Quotas in sport can only work in non playing roles

The start of 2016 sees the England cricket team flying high after an impressive 241 run over the world’s number 1 Test team South Africa. However as impressive as England were South Africa did not look anything like the world’s number 1 Test team. The batting especially was quite pathetic and on their perfomance in Durban I reckon Australia, India, New Zealand and Pakistan – as well as England – are better than South Africa who on the evidence of Durban will soon fall as low as number 6 in the world.

Apart from the fact that Dale Steyn the world’s number 1 ranked bowler is injured again and will miss today’s second Test in Cape Town and that the batting – AB de Villiers and Dean Elgar apart – is still traumatised by their Indian nightmare South Africa have a uniquely South African problem which in my opinion they should not have to face and will definitely hinder their chances of coming back into the series against England.

The problem is the quota system in South African cricket. To compensate for the fact that non white South Africans were discriminated against in the country’s pre 1991 apartheid system there is a process in South African cricket called “transformation”. There is a target of four non white players in every South African XI. This caused a problem in the Durban Test where star player de Villiers was forced to keep wicket against his own wishes. This was to accommodate two non white batsmen – the hopelessly out of form JP Duminy and the out of his depth Temba Bavuma. Coincidentally – or not – rumours began to appear in the press that de Villiers would retire after the England series because of being overloaded and that he did not want to keep wicket. Coincidentally – or not – (white) wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock has been recalled to the squad for the second Test. But in order to play de Kock they will probably have to drop either Duminy or Bavuma which means they would be one short of their target number of non white players. In turn that means the injured Steyn will be replaced by (black) fast bowler Kagiso Rabada in order to keep the number of non white players at four. Now Rabada is a promising young bowler but how on earth will he feel knowing he is in the XI to fill a quota?

It is interesting to note that baseball and UK football – both of which have past histories of discrimination against blacks – never used quotas on the playing side. When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the Major Leagues for 60 years in 1947 he was not signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers to fill a mandatory quota or a target. He was signed because the Dodgers thought he was good enough. The same applied to the first black players in the English football Leagues. Now it was hard enough for Robinson and the first black footballers in England. Robinson (as I wrote earlier) got spiked and shoved on the baseball field and in the 1970s and 80s black footballers in England had to listen to monkey chants  and had bananas thrown at them. And they were picked on merit. Imagine what it would have been like if they had been picked to fill a quota. The pressure on Bavuma and Rabada especially (since South Africa want more black (as opposed to coloured)) players in the team is huge. Both are young players who might be Test players in the future but are not Test players at the moment and have been rushed into Test cricket too soon just to meet a target. To my mind quotas have no place on the sports field and the International Cricket Council (ICC) should tell South Africa in no uncertain terms that teams must be picked on merit.

That does not mean quotas have no place in sport but they can only work in non playing roles. Again an example from another sport. In American football the “Rooney Rule” – which insists that franchises must interview non white candidates for jobs – only applies to non playing roles like coaching and senior football operation jobs not to playing jobs. In UK football people have called for the “Rooney Rule” to be brought in but only for manager’s jobs not for the playing side. And the same when it comes to gender. Jean Williams has asked (in “A Game For Rough Girls?” page 132) “why are women not more represented* in non-playing professions?”. In the same book she also writes (in page 146) that “Quotas would also assist in opening the full range of coaching opportunities”. There are plenty of people who want more women in men’s sport – even suggesting quotas – but only a tiny minority (Natalie Bennett, Charlotte Proudman) want that applied to the playing side. Most want it applied to non playing jobs.

The reason quotas are not needed on the playing side of sport is shown in the book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. In page 126 they point out that “markets tend to work when they are transparent – when you can see who is doing what and place a value on it”. This applies to the playing side of sport – where we can see players play and it is easy to spot who is not good enough – like Bavuma in the South African cricket team – but not to managers, coaches etc where we can’t see their work. Kuper and Szymanski again “Inefficient markets can maintain discrimination almost indefinitely”.

This should tell South African cricket there is no need for quotas or targets because if everyone in South Africa is given opportunities the best will come through regardless of colour. I know South Africa is a special case in that non whites were banned by the law of the country – not by a  gentlemen’s agreement as in baseball (in UK football non whites were never banned it was just a case of waiting for the children of black immigrants to grow up) but history shows that if you are patient the talent will come through.

England must not be complacent in this Test series. On both their last two South African tours they were 1-0 up going to Cape Town. One game they lost the other they drew with nine wickets down. In both cases South Africa’s best and most experienced batsman Jacques Kallis scored a first innings century and lead the fightback. The precedent of 2005 and 2010 suggest South Africa are an AB de Villiers century away from being right back in this series. But it would help if they did not handicap themselves with a quota system that other sports have shown is not necessary.

*In men’s football.

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