Something strange occurred during the first Test of England’s tour of South Africa in 2009-10, but Jonathan Trott was the last to notice. It was only his second Test and England’s new No. 3 was batting alongside Kevin Pietersen in his team’s second dig. The pair had come together on the final day at Centurion with England struggling at 27 for 3, 336 runs in arrears. Standing at the non-striker’s end, Trott’s laser focus was suddenly broken by umpire Steve Davis.
“You know, I’m not sure if you’re aware,” Davis said out of the side of his mouth between deliveries, “but I’m the only Englishman on the field right now.”
“I thought, bloody hell, he’s right!” says Trott, recalling the brief moment where his thoughts were yanked away from matters of swing and seam to questions around identity and patriotism. “He wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t considered before, but it obviously wasn’t something I was thinking about at the time. It’s hard enough facing Morne Morkel when he’s trying to knock your head off without other things to worry about. I suppose it was a little strange that no one born in England was actively involved in an England Test. I suppose that was a big deal for some people.”
Davis, it should be noted, was born in London but is listed on ESPNcricinfo as Australian. Then again, Trott and Pietersen are considered English cricketers, two of the best this millennium, but both were born and raised in South Africa.
In the past 56 years, starting in 1966 with Basil D’Oliveira, up to the start of South Africa’s current tour of England, as many as 19 South African-born cricketers have donned the Three Lions, across a cumulative 1702 matches. Four of them were made captain. Three helped England secure their first ever ICC title when they lifted the 2010 T20 World Cup. One might be England’s most naturally gifted player of all time.
Some, like Andrew Strauss, who left Johannesburg with his family when he was six, are only nominally South African. They speak with British accents and were reared in British schools. Others could be crudely described as soutpiels, the Afrikaans slang word that translates to “salt-penis” – those with one foot in Africa and the other in Britain, with their bits dangling in the salty sea. They are chimeras, neither one thing nor the other. They have never lost their South African drawl, say ya rather than yeah, shoot straight and look for a scrap, prickling English sensibilities as they elbow their way into an establishment still coloured by its imperial past.
The others: Jonathan Trott says he, Prior, Strauss and Pietersen were always seen as a distinct group within the England set-up
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“We were never fully accepted,” says Allan Lamb, the Cape Province native who scored 8666 runs for England in 201 matches, captaining the side in three Tests and four ODIs. “There was some bitterness towards me. I understood where it was coming from. Some of the local players probably weren’t too happy with me taking their place. I’d tell them, ‘If you were good enough, I wouldn’t be here. You’re lucky to have me here, now shut up.’
“The media was worse. They always saw me as South African. It was always, ‘The South African Allan Lamb’ did this or that. Even when I did well and scored runs, they were reluctant to portray me as English.”
By its nature, international sport is a political event. As soon as a country’s flag and anthem are brought into the equation, participants, whether they like it or not, become embodiments of all the collective traits, insecurities and ambitions of the country they are representing. But this can be a challenge for those who join from the outside. Like a recent convert to an adopted religion, they sometimes don their new identity with zealous fervour, seeking to underline their status as a committed member of the tribe. Pietersen’s tattoo of the ECB crest on his arm, which he got inked at the end of his first tour of South Africa in 2005, was as much an outward symbol of his loyalty as it was an expression of his internal rebrand.
Trott remembers standing at first slip in an ODI at The Oval. He doesn’t remember who they were playing or the result of the match. What he remembers is an unexpected show of vulnerability from his wicketkeeper, Craig Kieswetter, who had left South Africa as an 18-year-old, having already played the 2006 Under-19 World Cup for his native country.
“I know he struggled with it at times; his accent, where he was from, those sorts of issues we all have to reckon with,” Trott says. “And he said that he wished he never spoke with a South African accent. That things would be easier for him if he was seen as more English. It was amazing to hear him open up like that in the middle of a game. We had the conversation between balls and between overs. It was remarkable.
