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Cricket cannot take its place for granted

With the FIFA World Cup fever raging across Africa, cricket's fragility may be exposed, writes Peter Roebuck

Cricket's attempt to retain its position in Africa is under threat. As much can be told from the sizes of the crowds attending matches in Zimbabwe over the last few days.

About 50,000 supporters flocked to the National Stadium to watch the “Warriors” try their luck against Brazil. A few days later, a few hundred attended the ODI with India.

Of course the comparison is not entirely fair. It is winter in Africa and not much of a time to sit in stands observing an entire day's play.

And Brazil is Brazil, the great champions of the game, at once exciting and sporting. Cricket has rarely been as well-blessed. Moreover Brazil had never visited the country before and was fielding a full strength team.

Pride and Miraculous, two of my sons, went to the match and afterwards sent a message that said simply “Kaka!” As far as they were concerned, the chance to see him in the flesh was not to be missed. Could even Sachin Tendulkar have created remotely as much anticipation? And it was not a Test match.

Two issues arise. Can cricket become a significant force in modern Africa? Can it succeed in any country where soccer flourishes?

At present, soccer fever is widespread. Africa's first World Cup is a proud moment with implications far beyond sport. Everyone has been counting down the days. Flags are fluttering from cars and homesteads. Sales of televisions and soccer shirts are booming.

And African teams are present in unprecedented numbers. Much is expected from Cameroon and Ivory Coast.

As host, South Africa is taking part but remains weak. Recently Bafana Bafana rose from 90 to 80 in the rankings, a lowly berth for a powerful country besotted with the game. Poor organisation has been blamed. Sooner or later a strong administration will introduce proper structures. Then SA soccer can rise up to equal the impressive achievements in other sports.

In jeopardy?

What then for cricket? Its fragility might be exposed. After all these years, the Proteas still field only one black player and he's a marginal case. It cannot last.

Certainly, soccer and cricket are played in different seasons and require somewhat different skills. But seasons overlap increasingly these days and talented youngsters are forced to choose before whiskers start to grow. No ambitious game can afford to lose the cream of the crop.

Part of the reason England nowadays produces so few Anglo-Saxon and black players is surely that soccer calls louder. Apparently, Phil Neville was a much more promising cricketer than Andrew Flintoff.

At present cricket is not under a direct threat from soccer. Several of the top cricket nations are appearing in the soccer World Cup but only England is regarded as a serious contender. New Zealand remains focussed on rugby and cricket. However, Australian soccer has impressively overcome its tribal and racial limitations to become a national game played between cities. Moreover it is played in the summer months so cricket is a direct rival.

Cricket cannot take anything for granted, not even its backyard. Sportstar gives more space to soccer in 2010 than it did in 1990. The Indian market is irresistible.

Cricket is not the only sport eager to grow. All the more reason for the game to stop shooting itself in the foot. All the more reason to ensure that the region remains strong and that young players are properly educated.

T20 will help but far sighted and selfless leadership is needed. Perhaps the next Cricket World Cup will help. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

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