Before the Cricket World Cup started, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis made waves by saying that if his side didn’t succeed at the tournament, it would not be the end of the world.
Life, he said, would go on.
As it turns out, Du Plessis and his charges have had to take a long, hard look at themselves after producing easily the worst ever performance by a South African side at a World Cup.
The Proteas will go home empty-handed, and their poor showing has resulted in a flood of criticism from back home that the skipper understands and accepts.
South Africans love their cricket, and the reaction to the Proteas bombing in England confirms as much.
There is, however, a reason for those back home to be proud of their country.
It comes in the form of 13 young cricketers from the Khayelitsha township just outside Cape Town.
In what has become a truly remarkable story, the squad of boys aged between 10 and 13 have just completed a tour of the United Kingdom that saw them play four matches and experience something that they could never have dreamed of, watching the Proteas play three matches along the way.
The Gary Kirsten Foundation is changing lives.
Around five years ago, the former Proteas opener and national coach visited the township in an effort to assess sporting facilities at some of the schools in the region.
They were non-existent.
On his expedition, the now 51-year-old Kirsten met the then-principal of Chris Hani High School, Madoda Mahlutshana.
Almost immediately, Kirsten was sold and saw an opportunity to do something that could make a difference.
Without any starting capital, the Foundation committed to building two concrete cricket nets and appointed a full-time coach to start a cricket facility.
Five years later, and with sponsors and investors taking more notice all the time, the Gary Kirsten Foundation now operates from five schools in Khayelitsha and employs seven coaches.
Kirsten is hands-on, conducting clinics with the coaches as often as possible, whenever he is in Cape Town.
Chris Hani is the hub, and the long-term vision is to turn the facility into somewhat of school of excellence where those in the township have a place to hone their skills and a chance to grow into quality players without having to leave the community.
When the touring party returns to South Africa, the Foundation will begin work on a R7 million project that will see a full artificial playing surface laid at Chris Hani while an indoor centre will also be constructed.
“We’ve become stakeholders in the community, which is remarkable. They trust us now and they know that we’re here for them. It’s their project, not ours,” Kirsten said while watching his boys play their final tour match against Weybridge Cricket Club in the heart of Surrey on Friday.
It was the final match of their tour, and they secured a resounding win against bigger, older children who could not possibly have any comprehension of the day-to-day challenges facing their opposition.
None of the 13 children on tour had ever been in an aeroplane before, while Cape Town International Airport almost came to a standstill when they departed for the UK as families, teachers and friends from Khayelitsha arrived to send them off.
“We had a dream five months ago. You’ll get a lot of school kids going on overseas tours because mom and dad can fork out R45 000/R50 000 for a tour, but you’ll never see a township team going on an international tour,” Kirsten said.
“That’s what makes us very proud is that we made the decision five months ago and said we would raise the money.”
Kirsten’s passion lies in the unfortunate truth that a black kid from the township will almost certainly have to land a scholarship at a former Model C school if he is to make a career out of cricket.
“What we’re basically saying is that building sporting excellence in the townships is non-existent, and I’ve got a fundamental issue with that,” he said.
“If we’re saying we need to scout our talent out of the townships and send them to St Stithians or Hilton or Bishops to produce Proteas players, then I’ve got an issue with that.
“If you’re saying that you can’t make it in the townships, that doesn’t feel right. Have we actually moved forward as a country?
“Our focus as a foundation is the schools, because school sport for me works.”
Kirsten hopes that, through the Foundation, Chris Hani will be turned into a cricketing school that can take on the very best in South Africa.
He knows that dream is still a long way away, but his commitment to development is making an immediate impact.
“I believed in him when he said we would take the kids to the UK,” Mahlutshana said.
“We wanted to expose these young kids to see beyond the poverty and their own communities, to see that there is life outside where they are. Cricket is the vehicle to achieving that.”
The boys won two of their four matches on tour, while they lost once, and one ended in a tie.
The quality of cricket they played impressed everyone who came out to see them.
These kids are not charity cases. They are quality young players who have bright futures if they are given opportunities, and that is what Kirsten, Mahlutshana and the rest of the team are trying to do.
We hear stories of transformation needing to start at a grassroots level, but we hardly ever see it.
On a Friday afternoon at the heart of one of London’s wealthiest districts, it became clear what can be achieved when everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets down to work.
Now, some four weeks later, Du Plessis’ words make sense.
The Proteas did not win the World Cup. They will go home. They will carry on with their lives, and the challenges facing those less fortunate will remain.
Cricket may not be life, but these 13 youngsters have shown that it can lead to a better one.