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Amla: A beer for your sainthood

An interesting email did the rounds last week. It was an open letter/apology from a former South African Breweries (SAB) employee to Proteas batting star Hashim Amla, which was posted by Bobby Skinstad on his personal blog. The story goes that when Amla requested to be exempt from advertising the alcohol beverage sponsor on his cricket kit, for religious reasons, a certain Matt Botha found himself feeling rather offended for SAB.

“I quickly chose the side of the company that had recently adopted me and immediately took a dislike to this ‘spoiled brat’ new kid who refused to wear the logo that made it possible for him to be where he was,” says Botha in the letter.

“I was angry to hear that SAB had graciously granted you permission not to wear any logos on your team clothing and saw this as a point of weakness of the brewing giant,” added Botha.

Botha then explains that his opinion of the man dramatically changed when he observed Amla play down the infamous “terrorist comment” affair and witnessed how humble and gracious Amla remained through difficult passages of play, in times of failure and even in blossoming success, as he turned into an inspirational and reliable middle-order batsman for the Proteas.

A truly bearded role model.

Skinstad said the letter “gave me goosebumps” cooed a patriotic “how far we’ve come” and sure enough the link travelled across Muslim South African inboxes with the tag “hear hear, check this truly halaal South African story out!”

However, I must digress.

Botha seems like a nice chap, but if a confession is what he sought, then he should have gone to church. In the real world, his sentiment needs to be interrogated; an apology built on misguided logic is stagnant, in fact it may even be toxic. And unfortunately, despite his intentions, the letter remains jaundiced, irrevocably misinformed and does nothing but illustrate how truly elusive our rainbow remains.

In a nation of such cultural opulence, it is telling sign when our different colours continue to sit on top of each other like unequal, insoluble neighbours.

For all intents and purposes, what does Botha mean when he suggests that Amla’s approach to life, cricket and controversy had convinced him that the cricketer deserved to be exempt from scathing comment for refusing alcohol branding on his kit?

Why do I get the feeling that Botha really means: “Despite being a prat and refusing to become a walking beer billboard, I admire you for overlooking stuff and getting on with the game?”

Say again?

When did a cricketer’s approach to life have an influence on how he is judged on the sports field? Surely he has a right to be judged by his performances alone. And we aren’t talking about substance abuse or rampant anti-social behaviour, which deserves to be wrapped on the knuckles before kids start to emulate their heroes.

So Amla asked that he play cricket without a beer logo stitched above his pecs.

Amla is Muslim and practising Muslims would rather eat their left nut than have anything to do with pork or alcohol.

What is so difficult to understand about that?

He didn’t ask for the Saudi flag to be stitched on his collar and verses of the Quraan to be narrated on the loud speakers when he walked into bat.

He didn’t ask stadiums to stop selling beer jugs so they don’t fall on the thousands of non-drinking cricket fans who come to watch him and the game. But now that he is arguably the gentlest cricketer on the international scene, “displays bravery”, “walks voluntarily” and greets umpires with the respect of an 18th century Mogul prince, he is subsequently worthy of respect, and finally, he is forgiven for turning his back on South Africa’s favourite beer.

What a joke.

I thought he was selected because his exploits on the domestic circuit made him an almost certainty into the Test line-up. When he failed at the top level, he was dropped and he returned to domestic cricket, sorted out his technique and fortified his hunger for the big stage. He didn’t get any favours. Botha describes himself as a loyal cricket fan. But then surely if he was going to mix politics with cricket, a loyal fan wouldn’t clutch straws and squeal “Amla wasn’t even selected on merit” like the whimsical knee-jerk reaction every time a new non-white cricketer is selected to the squad?

