The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 20, 2003

A telling commentary on the spirited Fanie
Harbans Singh

Fanie de Villiers: Portrait of a Test Bowler
by Trevor Chesterfield. Penguin Books India. Pages 476. Rs 450.

Fanie de Villiers: Portrait of a Test BowlerMANY of us remember Fanie de Villiers as a pleasant looking fast bowler who threatened to pierce through the defenses of any batsman every time that he rushed up to bowl. He was athletic, fast and impressive but one whose bowling action should have raised quite a few knowledgeable eyebrows. It did not, and he remains one of the most impressive fast bowlers to have visited India. A fascinating cricketer, it is a pity he did not play at the international level for long, owing to a combination of circumstances. The author, Trevor Chesterfield, is a familiar name with cricket fans and many look forward to reading his regular columns and comments on the events that happen on and off the field.

Though the title of the book claims to be the portrait of Fanie de Villiers as a Test bowler, yet it is more than that. The bowler himself has said in the foreword that he had wanted his biography to be more than the story of his life as a player. Appropriately, he wanted it to be the turbulent history of South African cricket during the modern era. As one who came from the less privileged group among Afrikaaners, his climb to the top was hard, tortuous and literally full of sweat and blood. This comes as a surprise to Indian readers who think that all whites in South Africa belonged to the privileged class. It is instructive as well as amusing to read that the whites coming from the farming backwaters had to be much more talented and lucky to be recognised as potential not only for South Africa but even for the Province they belonged. The boyhood of Fanie records not only the trials and travails of a budding sportsman but also the social history of the period where the vast majority of the blacks absent from the canvas. This period might appear amusing to some as it can remind the divisions and classifications that exist in our own system and the obstacles that are there for a cricketers coming from the less established state. The responses of teachers in South Africa appear to be no different, nor the myopic goals that they set for themselves as opposed to the talent and aspirations of young one who strains to break away from shackles that bind him to a limited locale.

From the Indian point of view one had hoped to read much more and more graphically and in proper sequence the experiences of the first historic tour of India as well as the Indian tours of South Africa. One had also hoped to know more about the Test match in West Indies when the South Africans sensationally and ignominiously embraced defeat. The truth is that the Indian reader should be forgiven if he feels injured and slighted not only because India and Indian conditions do not come out in glowing terms but because that there is very little about the Indian tours to South Africa. Not the sunny afternoon when the Indians, after their customary disastrous start dazzled viewers with their stroke play when Nelson Mandela arrived at the ground, nor the ugly incident when the South African captain Kepler Wessels struck Kapil Dev on his shin with his bat while taking a run. Though the author does not forget to mention that Kapil Dev had run Peter Kirsten out after he had been duly warned for backing too far up. Knowledgeable readers would remember that later the footage of the Wessels too was found missing.

These blemishes apart, one also suspects that the author has focused on those countries that constitute the cricketing universe of the white world. The contest, therefore, is more intense if it involves South Africa, Australia and England with New Zealand thrown in to add to numbers. The bias of the author in favour of the nations of the white Gods is also apparent in the handling of the match fixing issue. One would think that instead of blaming the Indian sub continent he had found fault with the angels of the other world, especially Mark Waugh and Shane Warne. Indian readers might also feel that Hansie Cronje is treated rather harshly for many among us believe that he at least came clean about the whole issue and that there were others in South African and world cricket who enjoy good reputation because he was conveniently made the scapegoat. The denouement of match fixing has never been satisfactory.

Trevor Chestefield’s style is unmistakably that of a journalist though in patches, especially while narrating the hospitalisation of Fanie, after that ‘lime blast’ incident, he is creative and moving. One wonders how he missed out being a novelist!