The cricket ball made fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam a star. The first time he got hold of one, he was in short trousers and was not allowed to bowl with it. The future South African bowling sensation used to retrieve balls for seniors in the nets at Motherwell Cricket Club, near Port Elizabeth, one of the many township clubs in the country’s cricket mad Eastern Cape.
Ngam served a tough apprenticeship in the gentleman’s game. From the age of seven, he was out in the townships on rough ground, with a tennis ball, trying to dismiss batsmen leg before oil drum.
At Christmas, he would represent his village, near Middledrift, in the annual five-day tournament in King William’s Town. The competition was tough and the prize was half a sheep. This was also where South African fast bowling great Makhaya Ntini delivered his first bouncer.
Many saw Ngam as the next Ntini and in many ways he was. He made the South African team at the age of 21 and took 11 wickets in three test matches. Ngam had big shoes to fill when he replaced his role model, Allan Donald, who was sidelined by injury. Donald was the world’s leading fast bowler at the time.
A young Ngam had the ability to swing the ball at searing pace and took three wickets for just 26 runs against Sri Lanka, on his debut, in 2001. In the same year, Ngam was voted the national cricketer of the year, the first black player to earn the honor.
Ngam may have overcome humble beginnings, but he could not beat the injuries that snuffed out his career in 2006. Now, he runs his own cricket school in Port Elizabeth and works for Cricket South Africa (CSA) as a coach at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape.
“The project is a feeder to the Border and Eastern Province cricket unions. Since we started we have seen at least nine players contracted to the teams,” he says.
Softly-spoken Ngam, whose voice belies his nickname, Black Thunder, lived a short fairy tale followed by a rapid fall into obscurity. Does he feel the system has failed talented young black cricketers like him?
“I don’t think the system failed me as a cricketer, I had a choice to continue playing or become a coach. I opted for the latter because I felt obliged to plough back where I come from,” says Ngam.
“After I quit playing, I observed things were not looking right with development; hence I decided to play my role in the development of players from underprivileged communities. Initially I was critical of Cricket South Africa,” he says.
Ntini, known as the Mdingi Express, was the first black cricketer to play for South Africa. He does not think CSA is doing enough.
Upon retirement in 2010, Ntini tried to open a cricket school at an estimated cost of $2 million. Old Mutual helped Ntini draw up a plan, but the money did not materialize.
“That’s my frustration with cricket in South Africa. Every day, I cry my lungs out to every department for the support of my academy but no-one seems to care or to listen,” says Ntini.
So far, Ntini managed to raise a mere $1,900 for the school.
Ngam agrees, grassroots cricket in South Africa is not where it should be, but he acknowledges attempts to improve the situation.
“For cricket to be a success in the country, we need all parties involved to work diligently. This is a battle CSA cannot achieve alone. Teachers and coaches, as agents of the game, have to rise to the occasion,” says Ngam.
“We are still going to struggle as black people to break into professional cricket if things continue like this. I am still struggling with my cricket academy plan, but I am not going to get discouraged. I am hoping someone will come up and fund the project,” says Ntini.
“God will punish me if I don’t do anything to develop cricket because I had been helped to get where I am. God will say, ‘You have forsaken your call to help others,’” he says.
The sport’s governing body in South Africa, CSA, is struggling to correct the imbalances of the past.
“I understand the frustration of Ntini and Ngam that we are not quick enough in responding to many challenges in the sport. It is a moral right to give people fair opportunities. But the playing field is not equal because of our political past,” says Corrie van Zyl, CSA’s general manager and the manager of the High Performance Centre.
Van Zyl, a former national bowler and coach, says they have plans to involve Ntini as a high performance consultant in the Eastern Cape. They already have Edward Khoza as a development consultant at the Northern Cricket Union, which caters for northern parts of South Africa.
“It is a no brainer that we need the services of Makhaya in our high performance program. He proved himself to be the most popular across racial lines and was the best cricketer in his day. We are looking at how we can partner with our associates in assisting Makhaya’s indoor center getting off the ground. On our side there’s willingness to assist a guy like him,” says van Zyl.
CSA’s Talent Acceleration Programme (Tap) was established in 2006 to turn teenagers into professionals. The program targets excelling under-17s and 19s.
“Since its inception, this program delivered players like Wayne Parnell, Reeza Hendricks, Mangaliso Mosehle, Rilee Rossouw, Marchant de Lange, Jonathan Vandiar,” says Altaaf Kazi, CSA’s public relations and communications manager.
Van Zyl says they are spending $9.6 million a year getting more than two million youngsters to play the game.
“Research was conducted because there are a lot of black cricket players in the schools but we didn’t understand how they got lost in the system,” says van Zyl.
“A mistake we have done is we have not been telling the good stories about what is happening on the development front. It is unbelievable what is happening at Fort Hare. The world should know about the progress we are making there. We are building on it. The University of Johannesburg is next in line and then Limpopo province.”
Van Zyl admits, despite these programs, the look of the national team is worrying. Whites dominate with 17 players in the squad, while there are nine colored players, two blacks and two Indians.
South Africa may currently have the best team in the world but it has yet to reach the end of the great rainbow debate.