Six or seven games of cricket were played, simultaneously, on ancient matting wickets according to rules first written in the 18th century.
There were no sightscreens. Irregular boundaries were marked by misshapen whitewashed stones. Clumps of grass and molehills hid crevices that tested the most flexible of ankles.
In a script that veered between comedy and tragedy I could not wait to get the call to don my whites and be drawn into the drama of Springfield.
In retrospect, playing cricket was quite hilarious.
On a Saturday afternoon you would arrive and fetch the mat from a wood and iron shed.
The mats were crusty and mouldy and came in all sorts of grotesque shapes. As somebody remarked, they looked like driehoek koelie koekies made by a white person.
We would lay the mat on the pitch. The holes were huge. If you tried for a quick single, more often than not you would get stuck, so you had to run alongside the pitch. This meant running in the direction of cover and then veering back to the pitch. We were playing cricket but running like baseball players.
It was impossible to play driving shots down the ground.
The turf was too spotted with holes and mounds and a square cut could bounce and scoot off to the wicket-keeper or simply just not carry beyond a yard or two. To score, one had to loft the ball.
This created its own problems. Once a big-hitter was in, the fielders in the adjacent ground had to have eyes in the back of their heads. The fields were on top of each other with no sightscreens, so as the sun descended, you sometimes saw two bowlers coming at you.
Equipment was in short supply. As one batsman left the field, he would start changing, so that the next batsman could grab pads and “the guard”. Guards were placed under your underpants; one size fitted all, jocks without straps.
The first time I went out to bat, the guard kept slipping down to my knee-cap.
So there I was, with pads which could barely stay up, a guard on my knee-cap, and my private parts exposed to a maniac who kept trying to maim me by bowling beamers.
What had I done to this guy? As the gloves slipped off my hand and the jock fell one more time, I realised at this early age that while cricket might be about technique, size does count.
A motley crew swarmed over Springfield grounds: roly-poly types who could barely put their pads on, the super-fit talented cricketer who lived for the game, the once superb provincial batsman who had lost it but could still talk a good game.
All classes were here: the factory worker, the professor, the millionaire businessman.
The real deals though were those who did not play the game, but “managed” the team. It was a labour of deep love. They did everything: paid for the balls, the cool-drinks, gave people lifts.
Once I faced a one-armed bowler. I was mesmerised as he came up to bowl, a stub peeping out of his left short-sleeve shirt.
The stub tapered like the bottom of an ice-cream cone; a little piece of flesh gathered into a tight ball. Caught up in looking at one ball, he bowled me with the other.
My team, Crimson Lads, had the Maharaj brothers. They were known as “Aloo” (meaning potato) Maharaj’s, as much because they sold the product for a living as for their physique.
It did not take much of an imagination to know what was on their supper table.
The scenes from Springfield were like those out of a Monty Python movie: torn mats, one-armed bowlers, one-eyed umpires, middle aged men, our teachers, the local doctor, the Hindu priest, all hiding behind cars to change.
These scenes were repeated at provincial level.
What did a 50 mean under these conditions?
What did five wickets mean when you managed to hit the hole in the mat and turn the ball sharper than Shane Warne? Bowling spin was like throwing darts; just hit the target (the hole in the mat or the frayed edge) and the ball would do the rest.
Occasionally, my father and I would go to Old Kingsmead, the cathedral of white cricket. Here was a completely different world of wonder; turf wickets, picket fences, sightscreens, a scoreboard that flashed lights while invisible hands moved the score. Everything was so beautifully white, pristine and ordered. My father carved out a space under the clock for us to sit. A small blanket, two paper cups and a bottle of Coo-ee forming our own boundary, within the tiny non-white section.
During one provincial game against the Transvaal, my father, who was light of hue, snuck into the white area in search of a cup of tea. On his way back, he was man-handled and unceremoniously pushed over the fence, all the while trying to hold onto the cup of tea. People on both sides of the divide clapped and laughed. He took his place on the blanket next to us, this most gentle of school teachers, and without saying a word, picked up the binoculars to follow Mike Proctor’s run-up that started near the sightscreen.
In one of my father’s greatest gifts to me, CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary, I marked these words: “The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind the sordid compromises of everyday life. Yet for us to do that we would have to divest ourselves of our skins.”
We never went back. The incident sparked a sense that in order to understand the game, one required more than a pair of binoculars. Yet it never killed my passion for the game.
How could it, given that the first seeds were planted in a son’s fond memories of trips to the ground with his father and nourished by a whole boyhood’s excitement and play?
In 1990, as Nelson Mandela strode out of prison, the two worlds of cricket edged closer. In 1991, they united, at the top at least, and international recognition quickly beckoned.
When India toured in 1992, we went to Old Kingsmead, my father and I.
He was like a child; taking in everything, as we perched high up on the Umgeni end. As was his way, avoiding trouble, he insisted on bringing his own flask of tea.
These stories, as small as an individual spectator, played themselves out everywhere in South Africa, lost against the dramatic backdrop of apartheid coming to an end.
The game ended. My dad caught sight of men in the stands with whom he had batted through the 1960s and 1970s.
They clasped hands. They spent a long time looking down at the empty pitch and then said goodbye.
Men who played the game with such dignity under conditions that mocked them.
As I helped him into the car, little did we know that he would never see Kingsmead again as Parkinson’s enveloped his body. In the final innings of his life, as he batt(l)ed with Dean Elgar stoicism I was reminded of William Styron’s words: “Age had bound and shrunken him, but not life, and he had grown larger in my eyes. I have never known a more decent man.”
Adapted from the author’s latest book
-As published in the Mercury, January 30 2018