Another of South Africaís up-and-coming African players was dealt a rather unlucky blow this week. After a prolific start to the domestic first-class season, 21 year old Western Province wicket-keeper Thami Lungisa Tsolekile sustained a finger injury, that has cost him a place in the South African A team facing the Indians at East London.
Thami Tsolekile, (first name pronounced Tah-mee, last name pronounced T-so-leh-kee-lay) broke into the Western Province team in the 1999/2000 season at age 18, replacing the retired Paul Kirsten (yes! he is related to Gary). Initially, many fans were resistant to seeing Tsolekile behind the stumps and some considered him nothing more than a player picked to fill the government mandated quota requirement at the expense of the popular Kirsten. This system, often results in unfairly branding a player nothing more than a "racial selection" before he even steps onto the field. Tsolekile however, thought much more positive of his selection. The selectors had picked him and despite these added political and racial pressures, Tsolekile was determined to prove that he was up to the task.
In 5 matches, Tsolekile provided Western Province with more than competent work keeping wicket, returning excellent figures with 15 catches and 5 stumpings, but managed a season batting average of only 8.85. The impression he left was somewhat better in the limited overs arena, where his 8 matches brought him 6 catches, a stumping and a batting average of 22.28.
Western Provinceís torrid display during 1999-2000 first-class season raised questions about carrying a wicket-keeper who could not bat, despite solid performances as the team keeper. Nevertheless, his performance with the gloves kept him in the team and the following season Tsolekileís batting improved dramatically. In nine matches, Tsolekile took 30 catches and affected 1 stumping, but more importantly he contributed down the order as a batsman averaging 31.83 in 12 innings, including 3 half centuries. With the assistance of Tsolekile, Western Province went on to win the first-class championship. Tsolekile left no doubt that he was worth his place in the team on performance alone.
Toward the end of South African gloveman Dave Richardsonís career, fans wondered who would become his replacement when he finally called it quits. Few domestic keepers were obvious choices and in fact, the inclusion of replacement keeper Mark Boucher came from out of left field. Suddenly, in 2000, in a South African sporting community still charged with racial politics, an African player was just beginning to get noticed, and perhaps eventually press his claim as a potential replacement for 24-year old Boucher, should the incumbent keeper be unable to play. No doubt, Thami Tsolekile would have to be considered by the national selectors.
Tsolekile, continues to take a giant leap forward towards establishing himself as next in line for higher honours as the national team wicket-keeper. In his five innings this season, Tsolekile averages 55 with the bat and in his 4 matches he has 10 catches and 1 stumping. His career batting average is now a healthy 28.34, and few believe he is anything but a talented and capable player. Of further note is the fact, he spends time behind the stumps keeping to Paul Adams and Claude Henderson, two of South Africaís best spinners, top class pacemen Roger Telemachus, Allan Dawson and Charl Willoughby and when he isnít on national duty, Jacques Kallis.
Tsolekileís selection to the South Africa A team must have been a source of tremendous pride, as well as an inspiration to South Africans everywhere and no one can be more disappointed than Tsolekile at the cruel twist of fate that has resulted in his not being able to take the field against the Indians. In comparison, his replacement in the South Africa A team, 21-year old Kruger van Wyk (pronounced fun-vay-k), a very talented wicket-keeper in his own right, has taken 19 catches in his 4 matches, but averages only 14.50 with the bat this season and 18.05 over his 2 season career.
The young Tsolekileís rapid success is also a testament to the depth of talent in South Africa and the much maligned quota system. Tsolekile has made it abundantly obvious that there are young African players of talent who just need that extra vote of confidence and the opportunity to train and learn at the highest level, in order to harness the raw talent bubbling beneath the surface of South African first-class cricket. Unfortunately, for every Tsolekile who makes it at the top, there will be a number of players who donít, but perhaps here the political leadershipís pressure for a quota system might benefit South African cricket long-term. After all, if the next three seasons result in the emergence of one world class fast bowler, one top notch leg-spinner, and one Viv Richards calibre batsman, will it matter that their chances came about only because of a quota system?
Clearly, Tsolekile has earned his place on the fast-track to national honours with rapid improvement, in every aspect of his game in each of his three seasons. It would hardly be a surprise to see him touring Australia with the South African side this December. Best of all, there wonít be a person who doesnít believe that he deserves it.
© Justin Myer Lichterman