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SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
Rick Reilly
January 29, 1996
SOWETO'S TALENTED YOUNG ATHLETES ARE STRIVING TO EXCEL, BUT THEY ARE HINDERED BY THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID
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January 29, 1996

Swinging For The Fences

SOWETO'S TALENTED YOUNG ATHLETES ARE STRIVING TO EXCEL, BUT THEY ARE HINDERED BY THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID

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Percy, who is training to become a reporter, says he almost tried crime himself. "For five years I had no job," he says. "I would just roam the streets, the way you see these boys doing. I would read the want ads: 'Whites only.' There is no industry here, no market. I was sitting with some guys one night and they said, 'We rob this shop tomorrow.' They asked me if I would do it with them. I told them yes. I wanted some money. But when they came to pick me up the next day, I chickened out. I hid."

Where are those guys now, in jail? "No, no! They are here, man! I see them driving BMWs. Most of them now have established businesses."

Just as we were thinking that every dark cloud in Soweto had a darker cloud inside it, we happened upon cricket. At Elkah stadium, amid the desperate poverty of the township, stood one of the loveliest cricket pitches you ever laid eyes on. Surrounded by five-foot-high fences coiled with barbed wire, it was still a thing of beauty, a captured paradise. It held the greenest grass in Soweto, carefully mown. There were freshly painted bleachers and a first-rate locker room. And it was all paid for with funds raised by Dr. Ali Bacher, managing director of the United Cricket Board, who has given up his medical practice to devote himself full time to the sport.

Ten years ago practically no one played cricket in Soweto. Today, thanks to Dr. Bacher, the Soweto Cricket Club fields a filler team. Its youth squad, whose players range in age from 15 to 24 (except for the 40-year-old captain), became the first black South African cricket team to tour overseas. It went 7-5-3 in England. If there's any one sport in which the township is ready to make like a giant, it is cricket.

One boy on the pitch showed amazing bat handling skills. His name is Hamilton Kgeola, and he is 12 years old. He came to the pitch one day three years ago because he heard that free cookies and Coke would be offered after a cricket clinic. Hamilton played for the first time that day, and he kept playing because he was promised a T-shirt. Now he loves the sport, excels at it, even though his father glares at him whenever he brings it up. "He criticizes my sport," Hamilton says. "He wants me to play soccer."

But what can his dad say? Hamilton's grades are good, he was elected a prefect at Isaacson Primary School, and now he has been offered free room and board to play cricket and study at a mostly white school called Parktown Boys in Johannesburg. Hamilton will leave the four-room house in Soweto where he has lived with his father, a grandmother, two brothers, an aunt and her husband, and his dad's girlfriend and their baby. The house has no indoor bathroom.

Is Hamilton scared to go live with whites?

"No, I am happy to be having white friends," he said.

Won't he miss home?

"No," he said, crinkling his nose as though he had been asked, Care for a tetanus shot? "I am glad to be going. Here the gangsters can shoot you and take your money."

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