Cricket’s rebels without a cause

As England’s cricketers start playing in South Africa, PETER WILSON enjoys a new book that re-examines the notorious mercenary tours to the country when still under the Apartheid regime in the 1980s

During the early 1980s, I would often see Ali Bacher walk quietly into the press box at Lord’s and edge his way towards cricket writers who were sympathetic to the idea that sporting links with South Africa should be resumed. Bacher, a former captain of the Springboks and at the time their cricket supremo, was attempting to do just that, in the face of the Commonwealth-backed Gleneagles Agreement that encouraged governments to ban anything that could be construed as supporting the apartheid regime. It was a move that would split the game.

To some degree, Bacher succeeded and with his colleagues at the South African Cricket Union, and their backers, set off a chain of events that would create a crisis in cricket, which was still recovering from the Packer Affair.

The difference, though, is that where Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket would have a positive effect on the game that remains today (floodlights, coloured clothing, increased television revenues going into the game), the so-called rebel tours to South Africa would always taint those who took part. This time, it was money versus morals.

This chasm in world cricket is perfectly captured in a new book by Peter May, a good cricketing name if ever there was one. That he should write such an accomplished first book is pretty much on par with scoring a century on your Test debut.

May spoke to some of those involved, although the fact that others refused to discuss it says more about their guilt than anything else.

Let’s get it straight: these were not “Rebel” tours. They were “Mercenary” tours. The word “rebel” conjours up a sort of romanticism, rightly or wrongly, say Che Guevara or James Dean or Ian Botham in his pomp. There was nothing romantic about the Geoff Boycotts, Graham Gooches, Colin Crofts and Mike Gattings. They went for the money. There were many mercenaries in Africa at that time, as the continent was struggling to emerge from centuries of colonialism. Some of those had bullets, others had cricket bats. There was nothing romantic or rebellious when Croft was ordered out of a train carriage that was reserved for whites only. He meekly acquiesced.

That didn’t stop some players trying to convince opponents that what they were doing was for the good of the black population, and that they were attempting to break down barriers. My favourite attempt at self-justification came from the former England and Kent wicketkeeper, the born-again Alan Knott, who went on the first tour in 1982. “The Lord knew that I wanted to go and that I thought it was right for me to do so. I prayed that if it wasn’t right for the tour to go ahead He would stop it from taking place.”

Yeah, well the Lord got that one wrong.

As for the usual excuse that cricket is a short career, Boycott, Gooch, Gatting, John Emburey and David Graveney seem to have enjoyed a good living from it for most of their lives, many of them at the higher reaches of the English game.

By and large the tours were poorly attended, money-losing fiascos blighted by incompetent umpiring and at times farcical cricket, though not from the South Africans, mind you. The first two involving England and Sri Lanka were flops (Barry Richards deliberately got himself out on 71 against Sri Lanka because he could not summon the desire to play against such inferior opposition. “Enjoy the rest of your innings,” he told batting partner Jimmy Cook).

The disgraced West Indies put up a better fight when they weren’t demanding even more money, the disunited Australians were mostly involved in tedious games, while poor old Gatting led his team to the wrong place at the wrong time. The reforms that led to the legalisation of protests coincided with their 1990 tour, and Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom meant that the South African cricket authorities could not get rid of the former England captain’s mercenaries quick enough.

It was also not just about those who did go. Many, such as Ian Botham and David Gower, turned down the tours for financial reasons (and nothing to do with looking into Viv Richards’ eyes), others such as the Australian fast bowler Mike Whitney and most of the West Indians on moral grounds.

As Michael Holding said about his erstwhile West Indian teammate Lawrence Rowe, who telephoned to offer the pace bowler $250,000 to play two games in South Africa: “I told him it was not something I could do. I don’t think he understood my viewpoint. He just couldn’t understand what I was saying. He was in South Africa and saying that he saw black people in positions of authority. He did not appreciate what apartheid was. When you get someone like that it is best to let them get on with it.”

The reporting of the games is a bit tedious. Quite frankly it was never about the matches, except for some South Africans who saw this as their only chance of “international” cricket and the only way to win a “Test” cap. The twilight years of greats such as Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards, though, and the emergence of a young Allan Donald tends to give it more of a historical perspective 20-odd years on.

Even so this is an engrossing book, one difficult to put down, although I do wish the footnotes were on the pages to which they are referred and not at the end of the chapters, that there was more on what the touring cricketers did when they were not playing while, no doubt to keep costs down, the absence of pictures is a great disappointment because there was a lot of good photojournalism attached to those tours.

The Rebel Tours: Cricket’s Crisis of Conscience by Peter May (SportsBooks, £17.99)

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