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I was a little older than him and had been on the treadmill a little longer than him and I just said, ‘Mate, you can’t be ashamed of where you’ve come from but you can be proud of where you’re going. And do the most with the opportunities you have.’
“Until I said it out loud I wasn’t really clear on what I was going to say to him. But when I did it gave me a lot of clarity and helped shape my own views even more. What I feel is that it doesn’t really matter if you’re born in England or anywhere in the world. What matters is where your loyalty lies and how much you give for the team. If you speak to any of the guys who played with me at Warwickshire or England, they’ll tell you no one wanted to win more than me. If anyone ever had any issues with me being South African, they certainly kept quiet when I was knocking off tons for England.”
Trott knocked off 13 of those tons for England, Lamb 18. Pietersen registered 32, the third highest for England after Joe Root and Alastair Cook. Only four, arguably five, of the 19 England cricketers born in South Africa are primarily bowlers, Brydon Carse the latest. Pietersen left South Africa as an offspinner who could hold a blade but morphed into a dashing strokemaker. This can’t be a coincidence.
“The first thing to recognise is that South African pitches are a lot quicker,” explains Robin Smith, who began his first-class career with Natal in 1981 before taking up with Hampshire and then England, scoring 6655 runs in 62 Tests and 71 ODIs. “When I first went over, it took a while to adjust to the slowness of the wickets. But it was easy once I got going. Then when I was ready for the step up to international cricket, I was prepared. That’s the biggest difference between county and Test cricket. Every Test team had two or three guys who would be the quickest bowlers on any county team. A lot of county players couldn’t handle it. I think the South Africans who grew up facing fast bowlers on fast wickets were prepared in ways the local players weren’t.”
Trott argues that “there are some pretty handy English batsmen who can handle pace bowling. I’ve also never played on a slow indoor net. You can easily replicate fast wickets.” Yet the records unequivocally show that South African-born batters have shone for England.
In their book Crickonomics, journalist Tim Wigmore and economist Stefan Szymanski explore the disparity between British state and private schools when it comes to producing batters: state schools do not offer the same access to equipment, coaching, facilities. Some of South Africa’s state-funded schools, on the other hand – such as Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town, King Edward School in Johannesburg, Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Afrikaans High School) in Pretoria, and Durban High School – have all the trappings of elite cricket academies. They provide a unique blend not seen in the UK, where state schools cannot compete with the better-funded private schools – if indeed they offer cricket at all.
West Indies’ fast bowling held no demons for Robin Smith after his tough upbringing in South African cricket
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“Sometimes opposition players [in the County Championship] would chirp at me with lines like, ‘Let’s get this piece of biltong out,'” Trott recalls, referencing the dried-meat delicacy popular in South Africa. “I was like, ya, well, biltong is pretty tough, so that’s actually a compliment.
“South Africa is a tough place. Even in the top schools, like the one I went to [Rondebosch Boys’, alma mater of dozens of international athletes], you had to man up and not be a pushover. You couldn’t show weakness. You’d get chewed up.”
“There was a conservatism in English cricket when I came over,” Lamb remembers, “especially among the batters, which we never had back home. They played for themselves. They looked after their averages. I wanted to go out there and score some runs, you know, move the game forward, entertain the crowd, push for the win.
“We were brought up to take the bowler on, to be aggressive, even when defending, to get back up when we were knocked down. That was the South African way. I suppose you could say we were made of harder stuff.”
“The South African way isn’t necessarily the healthy way,” says Smith, who was renowned for his bravery against fast bowling and for his whiplash cut shot. He recounts a childhood marked by violence meted out by authority figures. His teachers would lash him with a stick on his buttocks whenever he misbehaved. “I was a bit of a naughty s**t,” Smith says, “so it happened quite a bit.” When a letter from the principal was delivered to his home a few days after one of these punishments, his father would give him another beating, making sure to find every bruise.
