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Cricket news - No winners in the battle between Smith and Tsolekile
Central to Tsolekile's gripes is that he was overlooked when wicketkeeper-batter Mark Boucher's career was ended by injury
Once, a broken hand couldn't stop Graeme Smith from going out to bat. Now, the target on his back hasn't stopped him from speaking his mind. As a product of the white privilege that continues to poison every walk of life for his black and brown compatriots, this is dangerous territory for the captain turned administrator. But no-one can say he isn't up for the fight.
CSA did not have a permanent director of cricket before Smith took up the job in December. He was wooed by since suspended CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe - who is black - and appointed by a majority black board. He has had only eight months in the role, and in that time South Africa have won seven games and lost eight: hardly a record of failure.
And yet increasingly enraged black figures in the game seem obsessed with laying at his door the blame for much that has, is and could yet go wrong with cricket in South Africa. Tellingly, the same quarters had little to say during Moroe's damaging tenure of less than 17 months, which saw the departure of long-standing sponsors and CSA's relationship with the players crash to its lowest ebb.
Even so, the issue isn't Smith. It's the opportunities he was given by a system that put whiteness ahead of everything else, the fact that he is surrounded by other whites in senior positions who have similar backgrounds to his, that the benefits they enjoyed at earlier stages of their lives have set them up for secure futures, and that black and brown people have been shut out of that world and are still struggling to be given the chances they deserve.
Thami Tsolekile has become the conduit for much of their anger, not least in his regular guest appearances on state radio. He used that platform on Tuesday to take aim at the former South Africa captain directly: "Graeme Smith, you have divided us in a manner that I never had any hope of playing for the Proteas under your leadership. And there was no unity in the team.
"Graeme Smith, I'm sure you're aware that [former selection convener] Linda Zondi, the puppet, once said I deserve to play. But his opinion wouldn't have mattered because you were so powerful."
Smith, who captained South Africa in 108 Tests - including the three Tsolekile played - 149 ODIs and 27 T20Is, responded in a statement of 1,158 words on his social media accounts on Thursday. "I have never had an issue with Tsolekile as a person and he has never borne out the frustrations of his international career on a personal level," Smith wrote, adding that "many of the issues being brought up on public domains have never been brought to my attention before, so they have come as a surprise to me".
Central to Tsolekile's gripes is that he was overlooked when wicketkeeper-batter Mark Boucher's career was ended by injury on the first playing day of South Africa's tour to England in 2012. Instead, AB de Villiers - who unlike Tsolekile was not a specialist keeper - took the gloves.
"I should emphasise that I was never in charge of selections," Smith wrote. "I had an opinion as a captain, but the casting vote was with the coach and the selectors. In the case of the 2012 tour to England... there was a whole panel of selectors. Thami was in the squad as reserve keeper to AB de Villiers and this was communicated to him on both the England and Australian tours by [then coach] Gary Kirsten, which has been previously acknowledged by Thami."
Tsolekile was back on radio on Thursday minutes after Smith's statement landed, which was read to him. On Smith's assertion about the scenario in England in 2012, he said: "It's a lie. They picked Mark Boucher as a keeper and I was told I was the reserve keeper. I was playing for the South African A side [in England] when Mark Boucher got injured and the selectors called me. I was Mark Boucher's deputy."
Smith wrote that he had been rocked by what has been said about him, particularly when racism has been implied: "The allegations and insinuations that have been made are extremely hurtful and I deny them in the strongest possible sense. Every time I walked onto the field, I was proud to wear the South African Protea, and to play alongside every one of the players with me.
"I understand that the current environment is one where a lot of hurts are finally being aired out in regard to South African cricket and I am happy to engage in discussions in the right forum even if it is uncomfortable, because I think we can only learn from our past and help to shape a better future."
Even so, Smith does himself no favours when he claims ignorance of the unfairness black and brown players say they experienced. At worst, it sounds like he was part of the problem. At best, he failed in his duty to know about the most important problem some of his players faced. To say, as he did after Makhaya Ntini spoke of being shunned by his teammates, that he "was not aware and was not made aware" isn't good enough.
Smith was 13 when apartheid was abolished, but even his generation of South African whites cannot say they didn't know that the effects of centuries of institutional racism were far from eradicated. Injustice was all around, and still is.
"He doesn't want to accept anything," Tsolekile said of Smith's statement. "It's all excuses and denial. What I want to hear from him is, 'Thami, I'm sorry'. Then we can move on."
If that is what needs to happen, we're a long away from that moment. Perhaps further than ever.
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