The topic of race should not have a divisive effect on the South African team, after uncomfortable issues were ironed out at their culture camp last week, according to Lungi Ngidi.
The fast bowler, whose answer to a question about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was the spark that showed up deep schisms in South African cricket, said the current crop of players have reached an understanding that will see them take the field more united than ever before.
“Everyone being on the same page puts us in a good position moving forward,” Ngidi sad. “A lot of things have been addressed. These shouldn’t be things that affect our performance on the field. We understand there is a lot of sensitivity towards what we spoke about but just to be able to get on the same page is going to help us a lot moving forward.”
The main focus of the camp was on developing the team’s identity (and their previous ProteaFire brand has been put on pause as a result) which included conversations about colour.
“The discussions surrounding transformation and race around the team environment were very uncomfortable in that moment obviously, but it was something that was needed to be done,” Ngidi said, indicating that the target system was one of the topics addressed. “With transformation, we also understand that it doesn’t come from the players, it comes from the system. A lot of people needed to understand why it’s in place and having these conversations and helping people understand why certain things are the way that they are put a lot more people in a position of understanding. It’s less about judging players based on their skin colour; it’s more now the individual.”
South Africa continues to apply a target system in both national and domestic structures with the former expected to play six players of colour with a minimum of two black African players over a season and the latter obliged to field six players of colour, of which at least three must be black African, every time they take the field. The system exists as a means of redress and to accelerate the pace of representational change and Ngidi explained that it does not mean the selection of players of colour is not deserved.
“We all know that you play for South Africa on merit, you don’t play because of the colour of your skin,” he said. “The greatest thing was helping everyone understand why [we need a target system]. I feel like sometimes people are scared or embarrassed to ask, so being able to speak out in that environment really cleared up a lot of grey areas.”
Out of that clarity, the squad developed three new foundational pillars for the future: respect, belonging and empathy, which Ngidi believes will work to ensure an environment of inclusivity.
“The updated value system is very relevant to our country,” he said. “Everyone needs to feel welcome and once you understand someone a lot better, you can relate and converse and have open discussions [with them],” he said. “People should be allowed to be themselves without fear of being judged and for me, that’s because I know I play my best cricket when I’m being myself. If I can’t be myself, I don’t feel like I’m giving 100% of who I am and what I can do. So, for me that was one of the most important things – to be able to come into an environment and not feel like you have to conform to a certain way in order fit in. We accept everyone the way they are, and everyone is different, which is what makes the team so great and the environment so great.”
But once all the work of defining themselves differently was done, the squad was forced to address the other big issue facing them ahead of a new and yet-to-confirmed season: performance. “We need to win games,” Ngidi said.
South Africa won only one of five series last summer – an ODI rubber against Australia – and although they are unsure who they will play in the next few months, they want to start working their way up the ICC rankings. Currently, the Test team lies eighth on the World Test Championship table, fourth on the ICC ODI charts and fifth in T20Is.
“Working out a formula on how to win games is always an on-going thing,” Ngidi said. “It’s not just one simple thing in terms of ‘do this and you win games.’ I think there’s a lot of trial and error and with a lot of new guys as well, we’re going to have a lot of new ideas and new ways of approaching things but all in all, the bottom line is, we need to win games.”