Smith and his brother Chris, who played eight Tests and four ODIs for England in the 1980s, would train on the Durban beachfront near their home. Their father would run after them and make sure they kept a steady pace. Smith struggled with undiagnosed asthma but, he recalls in a matter-of-fact tone, his unsympathetic father would rip down a tree branch and thrash his stumbling son as if he were driving cattle.
“Back then mental health wasn’t something that was spoken about,” he says, though he opened up about his battles with alcoholism and suicidal thoughts in his 2019 memoir, The Judge. “You couldn’t get away with that sort of behaviour today, but there’s no question it made me tougher.
Translation difficulties: Craig Kieswetter (right), who left South Africa after having represented the country in an Under-19 World Cup, said things would have been easier for him as an England player if he had been seen as more English
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“When I went out to face the West Indies bowlers, I wasn’t scared. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever fear getting hit in the face [which happened twice, once breaking his jaw against Courtney Walsh, and the other time his cheekbone against Ian Bishop]. It’s not fun when it happens but it really didn’t bother me. I can only assume that’s because of my upbringing.”
Though corporal punishment has since been abolished, hyper masculinity still pervades South African society. And compared to the UK, South Africa is a dangerous place, with high crime rates and a widening wealth gap. This has an impact on the country at large.
“South Africa is a dog-eat-dog world, definitely more so than Europe,” Trott says, alluding to a collective anxiety that cuts across class and race. “I think the cricket is dog eat dog as well. The whole social system is different to the UK, so of course it changes how you behave and think. It changes how your parents raise you. I think it created a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in me. That’s also maybe why I wanted to do well every time I went out there. You find ways to adapt. That is my experience of growing up in South Africa. You find a way. You have to find a way.”
Michael Lumb, the aggressive white-ball opener who was part of the T20 World Cup-winning team in 2010, moved to the UK from Johannesburg when he was 20. “Playing for England was my lifelong dream,” he says. “My dad [Richard, who played 376 games for Yorkshire] instilled in me a strong sense of English identity. Still, I have this strong Saffa accent. I’ve never lost that.”
Like Lumb, Trott grew up with a strong England connection. His grandfather was born in London and never lost his cockney accent. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, a seminal moment in the nascent democracy under former president Nelson Mandela, the Trotts supported England.
But Trott had pulled on the Protea shirt first. He was a rising star in the Western Cape and was selected for the South Africa Under-16 and Under-19 teams, playing the 2000 Under-19 World Cup alongside Graeme Smith, Jacques Rudolph and their captain, Thami Tsolekile. Why then did he choose to leave the country of his birth, one he had already represented, when he was on the path to a senior call-up?
Allan Lamb (left) helped guide Robin Smith’s (right) path into the England side in the 1980s. “Lamby always told me that we had to do better than everyone else. Because if there was an English player who was as good as us, they’d pick him instantly”
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“Of course, I saw myself playing for South Africa at various stages on my journey,” he says. “There was never a moment when I was playing for the representative teams and thought ‘I’d rather be playing for England.’ No chance. I was playing with my mates and having a great time learning more about the game.
“It was a mix of opportunity and fate, I suppose. I have a British passport, so I could go to Warwickshire [in 2002] without being selected as an overseas player. I did well and loved it in Birmingham. My career kept going and when the opportunity to play for England started to come up I got excited by that and focussed on that. I never ran away from anything, if that’s what you mean.”
Trott distinguishes himself from Pietersen, who boldly claimed that he left South Africa to escape the glass ceiling placed above him as a result of race-based selection targets. “I was dropped because of the quota system,” Pietersen told the Daily Mail in 2006. “To me, every single person in this world needs to be treated exactly the same and that should have included me, as a promising 20-year-old cricketer. If you do well, you should play on merit. That goes for any person of any colour.”
“Look, that’s Kev’s view,” Trott says after some probing. “I respect what he says but that wasn’t my experience. That never impacted my decision at all. I was getting picked for the teams. I had a two-year contract with Western Province. I think our different views explain why we got different receptions from the South African public. I never bad-mouthed South Africa or the cricket structures. When you bad-mouth the country, or voice the sort of gripes that Kev had, then they turn on you. I never had those gripes. I was very appreciative of my upbringing in South Africa. I always kept that part of me alive.”
