To maintain a strong national cricket side, the building blocks have to be laid at school level to meet the required standards when schoolboy cricket players develop and transcend to provincial and national levels.
It's in this context that I conducted research into how many of South Africa's national men's cricketers attended boys-only schools. There are very few boys-only schools in South African townships (rural or lower-income areas in South Africa). And many public (government) boys-only schools are regarded as elite.
The question I set out to address was whether these elite schools were incidental to the players' success, or a significant contributing factor.
It was necessary to go back to the dawn of democracy in the country and to investigate the feeder system of South African cricket - school level cricket - to test whether male cricketers have a better opportunity to play for South Africa if they attended a private or boys-only school. I included those who had played in tests, one-day internationals (ODIs) and T20 matches.
The study found that a very high number - 65% of the 119 players who represented South Africa at world cups between 1992 and 2019 - came from boys-only schools. And 24 out of 26 of the captains of the national schools side attended boys-only schools.
All of the black African cricketers who have played for South Africa came through the boys-only schooling system - whether state-run or private.
Promising black South African cricketers are placed in schools that were exclusively white under apartheid. The legacy of privilege in these institutions remains, giving young players access to the finest training and facilities.
South Africa's national cricketers come from fewer than 50 schools, out of approximately 6,000 high schools in the country. This means that thousands of schools are unable to produce cricket stars on a similar level. The reasons aren't hard to find, and include the absence of basic infrastructure - such as toilets and running water - as well as facilities for sport. There are few coaches and there's no enduring sporting culture.
What the big match selections tell us
Out of the 119 cricket players who represented South Africa at world cups between 1992 and 2019, 78 attended a boys-only school, which is 65% of the group. Similarly, 61.4% of South African test cricket players in that period had attended a boys-only school. In ODI cricket, it comes in at 59%.
In T20 cricket between 2005 and 2019, 53.7% attended a boys-only school, against 46.3% who attended co-ed public schools.
Between 1994 and 2019, 24 out of 26 captains of the national schools side attended boys-only schools. This suggests that co-ed public schools have not been the optimal or preferred feeder system to produce South African school cricket captains.
The table below outlines the number of players in each category that have played for South Africa in tests, ODIs, ODI world cups, T20s as well as South African Schools cricket. This study has allocated school categories to 461 players (including duplicate players who also played for South Africa in more than one match format). Boys-only schools are the most common and significant (273 out of the 461 players) compared to the other categories.
The country's top batsmen came - overwhelmingly - from boys-only schools. In the case of bowlers, a number came from co-ed schools, although stars such as Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi attended boys-only schools.
To sum it all up
The study shows that boys-only schools are a key contributing factor to playing men's cricket at the highest level in South Africa.
Other factors at play include individual talent, the number of pupils in a school and coaching standards. Given South Africa's history, race and class play a role. Not one player from a rural or township area went on to play for South Africa (unless they were migrated into a boys-only or private school from grade 8 onwards).
The research shows that elite, boys-only schools remain the preferred and optimal feeder system to cricket being played at the highest level in South Africa. These schools seem to be keeping South African youth cricket intact.
Unless the race and class imbalances are addressed, minimal change will occur. This, in turn, will continue to undermine South Africa's transformation agenda and its goal to include a number of players of colour in a national team.
The study shows how a privileged schooling environment in early life, particularly in boys-only schools, can make the difference in a sustainable cricketing career. Studies such as these should inform the strategies that could be implemented by South African cricket development to identify and nurture talented players.
Author: Habib Noorbhai - Senior Lecturer & Sports Scientist, University of Johannesburg