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Cricket, Orthodoxy and politics

12 March 2011

We’ve just spent most of the afternoon watching South Africa playing against India in the cricket world cup, in a nail-biting finish that went right down to the last over in a match where fortunes swung wildly back and forth between the two teams.
Cricket: South Africa beat India by three wickets in World Cup thriller | NetIndian :

South Africa snatched a thrilling three-wicket last over win over India in a Group B cricket World Cup match that the hosts literally gave away from a position of strength.

Chasing 297 for a win, South Africa made 300 for seven wickets in 49.4 overs in an encounter that swayed first one way and then the other throughout before India suffered their first loss in the tournament so far.

The film Invictus has made many people (even people outside South Africa) aware that South Africa winning the rugby world cup in 1995 played an important part  in uniting the nation, and helping us to make a peaceful transition to democracy.

Perhaps not so many people are aware that a world cup cricket match played three years earlier, in 1992, was as important, in some ways perhaps even more so.

Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when Orthodox Christians celebrate the triumph of the Orthodox faith over the heresy of iconoclasm.

And 19 years ago, on 15 March 1992, it was on the Sunday of Orthodoxy that South Africa played India in the cricket world cup, and won against seemingly overwhelming odds. I wrote in my diary:

When I got to church Mary Comninos said we had won, and said she was glad because she thought it would help the “yes” vote in the referendum. As it was the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Gary [the parish priest, Fr Chrysostom (Gary) Frank] preached on ikons, and why rejecting iconoclasm was seen as the hallmark of Orthodoxy – rather than the Trinity or Christology or something like that, and he said it was because of the temptations of Platonism, to elevate the “mental” above the “material”. And went on to say that the referendum on Tuesday was very important, and virtually said that those who voted no would be taking the side of the iconoclasts. He said we did not realize how close the country is to civil war. I got the impression that if the vote was no, he would not remain in the country long, but would be going back to America, for which I could hardly blame him.

The background to this was that South Africa had just been readmitted to world cricket, after years of isolation. In 1968 Basil d’Oliveira, who was not allowed to play criclet for South Africa because he was “coloured”, went to England and was selected for the English cricket team that was due to tour South Africa. And the South African Prime Minister, B.J. Vorster, said that if d’Oliveira was included in the English team they would not be allowed to tour South Africa, because the tour would constitute interference in South Africa’s internal affairs. And that was the end of South Africa’s participation international cricket. After that, nobody wanted to play with us, and who could blame them.

South Africa was readmitted to world cricket when it agreed to abandon sporting apartheid, and the 1992 World Cup was the first one in which South Africa was allowed to compete. It was important to win the match against India, because it would determine whether we stayed in the competition or dropped out.

And the following Tuesday there was a referendum among whites to see whether they approved of the then President, F.W. de Klerk’s, continued negotiations with previously banned opposition groups. If South Africa had lost the match against India, we would have been out of the world cup, and the team would have come home. And voters going to the referendum, if they had thought about it at all, might have have had thoughts of sour grapes, and that international sporting competitions didn’t matter much. But having won the match against India, I think many voters must have thought that we would then never know how we would fare in an international competition if we were to withdraw into isolation again, and this may have influenced some, at least, to vote for the continuation of the negotiations that were to lead to the establishment of a democratic society. In the event, we didn’t make it to the final of the 1992 World Cup because of rain, but by then the referendum was over and the negotiations continued.

And so World Cup cricket matches are inextricably l;inked, in my mind at least, with the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and the establishment of democracy in South Africa, which was in its own way a victory over iconoclasim, because apartheid was fundamentally a denial that man is made in the image of God.

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