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Jennings' ton reignites transformation blame game

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Keaton_Jennings_England_CricketWith South Africa’s Proteas hammering Australia in their own back yard with a team that is as close to representing the demographics of the nation as it has ever been, the chorus of critics who cry foul about ‘quotas’ and ‘transformation’ had quietened down.

But when Keaton Jennings scored a hundred on debut against India while wearing the colours of England, those who had been dormant suddenly found their voice.

You see, the left handed opener was born and bred in Johannesburg and his 112 in Mumbai means that of the last five English batsman to score a century on debut, four were born in South Africa.

Andrew Strauss (112 v New Zealand in 2004 – Lord’s), Matt Prior (126* v West Indies in 2007 – Lord’s) and Jonathan Trott (119 v Australia in 2009 – The Oval) all made hundreds on debut, but not for the country of their birth. Jennings’ innings has reignited one of the most polarising debates amongst South African sports fans.

 

Legendary all-rounder, Jacques Kallis kicked things off when he tweeted, “Yet another one slips through our system. Well played Keaton Jennings.”

What Kallis is insinuating is that a promising South African cricketer was overlooked in his own country and had no other option but to take his talents elsewhere. Before debunking this wildly misleading comment, some context is required.

Because of South Africa’s racially segregated and unequal past, national and regional sporting organisations, from age group level right up to the elite echelons, are under strict instruction to select a “quota” of players who come from previously disadvantaged communities – essentially non-white players.

This is to spread the games we love to areas that were denied access during apartheid. The inequalities that were entrenched in those dark times still permeate throughout the country and fast tracking athletes of a certain skin colour into sports teams helps bridge the gap between the haves and the have nots. It also ensures that young children growing up in impoverished communities can, on some level, relate to the superstar athletes they see on TV.

As a result, some white players miss out on selection despite strong claims to be included on merit. Many of them feel that if they want to pursue a career in sport, they have no choice but to leave South Africa in search of game time.

 

Kevin Pietersen claimed in his 2006 book "Crossing the Boundary" that he left South Africa for England “because of the quota system”. The fact that at the time he was at best an average off spinner who could bat a bit doesn’t seem to come up.

It is an understandably frustrating reality for promising white athletes who did not actively participate in apartheid and who might struggle to understand how they still benefit from it. Some critics of transformation go so far as to say that these implementations are “reverse apartheid” and like Kallis bemoan the talent drain of players that could be playing for South Africa.

Keaton Jennings is not one of these players. Unlike Hardus Viljoen and Stiaan van Zyl who, after toiling away in South Africa’s domestic scene for a number of years, have just signed Kolpak agreements to play in England, Jennings was nowhere close to a South African call up when he left.

After captaining the South Africa U-19 side in 2011, Jennings made his First Class debut for his native Gauteng while still a teenager. He finished the season with 273 runs from 6 matches at an average of 27.3. That would be his last contribution for a South African side.

On the back of his mother’s English citizenship, Jennings packed his bags for Durham in 2012 where he slowly started making a name for himself. After several unremarkable campaigns, his career exploded this year when he plundered 1,548 runs at an average of 64.5 with seven hundreds, including a double ton against Yorkshire. As a result, he was named the County Championship player of the year for 2016 by the Cricket Writer’s Club.

It was because of this recent form that he has received an international call up. To suggest that Jennings is some lost talent that slipped through the cracks, as Kallis did, is not only incorrect and misleading, but insulting.

Jennings did not play one professional game in South Africa before he left for England. He may have been a product of South Africa but he did not stay long enough to prove his worth here. Besides, would he make the current South African XI? I’m not convinced he would.

 

Like Pietersen, Trott, Prior and the rest, Jennings possessed a British passport that opened up an entirely new path for himself. How many South Africans, black or white, would have explored other options overseas if their passport allowed it?

According to a study conducted by the UN in 2013, 232 million people are living and working outside of their country of origin. As we roll into 2017, that figure is no doubt much higher.

Jennings is simply a young man who took advantage of his dual citizenship and forged a career in a foreign land. South African cricket fans should not mourn his loss nor should they blame ‘transformation’ and ‘quotas’.

As long as South Africa remains unequal, selection targets are going to persist. As long as the United Kingdom can offer greater financial reward for a young player’s talent, it will remain an attractive destination. South African cricket fans should turn their focus inward and pay more attention to the players we have, rather than the ones we don’t.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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