Cricket’s Pineapple Week is 120 not over – The Mail & Guardian
Award-winning moment: Mninawa Njokweni is recognized by Mthetheleli Ngumbela, founder of the Ngumbela Cricket Tournament in Healdtown, Eastern Cape. The winning team plays against the top team in the Pineapple Week competition. Photo: Michael Pinyana
South African cricket’s best kept secret has to be Port Alfred’s annual Pineapple Week, which has been going on since 1904 and shows no sign of tiring.
There have been occasional breaks – for World War II and a year during the Covid-19 pandemic – and next year will mark the 120th anniversary of the tournament.
So named because pineapples were ubiquitous in this area of the Eastern Cape (they are still grown but not as widespread, with chicory and beef raising being favoured), this year’s week featured 24 teams competing in three strength-versus-strength groups were divided.
Many of the teams such as Salem, Station Hill, Southwell and Manley Flats regularly play in the local leagues over the weekend, but some are invitation teams who have gathered to take part in the tournament.
Cricket is played for 50 overs on coconut or jute mats laid on top of the peat wickets to protect them from seven or eight days of use. The rules are strict – no ‘wrestlers’ or privateers can only play during the week unless they have first played a minimum number of games for their club – and games are officiated by long-suffering neutral referees.
Like high-speed fiber, neutral arbiters are one of the greatest inventions of the modern world. They may be shouted at, but ultimately they are obeyed. Barry Smith, a former bakkie driver, is the head of Pineapple Week judges and is a very popular feature of the competition.
“No one gives Barry uphill,” says former tournament organizer Justin Stirk, “partly because he has a long memory. They know that marginal decisions might get in their way if they do.”
While it’s tempting to doze off in the afternoon session with the country club umpires, umpires must remain vigilant as risk-taking is fairly institutionalized at Pineapple Week. Anything can happen – and it happens often.
Once a team of 12 nonchalantly drifted onto the field. A ball could not be retrieved from the outfield because it landed near two mating Cape Cobras. Nobody had the courage to disturb her in the act.
A tale is told — Pineapple Week is an endless source of good stories — of a hitter who’s already been in a low-scoring match and desperately asks a teammate if he thinks so
The opposition would object if he hit again.
“With you as the batsman? No, not at all,” came the serious reply.
Stories need characters and Pineapple Week is full of them. Who could forget “Tick Bird” Fowlds, the one with the long legs and knobby knees, or “Dog Shark” Fletcher, or “Mielie Meal” Yendall? And who could forget the superstitious partisanship of Beth Amm, wife of Rex and mother of brothers Phillip and Pete, both good cricketers in their day.
Beth was a heavy smoker and believed in her divine powers to sway the opposition in games against Salem, the team her husband and sons played for.
If a visitor scored too outspokenly or proved difficult, Beth would pencil their name on the side of their cigarette. According to legend, by the time the cigarette was smoked, the batsman was extinguished.
Aside from the mumbo-jumbo, impartial judges, and organizers’ insistence on good behavior, there are other reasons for the health of Pineapple Week.
“Some of the youngsters are coming back and playing for their fathers’ and grandfathers’ clubs,” says Pete Amm, one of the driving forces behind Salem Cricket Club’s renaissance. His son Simon plays there. “They love the idea of reviving cricket in the area and trying,” he says.
For those who haven’t seen it, Salem is one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the country. The field is flanked by a church and graveyard and, depending on the season, a purple shower of bougainvillaea. The structures give clues to the priorities of those who settled there. The word of God was paramount, but so was the word of forward defense, cover drive, and girl over.
One of the eureka moments of Pineapple Week organizers in recent years was the pairing of the week’s winner with the winner of the Ngumbela Cricket Tournament, created in 1989 by Mthetheleli Ngumbela in nearby Healdtown (pronounced Hilltown).
Ngumbela, himself a cricketer and a self-made millionaire with fruit and vegetable shops in Idutywa, started his tournament because he was concerned that the young men of Healdtown and Fort Beaufort had nothing else to do over the Christmas break but get drunk.
The tournament traditionally begins on December 16th and features teams like Jackhammer, Lamyeni Hard Catch and Fear Not to lure the men out of the taverns and into the whites. His vision surpassed his tournament, but both grew steadily. There is now the Ngumbela Oval, plentiful prize money and a thriving cricket culture as the tournament approaches its 35th edition.
The first match between the winners of the respective tournaments took place in Cuylerville in 2015; The second leg took place at the Ngumbela Oval the following year.
Ngumbela was a serial nonconformist. Once, walking around the outfield at Port Alfred Country Club, he noticed holes in a bleacher roof.
“You white people should be ashamed of letting the rain pour down on the heads of the stands,” he reportedly told a group of Pineapple Week organizers with a devilish chuckle.
Never being critical when something tangible would be better, Ngumbela promptly wrote a check for R25,000 to fix the roof. His generosity will not be forgotten. The grandstand roof lives on as an informal memorial to Ngumbela, who died in a car crash last year.
Cricket needs more men like the tireless extrovert. And it needs more tournaments like Pineapple Week.