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The games we played. COVID Series 1. Kennetjie.

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

In these stressed COVID days, I’ve opted for some lighter fare by updating some of my earlier posts, especially related to the games we played and the food we ate. As a pleasant distraction, for a few minutes, I hope that readers enjoy my “COVID” series! Take care, and don’t forget handwashing whenever possible.

THE GAMES WE PLAYED. Post-COVID Series 1. Kennetjie.

There’s no translation that I know of for this game. It was the ultimate street game so it takes pride of place as the first game described.

As usual, there were several versions of the game around the country, especially with rules that varied from street to street, let alone from one suburb to the next. It’s origins are obscure, but it was one of the most popular street games in Cape Town townships. A colleague, still living in India, said that he played the game in the streets of his home town, so India may well be its origin.

Part of its popularity was its cheapness. A “bat” was a stick about half a metre in length. It was a bit thinner than a broomstick. The “ken” or kennetjie was a short stick 10-15cm long. The ubiquitous Port Jackson wattle bush branches were often used to fashion the equipment using mom’s sharp kitchen knife. The bark had to be stripped off and the bat handle smoothed down with the knife to protect the hand grip. The ken, often taken from the same branch as the stick, had to be tapered at each end with a point of about 2.5cms long. My picture is a fancy version fashioned from pine timber.

As was the case with cricket, the wicket was a street manhole cover in front of 44 Dale Street [see below]. The first batsman took guard over the wicket while a ring of fielders was positioned around the area. A bowler took aim from several paces away[number of steps not known! Age showing?] With an underarm throw, the kennetjie was aimed at the wicket. If the ken landed and stayed on the cover, then the batsman was out.

The batsman had the option of hitting at the ken while it was still in the air. By doing this, it was the only shot that was allowed so most batsmen chose not to hit the ken for fear of missing it. If the ken did not end on the wicket, then the batsman was allowed three strikes at the short stick.

Standing alongside the kennetjie, the objective was to strike the short stick on the tapered end. This allowed the pointy stick to hop up in the air and the batsman had to hit at the spinning target which often spun sideways rather that straight up. The ideal was a hit down the length of the road and to avoid landing on the sandy, weedy sides of the road which made it impossible to get a good second or third shot. In an Afrikaner version of the game, with a totally different scoring system, they placed the kennetjie across a groove in the sand, then flicked it up with the stick in order to hit the tumbling object in the air.

If a fielder caught the short stick before it hit the ground, then the batsman had to retire. A fielder was allowed to kick or flick a moving ken back towards the wicket. The main source of conflict and shouting were related to whether the kennetjie was still moving when it was tossed back towards the wicket or not. If it ended up on the drain cover, then, again, the batsman was out. If not, then he was allowed to finish his three shots. So what’s a good kids’ street game without an argument or two?

Wherever the ken ended up, it was up to the batsman to decide how many jumps were needed to reach the drain cover from the kennetjie. If they played as a team then the captain took the decision. The batsman would call out the number. The captain of the opposing team had to decide if they could cover the distance in the number of jumps from individual fielders. This was not an easy task for barefooted competitors on a hard road.

The preferred, two-footed landing style for long jumps was impossible on the road so one could detour down a sandy or flat-grassed part on the sides of the road. If the jumpers managed to clear the distance within the prescribed call, then the batsman had to retire, and the fielding team added the points to their total. If the fielders did not make the distance, the batsman added the number to his score or the team’s total and he was allowed to continue batting.

This was the ultimate game of hand-eye co-ordination and the finest player in our street group was Rashid, despite the fact that he had one damaged eye. Whether he hit out at the bowled kennetjie or hit it off the ground, the little stick flew tens of metres with his clean strikes. He was always the first to be chosen for a team and fielders always stood well back whenever he batted.

There were several sources of merriment in this game which could last for hours as individuals or teams sought to master the variables of a wobbly kennetjie which may have an imperfect taper. The worst kens were made from a rectangular piece of wood with a poor bounce when the stick lay on its wider side which compromised the height of the bounce. Round ones had a more uniform tip, but they rolled too far so that the fielding team had more time to flick it back to the wicket. Many players brought along their kennetjies which had to pass scrutiny by all before the best one was chosen for the game. Some players also brought along their favoured hitting stick.

The photo shows our asbestos-roofed family house [yes, I survived seventeen years under that roof, now 60 years old!] and the round street manhole cover[presently much-weathered and partly covered with tar] which served us well for kennetjie and, of course, for cricket. The gutter grate was where I sometimes sat waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive for a game. Part of one’s street cred was whether one could lift the gutter drain grate to retrieve an errant kennetjie or cricket ball.

Even with my poor hand-eye skills,kennetjie was by far my favourite street game. I still have fond memories of those moments when I made my own kennetjie and stick and then stepped out to bat for my moment of street gang glory.

PS Interesting aside: when researching manhole covers I came across a 2012 report from New York where there was a spate of manhole cover thefts, apparently for “recycling” – anyone know of any such thefts in Cape Town?

For now, stay safe and well during our shared global COVID dramas!


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