South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Pat Symcox: Bowling Lines Matter

Former Proteas cricketer Pat Symcox had harsh words for Lungi Ngidi’s support for Black Lives Matter, retorting ‘what nonsense is this… when Ngidi has his next meal perhaps he would rather consider supporting the farmers of South Africa who are under pressure right now. A cause worth supporting.’

Pat Symcox has been pretty consistent in his call that his contemporaries should be running South African cricket given that their record while playing the game attests to the highest ethics and excellence. In the wake of Lungi Ngidi’s call to support Black Lives Matter (BLM), Symcox returned to this theme once more.

For cricket aficionados, Symcox burns in the memory for his performance in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final against West Indies. After losing to Kenya, Brian Lara ignited a firestorm in the aftermath: “It wasn’t a bad thing losing to you guys. Now a team like South Africa is a different matter altogether. You know, the white thing comes into the picture. We can’t stand losing to them.” Some in the Proteas camp bristled and the chair of selectors, Peter Pollock met West Indian manager Wes Hall over coffee to iron out 300 years of racial exclusion. Meanwhile, the team plotted revenge. 

The key to the Proteas plan at the National Stadium in Karachi, as Gary Kirsten reflected, was Pat Symcox:

“We had a ‘plan’ for Brian Lara. It involved Symmo bowling wide and fullish outside the off stump with a heavily packed off-side field including two men fielding behind square leg. This was going to keep Lara quiet. This was going to frustrate him into making a mistake… Lara murdered him. It was painful to watch…”

Lara fell on 111 made off 94 balls, an innings punctuated by smashing five fours off one Symcox over. While Symcox had forgotten his lines, the Pakistani crowd concocted theirs. As Symcox cowered at silly point, one section shouted, “Chicken Tikka” while the other responded with “Sies Kebab”. Symcox’s ears burnt like naan on a tandoor.  

As if to exemplify Symcox’s inadequacies, Jimmy Adams, a journeyman slow bowler, who turned the ball slower than Eugene Terreblanche his horse, claimed the scalps of the top order: Andrew Hudson, Daryll Cullinan and Hansie Cronjé. South Africa fell 19 runs short of victory.

But Symcox would always be in the team. He was Cronjé’s keeper of secrets. In Cronjé’s statement to the King Commission, he recalls:

“Shortly before the first One-Day International Final against Pakistan in the Mandela Cup in Cape Town in January 1995, I was approached by an Indian or Pakistani man, who described himself only as ‘John’… he offered an amount, I think about 10,000 US dollars, for the team to throw the game. I consequently discussed this with Pat Symcox.”

Symcox was the loyal confidante and was always at Cronjé’s side when further offers were put under the table. In a team meeting held in India in 1996, Cronjé tried to persuade his players to throw a one-day game for $200,000. As Mike Atherton points out: “it took four team meetings for the offer to be rejected, meetings at which… the essential distinction between right and wrong became blurred.”

In the Mumbai hotel room, Cronjé approached a number of senior players. One of them was David Richardson. Richardson, an attorney, made the calculations. “I do remember thinking though, immediately, that if you divide by 15, it’s not going to be that much money.” According to Herschelle Gibbs, “Pat Symcox – always an oke willing to look at all sides of the equation – thought it was definitely worth some consideration [emphasis in original].”

As Colin Bryden put it, the senior players “did not tell Cronjé that the very idea of accepting such an offer was repugnant. Brian McMillan did remember his commitment to ubuntu: ‘Our attitude was that if the money was right, we should open it up to the whole team to discuss.’ According to Gibbs, ‘the first thought that popped into my head was, well, my mom’s house needs to be paid off. I might as well try to make some money.’”

Atherton admits that he was fascinated with this particular team meeting and the subsequent events:

“Over time, I’ve spoken to many of those who were in that room. Most say that Andrew Hudson, Derek Crookes and Daryll Cullinan were the only ones to recognise the issue for what it was; the only ones who were able, as the dollar signs whizzed in front of their eyes, to know right from wrong. But for them, the money could have been accepted. Others found ways to convince themselves to take the offer seriously. One talked of the healthy exchange rate against the rand… another unbelievably, asked whether any gains would be tax free; and another voiced a triumphant opinion that they had finally made the big time now that they, too, were being offered the kind of money he had heard other teams talking about. Unbelievable, but true… that it was contemplated at all and debated at length is remarkable.”

In a sense, Atherton is too generous, even to the naysayers. In factories and office complexes across South Africa, an employee who knows about a corrupt offer and fails to inform the top authorities about it commits misconduct. This is because, under South African law, an employee is bound implicitly by a duty of good faith towards the employer. He or she breaches that duty by remaining silent when knowing that the rules and interests of the employer are being improperly undermined. 

This particular failure goes under the name “derivative misconduct” and, by deliberately withholding from the coach and administrators that Cronjé was spearheading discussions about taking bribes, even Hudson, Crookes and Cullinan appear to have fallen short. In fact, many of the players went on to play high-profile roles in South African cricket. As Gideon Haigh reflected, there was no action against South African players who sat on the information about match-fixing with “shame… in short supply”.

In 1996 at Karachi, Symcox forgot the game plan. Subsequently, he forgot to report Cronje’s nefarious dealings with MK Gupta (not the “brother” of Duduzane Zuma). In 2020, he continues to suffer from memory loss. But. We must never stop Symcox from forgetting as some zealots have argued. And we must never stop reminding him.

In 1996, Peter Pollock, chief of selectors, was unhappy that Nelson Mandela phoned the team before the West Indies game to motivate them. This after Mandela’s role in inspiring the 1995 rugby World Cup victory and lending a boot to the 1996 African Cup of Nations triumph. As if the gods decreed, Lara only stopped his punishment of the hapless Symcox when shouts of “Nelson” echoed through the Karachi Stadium. A year before, Symcox was told by Cronjé of the machinations of a corrupt gambler at the Mandela Cup.

In 1990, when rogue English batsman Bill Athey was asked about the possibility of the release of Mandela, he replied “Nelson Mandela? He can’t bowl, can he?” Mandela wielded a long handle as his imminent release stumped the tour. If only Pollock was not churlish about a phone call from the country’s sporting talisman, a hat-trick might have followed.

Mandela. The name must torment. But. Will always offer the hope of redemption. You see to deepen Mandela’s legacy:

A man needs… to laugh and cry with the same eyes…
to make love in war and war in love…
to hate and to forgive and remember and forget
to arrange and confuse, to eat and digest
what history
takes years to do.
– Yehuda Amichai  

Maybe on 18 July 2020, Mandela Day, Symcox should take a knee and ask for forgiveness. We all pray he does not fluff his lines. DM

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