It’s November 12th, 1991.
India are hosting South Africa in the second match of a three-game ODI series.
South Africa are playing their first series back from isolation, so the historic occasion isn’t lost on anyone. The Gwailor crowd are cheering their home fans on, with Kris Srikkanth and Navjot Sidhu putting on a fantastic opening stand.
“There was a moment in that game, he [Sidhu] went down the wicket to me and tried to clip me over the leg side and it went just over extra cover. Had that been taken, changes everything.”
That’s Clive Eksteen speaking, the spinner South Africa played in that match. He only bowled two overs, copping it from Sidhu, and was taken off by his skipper Clive Rice.
Nonetheless, Eksteen’s involvement in that series was something that connects him to a moment of South African history. The political, social and cultural context is something that can’t be understated – until that series occurred, South Africa wasn’t even expected to play in the 1992 Cricket World Cup, let alone earlier.
As it was, South Africa only played (at incredibly short notice) that series against India because Pakistan pulled out of their tour. The team was selected at short notice, Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook were more or less in charge (with the former the captain), and Ali Bacher became team manager. Sadly, because of the short notice, fair trials for black players were impossible, so the only two black players toured as something of an afterthought, and as ‘players-in-waiting’, touring for the experience of international cricket, but not playing.
In its own way, that small three-match tour of India in late 1991 was comparable to the 1995 Rugby World Cup. If not for the social change it enacted, at least for what it represented.
When I asked Eksteen whether South Africa were ready for that tour, his reaction was telling: he managed to get out a ‘No’ with a straight face, before dissolving into laughter.
“We played club cricket the week before, we were playing club cricket! We really were. We were playing at the University. I remember the game really clearly, I remember Ali [Bacher] arriving at the ground because Jimmy Cook played for us at, in those days, for RAU [Rand Afrikaans University]. And Jimmy got called off the field, and we never even took any notice of it. That night they announced the team, and the next Sunday we were playing a One Day International in Calcutta in front of 100 000 fanatical Indian fans. And it was an amazing two weeks, you went from playing club cricket in front of your mom and dad and maybe a couple of dogs, to playing intense international cricket. We were never prepared.
“But, in saying that, you had one or two really quality, seasoned professionals who made it a lot easier for us to adapt. And again, the history tells you the last ODI in Delhi we started to play better, and we started to settle, and we ended up winning that game and moving from there into international cricket.
“But, it was quite funny, even at some of the games they had ‘Pakistan v India’ printed on some of the tickets! It was bizarre. My blazer, I’ve still got it at home, they stuck the badge on with glue! No one was prepared. But it was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up and it was phenomenal, and one that I cherish. Just being on that tour was an absolute privilege.”
Eksteen had a lengthy career in the game of cricket. Although his stats don’t show it – seven Tests and six ODIs do scant justice to the man – he played Tests as late as the year 2000, and played First Class cricket from 1985 to 2004.
The first half of that First Class career was spent during some of the most politically active and turbulent times in South African sport – and South African history as a whole.
When he made his debut for the South African Defence Force team in 1985, there were still two boards in South Africa, with the United Cricket Board not forming until a few years later.
As such, there was still a certain division between the ‘white’ players and ‘coloured’ players, playing under two boards of control with two very different political backgrounds.
The situation was something well documented and debated around the world, and even for an 18 year-old lad trying to break into top-flight cricket, the political situation was something that bothered Eksteen.
“It obviously bothered you. The challenge that you had is how ‘world-wide’ you were in those days. It was very different, as you can imagine. You didn’t have cell phones, you hardly even had television. So to be up to speed with what was going on around the world, and the feelings of people around the world, is not like it is today. You almost operated in a little cocoon, in your own environment. In those days I was in National Service, so you were supposedly defending the country. You were really caught up against it.
“But, having said that, we did play against black cricketers, coloured cricketers, Indian cricketers. Some of our club cricket in my early days, we played in Soweto. So you had an exposure to it, and you were just hoping that things would come right and that the country would move out of the madness and move into the real world.”
Eksteen played cricket in England, including with the Warwickshire Second XI, in the late 1980s, and while cricket in South Africa and England is different anyway – a point Eksteen himself made – there was also the big difference over the matter of integration.
“Cricket in England is completely integrated, and you were over there, and you were completely integrated. I shared a flat in those days with Tony Merrick, who was a West Indian fast bowler. And we got along well, we had great fun, we became mates. From that point of view, it was different. But from a cricketing point of view, you just got out and played, you got on with it.”
In 1990 the final rebel touring side came to South Africa. Led by Mike Gatting, the English side have been described in a lot of ways, with most casting them in an awfully unflattering light.
Eksteen played for South African Universities against the rebel side, and he recalled the day vividly.
“At the game, I remember it very clearly. We played at Bloemfontein. There were demonstrations outside the ground, and you really started to realise that there’s factions and unhappiness around it. We just wanted to play cricket, but I think that saying of ‘normal sport and an abnormal society doesn’t mix’, that was very true. So something had to happen. And Ali Bacher, being the type of person that he was, he recognised the need for change and the history tells you – they called off the tour in the end, and worked towards being normal sport in a normal country.”
