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South Africa: the whole story

Book review: Hansie and the boys by Rodney Hartman

SOUTH Africa's exclusion from world cricket in the 1970s until the country renounced the policy of apartheid deprived cricket lovers of many an epic sporting contest. It was a pity it happened but then nobody in their right mind would condone the fact that the country's leaders refused to give up their racist policy in the face of a cutoff by the rest of the world. Their sporting stars suffered.

Fittingly, this book begins with a narration of how Basil D'Oliviera -- the coloured South African cricketer whose presence in the England squad of 1969 led to the incident that ended in Pretoria's explusion -- returned to South Africa and lunched with Nelson Mandela, thus healing the first wound. D'Oliviera was taken to his rendezvous by the current captain of the South African team, Hansie Cronje.

In keeping with the title, this is a book seen mostly from Cronje's perspective (the author admits he was the one who had the idea for the book) but that does it no harm. It is a genuine attempt and a fairly good one, to chronicle all that went on behind the scenes and in public too before South Africa returned to international cricket. There are insights which only one who has been following the sport for decades can offer.

But this book is not only about Cronje. It relates in detail the development of the South African team and traces the careers of all the talented cricketers who have helped the team make such an impact after their return. It also tells the story of the socio-political transformation of the country but not in any great detail. It is clear that the author does not want to delve deeply into that aspect of South Africa.

Hartman provides plenty of detail about the cricket played in South Africa and the various paths which cricketers take to finally reach national honours. There is very little judgment on the players or the system; it reads like a fairly straightforward account of the path which the national team travelled to its present state. The book takes in cricket played right upto 1997 so it is in every way fairly recent.

Being a sports journalist -- he is now the sports editor of the Sunday Times in Johannesburg -- Hartman cannot help his professional life affecting such a book. Given the fact that they face daily deadlines, newspaper journalists often fail when it comes to writing a book where the scope and the deadline differ greatly from their daily fare. The embroidery and featurisation which a book needs is often lost in the bid to cram as many details into it as possible.

Thus, the main value of this book is as a straightforward history of South African cricket in the modern era. At times, the lack of description makes for dull reading. Neverthless, for the cricket fan, it is a book which should go down well. There is the occasional excuse for lacklustre South African performances but these are kept to the minimum. In short, a book that it would not hurt to read. The details are worth it, even if the manner of their telling could have been much improved upon.