Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) Lead Independent Director, Steven Budlender SC, is one of South Africa’s most accomplished and respected lawyers.
He is an Advocate and Senior Counsel with nearly 20 years of practice that has seen his experience cover matters involving constitutional law, administrative law, regulatory law, media law, arbitrations, corporate governance and employment law.
Still only 44, he already serves as a director of several companies and was the founding national treasurer of the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa (PABASA) – a bar association that strives to transform the advocates profession.
This is therefore a man with an incredible pedigree.
There is also another side to Budlender, however. He spent much of the first half of his life in deep love with cricket and is renewing that now as he gets older.
Such was his love for the game when he was a boy that he qualified as an umpire at the tender age of 11.
“I would literally spend hours playing backyard cricket,” he recounts. “I had a friend who lived down the road with a yard big enough to play cricket and I would go there all day, everyday, weekend and holidays, playing cricket.”
“I’ve been keen on all sports since I was young, but cricket was always my first love. My dad loved cricket and so too did his dad, my grandfather. That is where my passion stemmed from. I was obsessed with it from around the age of seven.”
Budlender would go to the Wanderers to watch his beloved Transvaal (now Gauteng) play and when on holiday with his grandparents in Gqeberha, St George’s Park was another famous ground that carried his early cricket memories.
He recalls how a friend of his dad had given him a whole lot of old cricket books about South African and world cricket that he read over and over again, much to his delight and satisfaction.
But what of his playing the game?
“Despite all this enthusiasm and even being the captain of my school team, I unfortunately didn’t turn out to be a very good player,” Budlender chuckles. “So I decided to then become an umpire.
“When I was 11, I saw an advert in the newspaper for an umpires’ course which I attended, wrote the exam and qualified as the youngest cricket umpire in the country.
“I still played avidly during primary school and high school, but I also did huge amounts of umpiring which I really enjoyed. I umpired men’s club cricket every weekend and for four years I went to the South Africa Under-19 weeks as the umpire for the then Transvaal. Cricket was a real focus for me throughout primary school and then high school.”
Unfortunately for Budlender, he then grew up.
“Life took over and so cricket took a back seat,” he sighed. “I still followed it madly and would go to games whenever I could, but it wasn’t the same.”
The University of the Witwatersrand and New York University alumni has renewed his passion for the game over the past few years, particularly enjoying watching and following it with his 12 and 15-year-old sons. And since last June, he has translated that passion into commitment via the Lead Independent Director role he is fulfilling at CSA.
And so to his sentiments on South African cricket and the strides it has made since the end of apartheid.
“I think we should be further ahead,” he observes. “There are certainly things we could have done better but I think the critical question should be what are we going to do next?
“This is going to sound like corporate-speak but there’s a reason that the new Board’s strategy is inclusivity, access and excellence – because that’s what’s going to turn cricket into a game for all South Africans.
“I think there is a problem where it is mostly kids coming through the elite schools that end up playing top cricket, but this is a global problem. What is important is that Cricket South Africa has put a huge amount of effort into trying to change this.
“That has to continue. We need to get men and women throughout the country to be passionate about the game and to play cricket – whether formal or informal. We have extraordinary talent here and if people are given the right opportunities, we can become even stronger.”
Budlender is hopeful that the new CSA men’s T20 league and the ICC women’s T20 World Cup – both taking place in South Africa early next year – will bring about a new buzz and renewed interest in the game.
He also feels strongly that cricket in the country is finding its way back to the right path.
“We now have people on the Board that not only bring their love for the game, but also bring their expertise,” he adds. “They have valuable skills in a wide range of fields and that is what this Board needs. It is that combination of passion for cricket and expertise that will allow cricket in South Africa to grow, develop and thrive.”