EVER since the International Cricket Council welcomed South Africa back to international cricket in 1991, after 20 years’ exclusion for its racist selection policy, debates have raged about whether the team is representative enough of the country. 

South African players who are classed as black (a term which includes those of mixed race and Asian background) have excelled at cricket. On occasion they have made up over half of the national side. But black Africans, who make up 80% of the country’s population, remain thinly represented. In 2014/15 they accounted for only 10% of international appearances. Indeed, only seven of the 90 Test players selected since readmission have come from this group. Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa (CSA), which administers the sport, admits that the organisation has been “complacent” in developing black African talent since the emergence of Makhaya Ntini (pictured), a black African fast bowler who played 100 Test matches from 1998 to 2009.

CSA has a radical remedy. It says that of the 11 players in the national team, a minimum of six players must be classed as black, and at least two must be black African. The body was under pressure to act. Four months ago the government banned four sports associations, including cricket, from bidding for or hosting major international events after they failed to meet guidelines for the inclusion of black players.

The Ministry of Sport says the measures are “the right thing to do considering the grave injustices of the past”. It also hopes that having role models at the top of the game will inspire more young black Africans to play cricket. Black Africans account for 84% of people under the age of 18 in the country, and the sport has long been popular with them. But there has been a big disparity between the number representing the side at age-group level and those who make it to the professional game. If that gap can be bridged South Africa will be a stronger cricket team.

This is not its first experiment with quotas. Between 1998 and 2007 the national side was required to field four black players, although there was no stipulation on the number of black Africans. This time however, the CSA is answerable to the government. So far there is no news of the ban on bidding to host international events being lifted, although it is understood that South Africa could bid to host the World Twenty20 competition in 2018.

The requirements will certainly cause tension. Under the old quota system, some black players were assumed to have been picked on the basis of skin colour, not on merit. Indeed, even when quotas were replaced with “guidelines” in 2007, the whispers continued. When Vernon Philander was selected in the World Cup semi-final last year, rumours swirled he had only made the team because he was classed as black. (Mr Philander is an experienced and gifted bowler, though he had been out-performed by Kyle Abbott, whom he replaced in the tournament). Polling suggests that over 70% of black South Africans believe that sport teams should be picked solely on merit.  

If quotas stop South Africa from putting its best 11 on the pitch then the side, which was ranked the world’s best in Test cricket at the start of 2016, will suffer in the short term. It may have other detrimental effects, too. The requirements to select black players, which extend to domestic cricket, where teams must field six players classed as black, including three black Africans, could lead some white cricketers to abandon the sport or emigrate to foreign countries. The former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, and the former Australian rugby player Clyde Rathbone, are among the sportsmen who have previously left South Africa because of a lack of opportunities. Mr Pietersen, in particular, has put that down to the use of quotas in domestic sport. So-called “white flight” in cricket, especially to England and New Zealand, could now become more common.

Some will say that is a price worth paying if it means greater opportunities for black players. But quotas do not address the root cause of the under-representation in the national cricket side: poor facilities and training programmes in many schools and townships. “For a black player to make it in South African cricket they have to go to one of the traditional cricketing schools in the country. It’s as simple as that,” Ali Bacher, a former CSA administrator, said recently. Far too many black Africans never receive an opportunity to develop their talent, especially in batting, which requires expensive equipment. Only 20% of all primary schools in South Africa play the game, according to CSA. In Limpopo, the poorest province in South Africa, that falls to 4%. For senior schools, the figures are even lower. If black Africans are to make the national cricket team without accusations that they are not there on merit, that is where the focus should lie.