Justin Ontong during a match against England Lions © Getty Images
Justin Ontong during a match against England Lions © Getty Images

January 2, 2002. In a decision spurred by the complex issues of South African sports, UCBSA President Percy Sonn overturned the choice of the selectors and replaced Jacques Rudolph with black cricketer Justin Ontong for the third Test at Sydney. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the controversy surrounding the decision and the way the Test played out.

Replacements

It had nothing to do with Justin Ontong the man.

As a quiet, self-effacing member of the South African team, he had been branded with the ironic and endearing sobriquet “Rowdy”.

However, the complex equations of cricket and race came to the fore and there he found himself in the most glaring of spotlights that sadly accentuated his skin colour. In a tale of black and white, he fell into a markedly grey area.

After all, the country was South Africa. And Ontong was Cape Coloured. The combination had been quite fatal for the history of the nation’s cricket in 1969, when Basil D’Oliveira’s selection in the England team had led to a furore in the land and had resulted in 22 years of isolation for South Africa. This time, it was the story of apartheid played out in reverse, some desperate, some ill-advised attempts to undo the wrongs done to earlier generations, through some dictatorial and questionable interference in team selection.

The national side was being hammered in Australia. At Adelaide, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn had hammered hundreds while Shane Warne had spun his leg-spinners past bemused Protean batsmen to rout the visitors by 246 runs. In the Boxing Day encounter at Melbourne, the unhappy story had been continued with the home team cruising to a 9-wicket win.

Lance Klusener had cracked a blistering 108 against India at Bloemfontein just a couple of months earlier. However, on this trip, he had managed just 47 runs at 11.75 and his two wickets had come at 41 apiece. The tour selectors hence decided to bench him for the Sydney Test.

The men in the running as replacement were actually roommates, Ontong and Jacques Rudolph. But, there was hardly much to decide. Ontong had played just one tour match, against New South Wales, and had failed to score in his two outings. Leg-spinner Stuart MacGill had got him caught-behind in both innings. When Ontong had bowled his off-breaks, Michael Bevan had smashed him for 35 runs in just two overs. Rudolph, on the other hand, had managed scores of 59 and 12 against Western Australia and 52 and 28 against New South Wales.

Accordingly, the selectors picked Rudolph, planning for him to bat at No. 3 with Boeta Dippenaar coming down the order at No. 6. There was a strict policy of including one coloured player in the side, but with Herschelle Gibbs at the top of the line-up, that bit seemed covered. Hence a selection based on merit was very much the way to go. And, needless to say, very much the way it should have gone.

However, there was a strong voice that rang out from nearby. United Cricket Board President Percy Sonn, in Sydney for the Test, vetoed the decision of the selectors and pumped for Ontong.

Later Sonn disclosed that he had intervened in the selection as a matter of policy. It was supposedly a right invested in him as President. “The team was given to me without a certain player of colour who was selected to fill in a position in the batting list,” he voiced. “So I intervened and I said, ‘you take this team back and this is how I understand the policy and this policy must be complied with. You go back and reformulate your team.’ Shuffling, to me, amounts to exclusion of a person of colour who has the right to be given the opportunity.”

He perhaps indicated that Ontong should have been the natural replacement of Klusener by virtue of being a lower order batsman and part-time bowler who could fit into the No. 6 slot.

While the team management was obviously less than amused with the meddling of the Board President, matters came to a head when Graeme Pollock, legendary batsman and South African selector, publicly stated that Sonn had changed the side, clearly hinting that it had been a political move.

“I think Justin has good cricketing ability and that he has a future, but that doesn’t mean that picking him for the Test team right now is the correct decision. I don’t believe we always think carefully enough about the player himself. How does Justin feel about playing when he knows many of his friends think he’s just playing for political reasons?” Pollock voiced.

The reaction of Pollock sparked protests across South Africa and triggered an investigation by the Ministry of Sport. There was further complication because Pollock’s nephew, Shaun, was the captain of the side playing in Australia.

