.

This season, however, has not heralded an upswing in results as the side has struggled to match the expectations that that many anticipated from their sophomore year. With just two wins from seven games, the Pioneers are languishing in ninth place out of twelve in the 50-over league but Siqamo Laphu, chairman of the club, is not ready to hit the panic button just yet.

“We still have fifteen games to go in this season and we believe that we’re on the right course,” Laphu tells Cricbuzz on the back of a two-game winning streak.

“We’ve fielded four full teams with coaches present in every game we’ve played. Every player is wearing the same kit and there is quality equipment to spare. The results will come. We have a foundation to work from.”

Indeed, Sherina Desai, the GCB’s club cricket coordinator echoes Laphu’s sentiments by stating that for the first time since she has been involved with the Board, a team from a township is, “as good from an administration point of view as any other club in league.”

But results on the field are what matter and Muller admits that the entire project rests on the success of the senior teams: “The whole point of the merger was to drive black cricketing excellence and if we don’t start accumulating wins, people will doubt that a team from a township is able to compete at an elite level.”

In the past, talented players developed in Soweto outgrew the meagre resources available to them and found greener and better equipped pastures at a rival club. Omhpile Ramela, the Highveld Lions middle order batsman who took his first steps in the sport in Soweto but developed his craft at St John’s College, one of Johannesburg’s top schools, speaks of the need to avoid the player drain seen in previous season in light of the battle to organically transform the sport.

“When Soweto Pioneers is beating top clubs, challenging for trophies and keeping their best players happy and motivated, that is when you’ll see real transformation in cricket in this country,” Ramela, who has represented the club this season, says to Cricbuzz. “In any league around the world, young prospects will always seek the challenge of playing in a winning team. Soweto can’t afford to lose its best black talent.”

When Temba Bavuma edged Ben Stokes for four in Cape Town last year, he became the first black African to score a Test century for South Africa. No sooner had he walked off the ground with his bat aloft had the tributes to the transformation process and his home town of Langa started pouring in.

As euphoric as the moment was, some of the gloss was removed when one considered that Bavuma was a product of St David’s College, an elite private school in an affluent suburb in Johannesburg. While the diminutive batsman may have hailed from a poor township, it would be disingenuous to claim that his abilities were moulded there.

South Africa is still waiting for the next Ngam – a black cricketer nurtured outside of the established structures built during the old regime. While the chasm between rich and poor remains vast, the likelihood of unearthing and developing a Protea in a township remains slim. However, by pooling all available resources together and sharpening the spearhead, the Soweto Pioneers are hoping to do just that.

Daniel Gallan

This feature first appeared on Cricbuzz.