Cape Town - The decision to drop Temba Bavuma from the Proteas Test side has made waves, with the loaded reactions to the news highlighting the complexities, sensitivities and uncertainties that still exist in South African sport.
Bavuma was named Test vice-captain for September's tour of India, which the Proteas lost 3-0, but was then ruled out of the Boxing Day Test against England with a side strain. In his absence, Rassie van der Dussen made his Test debut and is now set for an extended run in the side.
It means that Bavuma, with a Test average of 31.24 after 39 caps, has been left out and he must now return to the domestic circuit with the Lions and earn his place back.
If Bavuma was not black, it would be a decision that few would have questioned, as was the case when the out-of-sorts Theunis de Bruyn was dropped from the squad before the England series. That news passed by almost unnoticed.
Under the new leadership of Director of Cricket Graeme Smith and head coach Mark Boucher, the Proteas have started anew and Van der Dussen is a player that has earned his place through consistent performances in franchise cricket while he was also one of the few success stories of South Africa's failed 2019 World Cup campaign.
Van der Dussen, in form and with all the right ingredients, is fully deserving of his shot, but it is far from that simple.
The fact that Boucher and Smith have joined forces under acting Cricket South Africa (CSA) CEO Jacques Faul, who last month replaced the suspended Thabang Moroe, has led to some corners of the cricket community suggesting that the sport is being 'whitewashed' and that black players, coaches and administrators are being sidelined.
On the eve of the second Test at Newlands, skipper Faf du Plessis was asked to comment on exactly those concerns.
"We don't see colour and I think it's important that people understand that. Opportunity is very important ... opportunity for any colour," Du Plessis said.
The answer may have had pure intentions, but it came across as naive.
National teams in South Africa have a responsibility to see colour because fielding a side that is demographically representative of the country should be the goal, even if it is not always immediately attainable.
The successes of the Springboks of 2019 showed what is possible when a team diverse in its make-up wins at the highest level. The celebrations through the townships of the Eastern Cape where Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and assistant coach Mzwandile Stick returned their communities as national heroes were powerful.
Achieving that unity should always be placed right alongside winning on the list of South African priorities and the Boks showed that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
Boucher, Du Plessis and Smith have a responsibility to provide opportunities to players of colour whenever they can in order to help achieve this.
In terms of opportunity, there can be no arguments over Bavuma's dropping. It will be a tough pill for him to swallow, but he will understand that the reasons behind the decision are based on current cricketing merit alone.
Bavuma has saved South Africa numerous times with gritty half-centuries down the order, but he has lacked consistency in his Test game for some time now and it reflects in the numbers where he averaged a little over 19 in 2019.
To put that into perspective, De Bruyn averaged 17 last year.
Instead of taking issue with the fact that Bavuma was dropped, those who have been angered should rather question the fact that there are limited black African players knocking on the Test door. That is the real issue here, because it speaks to a quota system in domestic cricket that is clearly not producing the players it was designed to.
Targets at youth level, provincial level and franchise level are important because they force coaches and selectors to take players of colour seriously and provide them with opportunities. It is supposed to deepen the pool of black talent in this country but, in many instances, it hasn't.
With Bavuma dropped, Lungi Ngidi injured and Andile Phehlukwayo not yet justifying selection ahead of Dwaine Pretorius, that leaves Kagiso Rabada as the sole black African representation in the current Test XI.
It harks back to the days of Makhaya Ntini being the flagbearer for black South Africa.
There is a clear lack of depth when it comes to producing black cricketers of Test quality, and batsmen in particular, and that is a reality that requires urgent attention.
Government, too, must accept its role in this.
Does a young black kid from the township have the same access to the game as a middle-class white kid from the suburbs? Absolutely not.
Cricket development requires infrastructure, equipment and expertise and the harsh reality is that there are schools in the communities that have none of those things.
It makes unearthing black talent a much more difficult task, and that responsibility does not lie with CSA alone. Before politicians criticise national sides for not doing their bit to facilitate transformation, they need to look inwards at whether they are collectively doing all they can to close the gap.
Ensuring equal opportunity is exactly the reason that transformation targets are important in South African cricket, because opportunity is not always equal before such intervention.
That the Proteas started a new decade with one black African in their Test side is unfortunate. But instead of calling out Boucher and Smith, who have been in charge for two Test matches, the questions over that lack of representation should delve deeper.
Boucher and Smith have both said that they understand the need for transformation, but they cannot be judged on their commitment to this cause after only two Tests in charge and they certainly shouldn't be judged for taking the decision to drop Bavuma.
If, in time, it emerges that their selection policies are not inclusive, then they should be held accountable. It is impossible, though, to get to that place of criticism on the minimal evidence currently available.
To suggest that Bavuma has been unfairly treated because of the colour of his skin undermines his own contribution to South Africa over the years as well as every other player of colour currently being backed in this squad.
Nobody ever wants to be labelled a 'quota' selection and dropping a player when he is out of form ensures that doesn't happen.
To back Bavuma blindly when there are better prospects is not only illogical and ignorant, but it is insulting to a player who has contributed immensely to South African cricket through nothing other than his abilities.
Even if Bavuma had kept his place, the issue of failing to develop black cricketers would still exist in South Africa.
That is a conversation worth having.
Lloyd Burnard is a journalist at Sport24 and the former Sports Editor of The Witness newspaper ...
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