Big Read: South African cricketers reflect Rainbow nation

South Africa's captain Faf du Plessis, left, celebrates with Temba Bavuma on the fifth day of the first cricket test with Australia. Photo / AP.
South Africa's captain Faf du Plessis, left, celebrates with Temba Bavuma on the fifth day of the first cricket test with Australia. Photo / AP.

Ever since the end of apartheid in South Africa, debate has raged about whether the nation's sporting teams are truly representative of the country.

The demographics of the current test squad touring Australia do not directly mirror the demographics of the 54 million people from its homeland.

But if ever a side has reflected the ideals of the Rainbow nation envisaged by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, it is the XI that steamrolled Australia by 177 runs at the Waca.

They are a diverse mix of ethnic groups, backgrounds, ages and religions.

Devout Muslim Hashim Amla continues to feast on bowling attacks while fasting during Ramadan. Skipper Faf du Plessis, who studied at Afrikaanse Hoer Seunskool (Afrikaans Boys' High School), is a man of faith who proudly describes himself as a "Jesus follower" on Twitter.

There are strutters and softly-spoken types but a clear sense of cohesion - be it on a pre-series trip to Adelaide Hills, on the field or in the changerooms. They can play the game pretty well, too.

Quota systems are by nature divisive and will create tension. It was no different when Cricket South Africa (CSA) revealed in September its formal "transformation targets" designed to help make cricket more inclusive and accessible for a disadvantaged black African majority.

CSA decreed the Proteas must field a minimum average of six players of colour, of which at least two must be black African.

The numbers were to be enforced over the course of a season, rather than an individual match. This would help avoid the sort of situation that eventuated at last year's World Cup, when speculation swirled that Vernon Philander played the semifinal to meet an informal quota requirement.

It is early days for the policy, which is also backed up by even more aggressive targets at domestic level, but the first test showed progression and performance can go hand in hand.

Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma took contrasting paths to world cricket but both have made a big impression in a short space of time.

Rabada, the son of a doctor and lawyer who attended one of South Africa's most expensive schools in Johannesburg, was rightly judged man of the match in Perth and is one of the most exciting young pacemen in the world.

Bavuma, who hails from a township outside Cape Town, ran out David Warner at the Waca with an incredible piece of fielding and also contributed 59 runs and a wicket to the Proteas' cause.

Rabada and Bavuma both warrant selection on merit. The question of whether they would be in this position without CSA's long-standing attempts to right the wrongs of a segregated past is an awkward hypothetical, but there is a strong argument the answer is probably not.

CSA boss Haroon Lorgat will hope they - and other players fast-tracked through development programs and domestic cricket - become an inspiration to the millions of South Africans currently more invested in soccer. Lorgat feels his organisation has learned some lessons since the rise of pace great Makhaya Ntini.

"We didn't capitalise on that. It might have made us complacent and made us think that the system will produce," Lorgat said in 2013.

"We didn't do enough in the time we enjoyed Makhaya, in terms of actually providing opportunities for talented black players ... we waited for the system to produce, rather than for us to actively produce."

Some cricketers, black and white, dislike the idea of an XI not being picked purely on performance. Some question whether CSA has the responsibility to right the wrongs of the nation's segregated past. Some talk up the threat of so-called 'white flight'.

Kevin Pietersen shifted to England as a teenager because he felt starved of opportunity at KwaZulu-Natal under the franchise's quota system and feared being "frozen out".

"I've got some mates who are now on the fringes of playing domestic cricket in South Africa who are better than three or four of those players in the South African side," Pietersen said in 2006.

"I've got a very good mate who is actually a better player than me, who is now working for [SA Breweries], because he can't get into the side for political reasons and that's wrong."

There are also qualms about how much CSA is doing at grass-roots level to provide better opportunities for underprivileged potential players.

"I talked to a couple of the South African players, I talked to Hashim about it and he has explained it to me from a South African point of view," Usman Khawaja said prior to the first test. "I can totally understand both sides .. it's a complicated issue."

Australia is a vastly different country to South Africa for many reasons. But it too is a multicultural nation and Cricket Australia has long been trying to shake its 'pale and stale' reputation.

Regarding when his own side might more accurately represent Australia's diversity, Khawaja is upbeat.

"When I first started playing first-class cricket, I am pretty positive I was the only coloured person in the whole system and now you see it a lot more," he said.

"I'd love to see players from all different backgrounds come and represent Australia and I think you will see more and more of that."

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