Cricket: Proteas debacle rivals Taylor fiasco

By David Leggat

New Zealand Cricket bosses are trying to get beyond the Ross Taylor captaincy fallout; their South African counterparts have a large elephant parked in the corner of their dressing room.

Unlike the well-documented Taylor story, the tale of Thami Tsolekile involves the non-selection of a wicketkeeper in the national team.

But depending on who you talk to, there are a range of elements sitting uneasily together: misinformation, a selection u-turn and, to round off a messy situation, the whiff of racism.

To start, you need to go back 13 years. Tsolekile, who grew up in the Cape Town township of Langa, was a gifted sportsman.

He played hockey for his country and captained South Africa's under-19 team to Pakistan in 2000 and the World Cup, the squad including current national skipper Graeme Smith, England batsman Jonathan Trott, and former Auckland and Canterbury batsman Johann Myburgh.

In time Tsolekile was chosen for the Proteas tour to India in 2004. Regular wicketkeeper Mark Boucher had been stood down for disciplinary reasons.

However, even his supporters acknowledge Tsolekile, affected by nerves, didn't grasp the opportunity, played moderately and was dropped after a third test against England at Port Elizabeth in December 2004.

The current gloveman AB de Villiers took over, before Boucher returned. Tsolekile, disillusioned, disappeared from the game for a couple of years.

His career was revived by a move from Cape Town to the Lions in Johannesburg a couple of seasons ago, and his form has soared. He is thought the best pure keeper in the country, and his batting has been impressive.

Now to the nub of the matter.

When Boucher suffered his career-ending eye injury in England last year, Tsolekile was called in as a replacement, yet de Villiers took the gloves for the tests and has remained behind the stumps for the last seven tests.

"I wasn't expecting to play in England because I knew that I went there as a substitute when Mark Boucher was injured and I had no expectations at all," Tsolekile said.

There had been concerns about the state of de Villiers' back and whether he'd be able to withstand the rigours of the five-day game, and maintain his standing as one of the world's best batsmen. So South Africa's chairman of selectors, former test opener Andrew Hudson, contacted Tsolekile and advised him he would be playing in the two tests against New Zealand.

Meanwhile, de Villiers, having initially voiced reservations about taking on the keeping role long-term, found he enjoyed the role. What's more, his back was holding up.

"After the tour to Australia, AB came back to us and said he wants to continue keeping wicket because he is enjoying it," Hudson said.

"That was not the case six months ago (in England). AB's interest in doing the job meant the situation was different."

When No7 batsman JP Duminy snapped an Achilles tendon in Australia, the test place went to another batsman, Faf du Plessis, not Tsolekile.

Cue a problem.

So Hudson rang Tsolekile and apologised. The return to tests against New Zealand would not be happening. Cue the outcry.

Former iconic South African fast bowler Makhaya Ntini launched a fierce attack on the decision.

"Tsolekile would have been playing if he was white," he said of the Australian series. "I don't understand how we can only have one black cricketer in our squad."

Black Africans make up 40 million of South Africa's 50 million population and yet following Ntini's 101st and last test in December 2009, none have made the South African test team. In turn that has drawn the attention of the ruling African National Congress.

The Australian snub moved Tsolekile to speak out.

"... before that tour, the selectors told me I would get a chance against New Zealand, especially if things go well.

"When I spoke to them again, I was getting different messages. There's nothing I can do now. I'll just keep (playing) for the Lions."

There is strong public sympathy for Tsolekile's situation. Hudson said he "feels for Thami".

The bottom line is South Africa, with the current balance of their team, have risen to world No1. One school of thought says the selectors have the balance right; the other is that Tsolekile, now 32, should be there and has been treated in a dishonest and shabby fashion.

In the T20 series against New Zealand, South Africa used promising 20-year-old Quinton de Kock as keeper. He is Tsolekile's understudy at the Lions.

This doesn't look like having a happy ending for a talented sportsman.

- NZ Herald

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