Altaaf Kazi had pretty much one job to do last Friday.
Had the head of communications for Cricket South Africa not posed for a photo, arms linked, with grinning Proteas fans wearing Sonny Bill Williams masks as they attempted to enter Port Elizabeth’s St George’s Park, Kazi would have gone home at the end of the day patting himself on the bum for a job well done.
As the man in charge of managing how the public views the organisation he works for, one of Kazi’s key responsibilities is to avoid damaging public relations catastrophes.
Being a key instigator in a PR car crash isn’t typically in the job description.
Back to Kazi shortly. First, a not-so-short summary for those who aren’t up with the play on why South African cricket fans would be wearing SBW masks to a match against Australia in the first place.
In 2007, 22-year-old champion ironwoman Candice Falzon and a then 21-year-old SBW were snapped on a phone camera during what newspapers described as a “steamy tryst” in a toilet cubicle at Sydney’s Clovelly Hotel.
Now 32, the former star athlete is married to David Warner, who is not the world’s most popular cricketer.
Warner’s wife’s history with SBW has been raised before by cricket fans, notably in New Zealand (gulp) and by England’s Barmy Army, which included a verse about it in a song for this season’s Ashes Tour.
Australia have moved on from the Ashes and are now in South Africa playing what may well be one of the most bitter, ugly contests in a sport that defies its ‘gentleman’s game’ tag on a near-constant basis.
In the first test in Durban, Warner was caught on CCTV attempting to physically accost South African wicket keeper Quintin De Kock.
Warner, it emerged, had been outraged by a remark De Kock made about his wife as the players were leaving the field for a not so quaint tea.
De Kock, it was claimed by the South Africans, bit back with a sledge after being subjected while batting to an hour-long verbal attack led by Warner that included calling him a “bush pig” and derogatory comments about his sister and mother.
De Kock’s sister reacted by threatening to physically harm Warner.
— Dalean De Kock (@DayDekock) March 5, 2018
Cricketers belittling female associates of their rivals is hardly a recent phenomenon. The most famous, and most celebrated, sledge in cricket is Zimbabwean bowler Eddo Brandes’ retort to being asked by Glenn McGrath why he was so fat: “Because every time I xxxx your wife she gives me a biscuit”, Brandes replied.
Not exactly a quick learner, McGrath led with his now late first wife Jane’s chin when he asked West Indian batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan what a certain part of Brian Lara’s anatomy tasted like.
“I don’t know, ask your wife,” Sarwan retorted.
There are plenty more famous exchanges along those lines. The common themes are that the instigator tends to get what they deserve by way of a retort, and that precious little consideration is given to the female unwittingly brought into the squabble between childish men.
Which brings us back to the unfortunate Mr Kazi, a man whose place in history as the most tone-deaf communications official in the history of sports appears to have been sealed.
As things escalated from ugly to outright hostile between the two teams in Port Elizabeth, posing for pics with fans wearing SBW masks would have been right near the very top of the list of things Cricket SA’s head of communications needed to avoid doing. Probably the only thing higher on the list would be over-ruling the decision of security staff not to let the fans in, and then issuing a statement defending those fans.
“They’re fans,” Kazi told Fairfax. “They wanted to come with them. People come in dressed as all sorts of things. We let people in with Hashim Amla beards.”
Or not okay. Kazi and fellow offender Clive Eksteen, Cricket SA’s head of commercial and marketing, were swiftly recalled to Johannesburg, where their fates appear grim.
Condemnation of the pair, who serve as a proxy for the legions of South African fans who think the SBW masks are a great joke, has been swift. But not always on point.
South African cricket writer Telford Vice pulled no punches with his thoughts on the mask-wearers: “They disgrace men. They disgrace cricket followers. They disgrace South Africans. They disgrace the human race.”
And then he kind of did.
“Those South Africans who have shown themselves to be no better than Warner by trying to engage with him on his own pitiful level — perhaps they‚ like him‚ know no other way,” Vice wrote for the Times Live.
Oh dear. Warner might have behaved unpleasantly but equating personally abusing a rival with a mass movement that slut shames his wife for something she did when she was 22 aren’t equally lamentable things.
In the time-honoured fashion of boofhead cricketers, Warner, the Australian vice captain, behaved like an objectionable oik. The SBW mask-wearers and their high-level supporters in Cricket SA’s management ranks were either totally oblivious to the fact Candice Warner is a real human being, or worse, they didn’t care.
Given their nation’s inglorious history when it comes to human relations, it would be easy to tar the majority of South Africans with the ignorance displayed by the legions of SBW mask-wearers in Port Elizabeth.
Happily, that might not be justified.
The mask campaign appears to have first come to light following a tweet from Johannesburg-based golfing enthusiast and talk show host Dan Nicholl.
Eastern Cape has always had a sense of humour: fans getting Sonny Bill masks ready for day one of the second Test in Port Elizabeth. pic.twitter.com/jXU0cEBwfE
— Dan Nicholl (@dannicholl) March 8, 2018
Nicholl’s appreciation of the sense of humour of the good folks of the Eastern Cape wasn’t exactly shared by his twitter followers.
If you think that is classed as having a sense of humour then your as sad as the morons doing this, his wife has nothing to do with anything said on the field.
— Phantomiam (@Phantomiam2) March 10, 2018
Hilarious , suppose you’d find it funny if everyone at a function you were hosting wore a mask of someone who had jumped your missus.
— Colin John Kendell (@truthneedsaname) March 10, 2018
While much of the outrage from Australia’s media has been horrendously sanctimonious, that can’t be said of former Australian netball captain Liz Ellis’ summary of the affair.
“Everyone is focusing on the sledging,” Ellis said on Channel Nine’s Sports Sunday programme.
“What I think is the controversy is that 40 years after the sexual revolution … 40 years after that in the middle of the #MeToo movement, in the week of International Women’s Day, a player’s wife is being dragged through the mud because they’re attempting to shame her for her past,” Ellis said.
“It really does slam home this idea that some Neanderthals have that women are the property of men.
“Do you know what? It upsets me to the core because I think sport is a real driver in society and generally it’s a driver for good. You think of all the good things that have happened and been started in sport and here we have an international sporting contest that is essentially saying to women, the message is: ‘You come here as a Madonna, you come here pure or you don’t come here at all’.”