An elite school produces someone who goes on to play four Tests. Another of the institution’s alumni plays 124. Yet it is the former whose name is used to lend gravitas to the facilities. Could this be? Yes, but surely only in South Africa.
The Barry Richards High Performance Cricket Centre was inaugurated at Durban High School (DHS) on October 9. The guest of honour, now 75 but still possessed of the physical grace and mental sharpness that helped make him a champion in every team that counted him in its XI, was in attendance.
Richards features in any serious list of the game’s greatest players, including Donald Bradman’s selection. He scored 80 centuries – nine of them before lunch – in 339 first-class matches for 16 different teams, including Hampshire, South Australia and what was then called Natal. But he played only four Tests.
His international career was stunted because it coincided with his country being punished for its racist policies partly by its expulsion from world sport. We can only wonder what might have been for a player universally acknowledged as one of the finest yet to pick up a bat.
But it is equally true that, in the South Africa of his youth, Richards would never have reached the heights he did had he been born anything other than white. His shimmering talent would have remained undiscovered except by his similarly black or brown teammates and their opponents.
If he had time and opportunity away from the menial work black and brown people were restricted to, and money to spare, he might have played cricket. Only with and against those of the same race, of course. But the door to what was then recognised as South Africa’s only first-class cricket and the professional ranks abroad would have remained firmly shut. Richards was spared that fate solely by the privileges his whiteness gave him.
The other bloke? The one who attended the same school as Richards and played 120 more Tests than he did but does not have his name mounted high on a wall in large capital letters? Hashim Amla – who as a South African of Asian descent, and a muslim besides, would not have been allowed, by law, to attend a formerly all-white school like DHS nor share a dressing room, a cricket ground, nor even a beach with whites had he been born in Richards’s day. Happily, in the flawed but fairer era South Africa entered in 1994, when the country held its first democratic elections, Amla’s talent did not go to waste.
He inspired thousands of crooked backlifts in players made aware of the value, and good sense, of hitting the ball where the fielders weren’t, wherever they were. Unlike South Africans of Richards’s time, whose government wouldn’t allow them to sully themselves in matches against West Indies, India and Pakistan – those teams weren’t white, you see – Amla had to find ways to survive and prosper in entirely foreign conditions. He did, handsomely.
Most importantly, his calm and decency educated his compatriots on the pricelessness of diversity. Not for him the damaging shrieking that has, sadly, become the sound of the race debate.
Amla retired last year as loved as he is respected: no mean feat in an evermore divided society. Richards has become emblematic of a generation of embittered white dinosaurs whose social media feeds offer succour to Covid-19 denialists and white genocide conspiracy theorists.
How, then, did DHS choose to elevate a figure from South Africa’s horrific past instead of an impeccable symbol of hope for a better future? “The boys who play cricket at the school know Barry Richards,” Steven la Marque, DHS’ head of marketing, told Cricbuzz. “He’s a hero in this place. And he supports the school. He was here last year to support the golf day, and again this year. He’s such a good DHS man who sets incredibly high values. He was an obvious choice.”
DHS is now racially integrated. Would harking back to a dishonourable and dishonoured past not send the wrong message? “To some people it will, and to other people it won’t,” La Marque said. “DHS has embraced the new South Africa. We’re very proud of it and quite vocal about it. We’re promoting the rainbow nation.
“Hashim Amla is a scholar and a gentleman. He has incredibly high values and is a very humble guy. But, at an institution like ours, it’s about legacy. ‘Hash’ is still young but his turn will come, make no mistake. He’s also had a huge impact on the boys at the school.”
DHS has also turned out cricketers of the stature of Hugh Tayfield, Trevor Goddard and Lance Klusener, along with a world-renowned palaeoanthropologist in Phillip Tobias, a Nobel chemistry prize winner, Aaron Klug, and Fernando Pessoa, a global giant of 20th century literature. Et al: a couple of judges here, a few Rhodes scholars there, a splatter of notable journalists here and there. They are all, like Richards, white.
And then there’s Amla. Peerless, in every way.