Following an innings victory in Sydney in the 2010-11 Ashes, the England players celebrated with beers in their dressing room. As captured in the 2019 documentary The Edge, a shirtless Pietersen is dancing while singing every word to the hugely popular kwaito song “Nkalakatha” by the South African artiste Mandoza. The camera pans and Trott is dancing along, clearly revelling in the connection to his homeland.
“Kev would play it after every win,” Trott recalls. “He can speak Zulu as well, which is cool.
“Ach, it was just a bit of fun, I don’t think it was ever a thing of, ‘Look at us, we’re the South Africans.’ But ya, for sure, we were seen as a group within the group. Us and Matt [Prior], even Strauss. Guys would try and mimic our accent. I think 95% of the time Graeme Swann speaks to me, he tries to do a South African accent, which is terrible by the way.”
Tony Greig, seen here with Springbok rugby players in 2006, was one of the earliest South African cricket exports to England
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Trott boasts of his braai [barbecue] skills, a crucial marker of South African bona fides, while downplaying Pietersen’s abilities. But he’d never talk about the political or social situation in the country. He says that none of the South African-born players would bring it up, even among themselves, and he would constantly encourage his team-mates to holiday in the country.
Trott’s transition into the England set-up was made smoother by Pietersen’s presence, just as Smith’s was by Lamb in the 1980s. “They [the England-born players] embraced us and knew what we were about,” Trott says. “They knew that we wanted to win, and [that] if Kev could be himself, he’d be at his best. Me and Prior were the same.”
A schism emerged, though, when England welcomed South Africa to defend their status as the No. 1 Test team in the world in 2012. It promised to be a blockbuster clash. Two golden generations squared off. There were some outstanding performances. Hashim Amla’s triple-century at The Oval, Pietersen’s belligerent 149 at Headingley, Vernon Philander’s 5 for 30 at Lord’s. But the series would be best remembered for the “Textgate” scandal that destabilised England and ended with Strauss’ retirement.
The problems began with a parody Twitter account, “KP Genius”, in which Pietersen believed some of his own team-mates had a hand. Then, midway through the series, news broke that Pietersen, the former England captain, had been texting the South Africans about the current England captain, Strauss – his character and how best to get him out. Pietersen has always denied the allegations but admitted he had been in communication with his former countrymen. His reputation as a loyal England player was tarnished forever.
“It was a horrible situation,” Trott says. “I didn’t know it was going on but ya, look, it wasn’t ideal. I didn’t want to get involved. Not because I was seen as South African but because it was none of my business. I don’t really have much more to say on it.”
Twitter wasn’t around when Lamb and Smith were together in the England camp, but they can both relate to feeling like an outsider within the team environment. “Lamby always told me that we had to do better than everyone else,” Smith says. “Because if there was an English player who was as good as us, they’d pick him instantly. That stayed with me. It sort of made me mistrust some of the guys. I wondered if they wanted me to fail. I guess you can’t fully run away from where you come from.”
Basil D’Oliveira became the unwitting figurehead of the anti-apartheid movement after he was dropped for England’s 1968-69 tour of South Africa
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“It was important that, once I was selected to play for England, I gave my everything to the team,” recalls Lumb. “I don’t think there’s an international cricketer who doesn’t give it his all when he steps out to the middle. What I’m saying is that you never wanted to give anyone a reason to say something about your commitment. So I’d work even harder.”