Sure, it could have been in jest, or merely an emotional response in defence of his employers, but when will this cease to be our initial reaction? Botha apologises in this letter, but what of the rest who continue to think this way? Subsequently, there are only two facts worth concluding to this matter:

1. It is inconsequential whether Amla looks the other way to verbal abuse, walks before been given out, or thanks God before he accepts praise or comment. If Botha expects fast bowler Yusuf Abdullah, for instance, to whisper sweet nothings to batsmen, and to sit back when he receives abuse even after he is done a favour and been exempt from the SAB logo, then Botha will be disappointed. Abdullah, like Amla, should be allowed to refute the logo and be as competitive and crass should they choose to be, within the confines of the game.

2. The SAB’s decision to “graciously” allow Amla not to wear the logo is easily fixed by the lack of Amla-time on television. We all know that television directors and camera-men have to give the sponsors enough coverage and too often Amla seems to cut a lens-lonely figure on the field when he isn’t batting.

Experts will tell you that the visual on television must add value to a brand; must imply development, and most importantly, should not accompany images which depreciate or distract audiences from the brand. I am not saying that our cameramen are instructed to focus on other players, I am just saying that where there are billions of rand of sponsorship, there are rarely coincidences.

It is exactly the modus operandi used by huge sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Intel and other demons, when they sponsor international sporting events. Their names are placed at strategic parts of the stadium so television cameras are bound to catch a glimpse at any given moment of the action.

With Amla, all you get is a beard.

And if he is not batting, you wouldn’t know he was playing.

In fact, if Botha’s argument is to be dissected, it would mean that if Amla fails a couple of times, or swears an umpire out of frustration or whispers “your mother likes Osama” (a minor crime as far as modern sledging goes), he would undermine his principled stance and quickly morph into an impostor who needed to be rooted out.

As a consequence, and this question must be asked: Is he consistently under more pressure because of his SAB-averse stance? Does this mean that every Muslim cricketer or any other individual with an aversion to promoting alcohol would not only need to perform well with the bat or ball, but would need to illustrate an Amla-like zeal to be respected for his decision?

It then makes one wonder about the indomitable role of alcohol in modern sport, when in reality, the two are really incompatible.

And in the South African context, it isn’t as if we are a nation starved of alcoholic advertisement and/or alcohol abuse. If one considers that about 3 000 people in South Africa are killed or seriously injured through drunk-driving related accidents, and if you add that to the fact that about half of the people admitted to substance abuse clinics in 2009 conceded that alcohol was their primary abuse drug; Amla’s stance gives more voice to a cause than we give him credit for.

Given that South Africa has the highest instances of foetal alcohol syndrome and that surgeons at major hospitals will tell you that almost all injuries related to violence are alcohol related, the scenario seems even more grim than first envisioned.

It is more than ironic when you consider that sports bodies are empowered to promote a healthier, safer and more vibrant life, away from crime, domestic violence and cyclical poverty, only to find that God actually owns a brewery.

Amla, by default, is an advert for his religion and hints at the indomitable power of the human spirit. Though we could say that all sportsmen and women ought to reconsider their adidas and Nike labels for what they also represent in the developing world, I think Amla, like so many sportsmen/women are preoccupied with simply fighting for a place in the line-up.

Again, Botha can be commended for his honesty.

But to ignore the structure, the tangible sum of parts that make up his apology, is but one more attempt to quench our desperate thirst for plastic reconciliation, than construct a DNA of real understanding.

Consider that if Dolphins captain Imraan Khan is called up to open the innings, Pakistani-born spinner Imran Tahir is included in the squad and Yusuf Abdullah sheds some kilos and earns a Test cap, four different Muslims will be sporting kit without a SAB badge.

Yes, this is seemingly unlikely but not impossible. This dilemma is not going anywhere. We might as well talk about it properly.


  • Azad Essa

    Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of a book called "Zuma's Bastard" (Two Dogs Books, October 2010) Yes, it is the name of a book. A real book. With a kickass cover. Click on the cover to find out more. You know you want to. or join the revolution: Accidental Academic won best political blog at the South African Blog awards 2009 and is a finalist for 2010.