It was in 1991 that the United Cricket Board of South Africa (now Cricket South Africa) was formed. That was spearheaded by Ali Bacher, who helped merge the South African Cricket Union and the South African Cricket Board. It has been suggested by many that the way things were gone about ended up disadvantaging the white players, but Eksteen disagrees.
“No, I don’t think so. No, I really don’t. It was always going to be a tough amalgamation because when you move from separate bodies into one, there’s always jockeying for positions. And in hindsight, which is always a perfect science, the white community was always going ‘we don’t want to lose power’, where that’s actually got nothing to do with it. It’s about getting into normal sport as quickly as we can for the future of our kids and future generations. This is a personal view, it’s taken too long to try and normalise it. And there’s still challenges around it. But I don’t think it disadvantaged, no more than it disadvantaged others. It is what it is, again, and you move on. I think it’s the right thing to do, and it goes beyond a moral obligation and goes into how we’re going to grow the game in the country … you want to open the game up, and you want to open the game up to all.”
After the amalgamation of the boards, the way was paved for that 1991 tour of India. As already mentioned, it was a huge event for South Africa. But, to Eksteen, it also showed how little cricket meant.
“I was chatting to someone today about it, and we met Mother Theresa which was just out of this world. To meet such an incredible lady. And you realise how insignificant your little game of cricket was, it was something that I’ll never forget. It was an amazing ten days of being in India which is an incredible country, and playing cricket in a country that is mad about the game. It was unbelievable.”
But cricket was played, and Eksteen played that second ODI. As mentioned, he was pulled off after just two overs. Was he disappointed not to be shown more faith by his captain?
“Yeah, of course I was!”
Eksteen’s laugh in response certainly shows that he holds no grudges or bitterness. He seems to live his life by the maxim he learned in India, about how insignificant the game of cricket is in the face of life as a whole.
But as he said, it could have been all so different if that ball had nestled in extra cover’s arms. “Small margins,” Eksteen termed it, “it is what it is.”
“You obviously would like to have done better. We didn’t even practice the day before! Our kit went missing. It didn’t arrive. It was just something that you took what you got, and moved on from it.”
Another laugh over the missing kit.
Speaking to Eksteen feels like a portal into a forgotten world of cricket – where the sport was played for enjoyment, where winning was still number one on-field, but where the realities of life off-field keep the importance of sport in check.
Keith Miller springs to mind.
The moment I brought up Eksteen’s Test debut, against Sri Lanka in 1993, he knew the question that was coming – laughs permeated the question being asked.
Eksteen had come out in the last innings of that Test, with Sri Lanka scenting victory. But the tail-ender batted for an hour and a half – for four – to save the Test with Jonty Rhodes.
“When I walked in to bat, Aravinda de Silva was bowling, and my first ball I missed and it went straight over the top of middle stump. ‘Ooh,’ as I missed it I thought, ‘well, I’m bowled’. But I survived, and I never missed another ball. I was batting with Jonty, and all we were saying was, over-by-over, he would face two balls – hit the first one for four, and the next one for one – and I’d face the next four and block all four. And that went on time and time again, and as we got closer to the end we realised that we could hang in and draw the Test. And as it came about, that was a key part of it because we only won that series one-nil. So it was a really nice feeling to be a part of it, and play quite a significant role in drawing the game and ultimately winning the series.”
Eksteen didn’t have the lengthiest of international careers – at least, by matches played – and one of the reasons for that was the emergence of Paul Adams. We all remember him as the ‘Frog in a Blender’ – and if he was playing today, his action would probably overload the ICC Testing Stations. But while unorthodox, it was certainly not illegal. What made Adams such a good bowler?
“He was different. The guy was different. His career, his numbers are good, his stats are good. I remember him bowling to us in the nets at Cape Town when we played against New Zealand, and most of the batters struggled against him. He was quite difficult to pick in the beginning, and any spinner that can turn the ball both ways is going to be more difficult to play than a regulation finger spinner. And Paul, certainly for three quarters of his career at international level, was a real handful. The guy’s stats show that, and he did really well. It was unfortunate from my point of view, but from his point of view it was good, and good for South African cricket.
“The game that I got dropped, it was against England at the Wanderers where Atherton got 180 not out [in the second innings]. And in the first innings, I had three for 12 from 11. And I didn’t get to bowl at eight, nine, ten and eleven. Had I been able to bowl to them, maybe it could have been different. But it was probably just delaying the inevitable.
“So it is what it is, again, you move on. Paul and I are quite good mates, so what do you do about it? The guy came in and did really well, there’s not much you can do about it.”
Of course, while Paul Adams was the pick of South Africa’s spinners in the decade after readmission, it was still a small stock to come from. Even now, the only other two spinners since readmission to join Adams with 100 Test wickets are Paul Harris, who conceded over 37 runs per wicket, and Nicky Boje who went at 42.65.
So why can’t South Africa produce world class spinners in the way that other nations can?
“I think conditions. If you go through, we do produce a lot of quality quicks, and our wickets are more suitable to quick bowling. It’s a tough place to learn to be a spinner. Even though every team in the country has a spinner, and he is successful, we play on really good wickets here. So you probably end up bowling a little bit slowly, because in the subcontinent you have to bowl a little bit quicker. If you bowl quick on our wickets here, it’s quite easy for the guys to play you. You’ve got to get the ball in the air and maybe bowl a little bit slower. It’s a tough place for a spinner, if you look at international teams coming here, even some of the best spinners in the world haven’t had that much success in South Africa. So it’s a tough place to learn.”
And Eksteen is particularly well-qualified to speak on what makes South Africa’s domestic competition capable of developing the number one Test nation in the world. He played for Transvaal (and it’s later renaming as Gauteng) for 19 years.
“I think the domestic game has always been very strong. There’s a high premium on domestic cricket, it’s a good breeding ground for young cricketers. School cricket is very good, throughout the whole country. In Pretoria, where the Titans play out of Centurion/SuperSport Park, those schools are very good. In Jo’burg you’ve got very good cricket schools. Throughout the country you’ve got good cricket schools, and cricket is a game that is enjoyed by youngsters. And they aspire to the South African side. And I think right from the word go, with Clive Rice then Kepler [Wessels], then Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock, Graeme Smith, those guys and their teams, they set a very good example for young cricketers. And that’s continued through the years. And the domestic game is a good feeder for it, and in the foreseeable future will continue to be a good feeder for the national side. And I think that’s part of the key of success for South African cricket – strong school cricket, leading into provincial cricket and the franchise level, leading up into the national side.”
There is an immediate debate regarding domestic cricket – and it relates to that word we all hate to hear. Quotas. With the new ‘transformation’ requirements coming into domestic cricket, it has to be asked – what does Eksteen think about all of that?
“I take a slightly different view. I think it’s a must. When I say it’s a must, we’ve got to get more people playing the game, we’ve got to get more people supporting the game. The biggest population group in South Africa is definitely the black population, and we do need black cricketers representing our country. It’s a simple answer. And there’s no recent why we shouldn’t produce them, we’ve got very talented young black cricketers.
“Sometimes it is something that they need an opportunity, like all young cricketers. Morally I think it’s right, and from a business point of view I think it’s also right.
“We’ve got to look to get more black kids and black people in general supporting the game. And I think that is happening, you see it in school cricket all the time. It takes time, it’s not something where you just flick and switch and you’ll have a world class international cricketer. The challenge is facilities, and coaching, and it’s an expensive game to play. Those are challenges cricket has to meet for all people in the country.
“And a lot of black cricketers come from underprivileged backgrounds. And it’s a tough ask for them. There aren’t a lot of facilities in townships, and cricket bats and coaching and all of that is sometimes beyond most South Africans.”
As Eksteen has said, the inclusion of all cultures and peoples into cricket has been needed for a long time, and he believes that it really is starting to happen. He takes the team of his playing days, Gauteng, as an example.
“They’ve got quite a few black guys playing in that side, and they’re not playing because they’re black. They’re playing because they’re very good cricketers. [Kagiso] Rabada, [Thami] Tsolekile, [Aaron] Phangiso, Eddie Leie they’re all playing because they’re good enough, not because of the colour of their skin. So it is happening, they’re coached by a guy I played a lot of cricket with, Geoffrey Toyana, the B team’s coached by a guy who played with us for many years. So it’s happening, it’s just probably not happening fast enough for all of us. And especially for some people in board rooms.”
So is Eksteen concerned about the player exodus? With the likes of Hardus Viljoen considering moving to New Zealand, following the path of Grant Elliott and Neil Wagner among others, and with so many South Africans either playing as Kolpak in England, or even representing England like Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, it seems as though a lot of South Africa’s best players are no longer in South Africa.
“You don’t want to lose players. You don’t. You’d love to keep and play every single cricketer you have. But realistically, there’s only so many places in six provinces. So let’s call it 100 cricketers. In school cricket, we produce a lot more than 100 cricketers. So, realistically speaking, you’re just not going to keep everyone here. If there’s an opportunity in England, Australia, New Zealand or anywhere else for that matter, why not let the guy go play. It’s a free market. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.”
So, as something of a conclusion, does Eksteen believe South African cricket is headed in the right direction? He played during some of the most turbulent times in South African sport, captained a domestic side balancing quotas, and has seen the situation from all sides of the fence.
“I think it’s the how, and not the what. It really is a tough one to manage. I’ve got a young kid who’s 13 years old, my daughter’s 16, and their view is ‘what is the difference between me and someone else because we’ve got a different coloured skin?’, so they struggle to understand that. Whereas we’ve grown up with it, and we’ve worked with it, and we understand where the problem has been. And trying to rectify that is very tough.
“So, something has to be done. You’ll never have an all-white team, purely because there are a lot of very talented players of colour. It’s as simple as that. Look at Hashim Amla. Is Amla a quota cricketer? Absolutely not, he’s world class. I don’t see that as being a huge factor.
“Obviously you do want more black cricketers playing because it gets more supporters, the pace grows, and morally as I say, it’s something that our country needs to do and move forward in.”