For his part, Sonn, after furnishing the explanation for the intervention, reacted to Pollock by saying: “Graeme Pollock has got two choices. Either he complies with the decision and keeps his unhappiness to himself, or he will face the voracity of the UCB structures.”

However, by then more voices had started hauling the issue of Sonn’s interference over fire. Former captain and one of the all-time-greats Clive Rice called out to the South African players to revolt against the country’s cricket board following the controversial selection. In an interview with the Bloomberg News Agency, Rice said: “It’s a very unsatisfactory situation that exists in our cricket at the moment as politicians are running the game. The players must get together and revolt.”

Other former players like Adrian Kuiper and Pat Symcox also let their misgivings become known.

At the same time, the complex system of South African sports ensured support for the quota system in usual quarters.  Graham Abrahams of the Ministry of Sport responded, “It’s easy for Clive Rice to say those things when he is earning his pounds in England. He is not part of the cricket establishment here. We support the UCB’s action 100 per cent. If this was any other player but a black player, would we have had this media frenzy?”

Dignified on the field and off it

With all these undesirable undercurrents swirling through the nether lands of cricket, it was not really the ideal situation for a 22-year-old youth to make his debut. To his immense merit, Ontong handled the situation with ample dignity. So did Rudolph.

The latter was obviously disappointed at his exclusion after being told that he was going to play, but a chat with his roommate went miles in comforting him, and both the young men reacted admirably.

South Africa were sent on a leather hunt on the first day with Langer and Hayden putting on 219 for the first wicket. However, half an hour after tea, Ontong executed a fine bit of fielding to run out Ricky Ponting.

On the second afternoon, Australia completed their huge innings for 554 after Martyn had added another hundred to the mix. And then the tourists lost four wickets for 77, two to Glenn McGrath and two to MacGill. Ontong entered the fray at this moment of crisis and managed to hold fort till the end of the day alongside Neil McKenzie. He remained unbeaten on 8 when the day’s play ended.

It was not to be a fairytale finish though. The going was never easy, and knowing the Australian way of playing cricket, the close in fielders must have reminded Ontong quite frequently that he was playing only because of the quota system. Perhaps they hinted at skin colour too, perhaps they did not.

In the end, Ontong fell leg-before to Shane Warne for 9. South Africa collapsed for 154 in the first innings.

Things were a lot better when they followed on. Gary Kirsten put his head down for a big hundred, and he was still there when Ontong joined him on the fourth morning with the score on 282 for 4. The debutant displayed a lot of spunk and chutzpah as he battled to a hard-fought 32 before being leg before to Warne once again. He did share a 74-run stand with Kirsten and according to reports neither of his dismissals were really convincing.

In the end Australia triumphed by 10 wickets to win the series 3-0.

At the end of the match, Ontong went on to observe, “I’d say I didn’t justify my selection because Jacques Rudolph performed better in the warm-up games. Jacques and I are room-mates, we get on very well, but I felt down for him because he deserved to play.”

However, his skipper Shaun Pollock had words of encouragement beyond all the controversy surrounding the young man’s selection: “Justin is definitely a prospect for us in the future. In the second innings he really looked the part.”

What followed?

Rudolph eventually made his debut against Bangladesh in 2003, breaking all sorts of records by slamming 222 not out. On his first appearance on Australian soil, Rudolph scored defied Shane Warne throughout Day Five at WACA, scoring 102 not out and saving the Test. It was his finest effort in international cricket.

Brief scores:

Australia 554 (Justin Langer 126, Matthew Hayden 105, Damien Martyn 117; Nicky Boje 4 for 63) and 54 for no loss beat South Africa 154 and 452 (Gary Kirsten 153, Boeta Dippenaar 73, Shaun Pollock 61*; Stuart MacGill 4 for 123) by 10 wickets.

Men of the Match: Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer.

Man of the Series: Matthew Hayden.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)