Pietersen, Trott, Lumb, Kieswetter and Keaton Jennings – five of the six post-apartheid South African-born players who moved to the UK after their 18th birthday were able to do so because of a British passport bequeathed to them by their parents. Their privilege opened doors that were firmly shut to others who might have harboured similar designs. Irrespective of their reasons, their decision to leave their home carried political significance on both sides of the equator. But at least they had the option of staying behind and pursuing their ambitions of playing Test cricket. Tony Greig apart, all those who came before had no choice but to leave South Africa if they wanted to enter international cricket
D’Oliveira, the first on the list, was deemed too dark-skinned by the racist apartheid government of his day. Despite his talents and sensational record in the “non-white” leagues, he had to explore alternative routes to realise his potential. With the help of the legendary BBC commentator John Arlott, he moved to England in 1960. Six years later he played his first Test and in 1968 reeled off 158 sublime runs against Australia at The Oval.
That knock, “the greatest innings ever played” according to the journalist Peter Oborne, sparked cricket’s most significant contribution to social justice. The D’Oliveira Affair, as the episode came to be known, began with his non-selection for an upcoming tour of South Africa. He was eventually picked as an injury replacement but when South Africa’s prime minister John Vorster denounced the inclusion as a “team of the anti-apartheid movement”, the tour was off.
“He never intended to have the sort of impact he’d land up having,” says Peter Hain, the South African-born British politician and anti-apartheid activist who, at 19, led a campaign that disrupted sports events involving South African athletes and sought to prove that there could be no normal sport in an abnormal society. D’Oliveira, though, was never among the protesters. “He never wanted to be a figurehead for any movement,” Hain continues. “He never reflected on his social impact, at least not to me when we met years later. He never spoke on any anti-apartheid platform. He just wanted to play cricket at the highest level.”
South Africa were not banished straightaway from the international cricket community. When Bill Lawry’s Australians were clattered 4-0 there in 1969-70, few white fans were overly concerned by that one scuppered tour by England. “I must be honest, I didn’t think too much about it at the time,” says the former allrounder Mike Procter, who was the top wicket-taker in the Australia series, with 26 at 13.57 apiece. “We weren’t having conversations about bans or anything like that. We were all shocked by what came next.”
As soon as a country’s flag and anthem are brought into the equation, participants become embodiments of all the collective traits, insecurities and ambitions of the country they are representing
Glyn Kirk / © AFP/Getty Images
Thanks in large part to protests organised by Hain, South Africa’s tour to England in 1970 was abandoned. The national cricket and rugby teams, for so long sportswashing tools of the apartheid state, had become toxic symbols of its violence.
Procter, who was already on the books at Gloucestershire, received a death threat through the post from the far-left revolutionary group The Angry Brigade. Years later, Lamb was called a “racist pig” by a fan during a game.
“To be a white South African at the time meant something to many people,” Hain explains. “You were either for or against the apartheid state. You couldn’t be neutral. I was hated by a lot of white South Africans, both in South Africa and in the UK. I know that a lot of the former cricketers hated me. It was a febrile time.”
Following South Africa’s isolation, which lasted until 1991, domestic cricket around the world became the pinnacle of the sport for those caught in the gears of history. “It made me take county cricket a lot more seriously than my competitors,” Lamb says. “I wanted to prove that I belonged at Test level. I felt, in a way, that I was still representing South Africa. I wanted to keep South Africa’s name in the news for positive reasons. If [the media and fans] regarded me as South African, then that was good. Every hundred I scored was for South Africa, in some way.”
Tensions have cooled in recent years, with 229,000 South African-born residents living in the UK in 2020 according to the Office for National Statistics. The majority of them go about their business in anonymity. They never have to address a group of journalists about matters of loyalty, are never asked to perform their job with their adopted country’s flag on their chest, and if they are called sell-outs or traitors, it’s almost never broadcast to millions of people on social media.
Trott found refuge from the noise in the middle. “Out there you don’t worry about that stuff,” he says. “You just bat. The next ball is the most important thing in the world. In the end it didn’t really matter what country I was playing for. In that moment I wasn’t Jonathan Trott the South African or Jonathan Trott the Englishman. I was Jonathan Trott the batsman. And my job was to score runs and win cricket matches.”
Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist living in London. @danielgallan
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