Johannesburg: Graeme Smith's return to the South Africa squad, following Jonty Rhodes' enforced international retirement through injury, has revived one of the sensitive racial issues which threatened to overshadow the World Cup. Left-handed opening batsman Smith, 22, was controversially left out of the original 15-man squad despite averaging over 41 in 19 One-day internationals. But Smith, a white cricketer, was dropped as South Africa included a record five coloured players in its squad.
That move followed a commitment given by World Cup supremo Ali Bacher, then managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) to late sports minister Steve Tshwete in 1998. South Africa's selection chief Omar Henry, the former Test spinner who as a non- white cricketer had to wait until he was 40 to make his international debut because of apartheid, appreciated Smith's position better than most. "When I phoned Smithy and told him that life was funny, he started laughing," Henry told a South African news agency. "He knew what the call was about and that we had selected him as the replacement. He was delighted."
'No normal sport in an abnormal society', was the rallying cry of those who advocated South Africa's sporting isolation during the apartheid era. However, any so-called quota enforced today is far less restrictive than the all- white sides of the apartheid regime. Even so, problems persist. South Africa's victory on home soil in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final where President Nelson Madela wore a Springbok shirt - once seen as a symbol of white supremacy - and black winger Chester Williams was in the XV, were hailed by many as evidence of the country's re-birth. But Williams brought the myth-makers back down to earth in October when he said he had been racially abused by fellow Springbok wing James Small. "Small called me a f****** kaffir and shouted 'Why do you want to play our game? You know you can't play it." But South Africa does not have a monopoly on racial problems within sport and certainly not at this World Cup.
Just before the tournament began, Australia's Darren Lehmann was banned for five games after uttering a racial obscenity after being run-out in a One-day match against Sri Lanka. And on Tuesday, Lehmann's Australian teammate Adam Gilchrist accused Pakistan wicket- keeper Rashid Latif of racially abusing him during the teams' World Cup opener in Johannesburg. Meanwhile, England boycotted what should have been its tournament opener in Harare against Zimbabwe on Thursday because of safety fears.
But some saw England's stance as another example of 'imperial' arrogance with both the British and Australian governments having already attacked the policies of President Robert Mugabe. South Africa, due in England in June, has also threatened to boycott its tour in sympathy with Zimbabwe. Fears of a black-white split in world cricket have been a perennial fear for the sports' administrators. "It's not cricket", is a phrase denoting shoddy behaviour. But it's one the modern game has struggled to live up to and, despite the sport's gentlemanly image, its racial problems are more than skin deep.