Since 1989, a tournament with a difference has been taking place in the arid upper reaches of the rural Eastern Cape in South Africa. Bankrolled by a local enthusiast, Mthetheleli Ngumbela, the Ngumbela Cricket Tournament traditionally starts on the December 16 public holiday and meanders sluggishly across the Christmas break and amiably into the New Year.
As a result of the tournament's distended format, the final, played last Sunday between Fear Not and Qhumanashe - roughly translated from the Xhosa as "the team on the hill" - is much anticipated. Folk discussed the tournament's likely winners across the New Year and 5000 people packed into Ngumbela Park, just outside of Healdtown, to see who would capture local bragging rights.
His work done, Ngumbela himself kicked back with understandable pride and accomplishment - not bad for someone who started off life selling peaches and mealies (corn) out of the boot of a '49 Plymouth coupe in the distant township of Langa.
Outwardly calm, Ngumbela was anything but uninterested when he watched Sunday's match. He played for Fear Not as a young man, taking his place in the middle order as a left-hand batsman against such local teams as Jackhammer and Lamyeni Hard Cash. He used to bring coiled hessian mats (at 400 rand a pop) back from the Cape in the boot of his trusty Plymouth and, as a swaggering entrepreneur, was always on hand to dip into his pocket for balls and equipment.
"In 1976 there were riots in Langa [in the Western Cape] and I was frightened away," he said. "I came back and opened butchery and vegetable shops in Idutywa, closer to home, where it was safer."
Returning home from Idutywa for his Christmas break in the late 1980s, Ngumbela found widespread rural misery and lack of purpose. No cricket was being played. "The men were drinking - I didn't like that," he told me. "Often we used to play over the holidays and now there was need for something better. We wanted a proper tournament."
Ngumbela's tournament has prospered partly because Healdtown (pronounced Hilltown, approximately 120km north-west of East London) is in the middle of a particularly fertile South African cricket crescent. Mfuneko Ngam, the fast bowler, was born in neighbouring Middledrift, and now teaches at Cricket South Africa's Fort Hare Academy in nearby Alice. Makhaya Ntini was once a shepherd on distant hills and went to school at Dale in King William's Town, not far away. Luminaries like George Langa, Zimasa Mbatani, Sam Nontshinga and Dan Qeqe, all played and prospered in the vicinity, while members of the Majola dynasty, Eric and Khaya, grew up in the region before hotfooting it to the towns and townships, like any self-respecting young men of the age would.
Over the years the tournament has undergone certain refinements. It is now bigger, for a start, bringing together teams from both the Alice and Healdtown district leagues. Facilities are better (Ngumbela has laid tens of concrete pitches across the region at his own expense), and prize money is vastly improved. Fear Not, Sunday's winners, pocketed R25,000 for their Christmas-period troubles, while the men from the hills received R18,000. Ngumbela Park is now garlanded with swanky coloured seats. There's a little pavilion and a sponsored electronic scoreboard. A casual observer might look at the comparative splendour amid the rural poverty and think that cricket has finally arrived.
Except that it hasn't, because there's a tragic apartheid backlog to almost everything in these hills. Greg Hayes, a consultant to CSA and a man who works hand in hand with Ngam, has no quibble with either the available talent or the commitment of Fort Hare University. He finds that issues outside of cricket often hold the flowering back. While CSA is addressing some of these problems through the development of a junior academy and life-skills workshops at Fort Hare, it sometimes feels like a perpetual walk down the corridor of uncertainty. "How do you teach a kid who comes to the academy to build an innings and occupy the crease when he has an empty stomach?" Hayes asks. "Scratch the surface and you realise these kids are coming from one-parent families or no families at all. No wonder self-esteem is an issue."
Despite the harsh realities of the apartheid legacy, cricket is changing. Two years ago a group of black and white veterans got together to discuss the building of bridges. As a result the winners of the Ngumbela tournament were pitted against the winners of that year's Pineapple Week tournament, started 112 years ago in and around Port Alfred on the coast. The first such match was played in September 2015 in Cuylerville; the second took place at Ngumbela Park last year. The older cricket-loving men in the region are thrilled.
Such festival fixtures inadvertently echo what took place in the 1880s in the area. Cricket and Conquest, a recently published book by Andre Odendaal, Krish Reddy, Christopher Merrett and Jonty Winch, tells of a famous fixture between Champion CC from King William's Town and Alberts CC, both winners of their respective racially defined leagues. The match was given added cachet because Champion CC players and their followers remembered that some of the Alberts CC players had ancestors who played significant roles in the wars of colonial dispossession. The stage was set for an epic battle. Alas, say the authors, it was not to be. Champion were unable to force home the advantage after a first-innings lead. The game fizzled out, the draw hastened by the advent of bad light.
That match was historically significant because it represented the opening of a cricket window, with games across the colour divide. As the Cape Colony in the 1890s became more jingoistic and racially intolerant, so this window closed. By the time of the Boer War, such games were distant memories. Thanks to the endeavours of Ngumbela and those who arrange the Pineapple Week, however, things they are a-changin' down in the Eastern Cape. It's about time.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg