The Silencing of South Africa’s Greatest Cricket Side
Most of the world-beating cricket team of the 1970s were anti-apartheid. Now they are shut out from the national game
South Africa’s cricketers have just replaced England at the top of the International Cricket Council world Test rankings. Their fans are in no way surprised that their team is doing so well; the real question is how it compares with the great side of 1970 which beat the Australians 4-0. That team had such supreme all-rounders as Eddie Barlow and Mike Procter, not to mention Denis Lindsay, the best wicket-keeper-batsman in the world, but probably what settles it is that the 1970 team had, in Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, two batsmen almost in the Bradman class. There was no doubt that the team were the world champions of their day — yet they were soon thereafter excluded from Test cricket until after the abolition of apartheid, in 1992.
The South African Test cricketers of that era — and only whites could be considered for the team — were often deeply unhappy about segregated cricket. They wanted to play India and Pakistan and they enormously admired the great West Indies teams of the time. Men like Trevor Goddard — an opening bat and seam bowler, one of the greatest all-rounders of the day — quite publicly made clear their wish to play multiracial cricket, while Clive van Ryneveld, who captained South Africa in their drawn series against Peter May’s MCC touring side in 1956-57, became an MP for Helen Suzman’s Progressive Party, dedicated to the abolition of racial discrimination, and publicly urged the case for a South Africa cricket team selected on merit. (There was pointed comment in the press about the fact that no Springbok rugby players followed suit.) Naturally, many great players such as Richards and Procter played English county cricket with all races: Richards, indeed, was famous for his opening partnerships for Hampshire with two West Indians, Roy Marshall and Gordon Greenidge. In each case this was the most potent opening partnership in the world.
“None of those men got any credit for their stand against apartheid,” says Ray White, formerly President of the United Cricket Board of SA, the sport’s governing body. “Many of them have since fallen on evil times. Poor old Neil Adcock, once the world’s fastest bowler, was recently ejected from hospital (he has cancer) because he couldn’t pay the bills. Remember that they were all amateurs and usually only had humble jobs to return to. In addition, some were bad at handling money. Sportsmen are often naive. They don’t know much about either politics or money. Someone like Barry [Richards] was always careful and shrewd but his team-mate, Eddie [Barlow], was far more typical, dying in penury. There have even been some suicides. But the most unfair thing is the way that Cricket South Africa under Gerald Majola showed real spite towards them.” (Gerald Majola, the first black head of CSA, has now been suspended for awarding himself large unauthorised bonuses and spending substantial amounts of cricket money to fly his family around the world. His suspension came after all its major sponsors refused to continue to support the national team until the Majola affair was cleared up.)
Bruce Murray, the Witwatersrand academic who has co-authored the key history of South African cricket, Caught Behind, says: “One has to be careful here. There were individual voices raised against apartheid even in the early days but there were also a fair number of dyed-in-the-wool racists in the team. The (then) South African Cricket Association was run by men who were politically timid and some were even racists. They actively collaborated with the Vorster government in the effort to prevent the selection of Basil d’Oliveira for the English cricket team due to tour South Africa in 1970. It was only when the team as a whole grasped the fact that they might get excluded from world cricket that they became really strongly anti-apartheid. This culminated in the famous occasion in 1971 when all the players walked off the Newlands pitch in protest after Vorster prevented them from including two black players in their Springbok team to tour Australia. The whole tour was then called off. Mind you, the Springbok rugby team never came close to a similar protest against apartheid.”
But the issue of the scurvy treatment of old sporting heroes is the emotive one today. Ray Gripper, who opened the batting for Zimbabwe for many years, supported this view. “I saw Roy Maclean not long before he died in 2007,” he said. “It was always customary for past Test cricketers — and Roy was one of his country’s greatest-ever batsmen — to be invited with their wives to any Test in their home town so they could meet the tourists and chat to their successors in the national team. Roy loved this. Then he was told his wife couldn’t have a ticket. He queried this and was basically told that people like himself were now beyond the pale. He was absolutely livid and never attended the Test.” The same phrases keep recurring: under Majola the players of that era were “an embarrassment”, “were almost punished for being white”, “were held personally responsible for apartheid” and so on. Lee Irvine, a former Springbok wicketkeeper-batsman, confirmed that his privileges such as free seats at Tests had also been removed. But what upsets the old Springboks most is that their offers of help are refused. Jimmy Cook and Kevin McKenzie went to Majola to offer their help and were just told: “It’s our time now.” Irvine similarly offered to coach, speak or mentor the young and was told: “We don’t need you.” Others have similar stories.
Irvine says: “What upsets me is that there really ought to be a Barry Richards stand and a Graeme Pollock stand, just as other countries commemorate their great cricketers of the past. It’s sad for us who were Springboks that even that name has been discarded now [for the Proteas]. And I can tell you of that 1970 team there wasn’t a single man in the team who voted for the Nats and apartheid. In 1973 I found a loophole in the law and we staged a multiracial double wicket competition, which hardly pleased the authorities. But of course as soon as we began doing that sort of thing the ANC changed its stance to say, ‘You can’t have normal sport in an abnormal society’. They wanted a way of keeping the boycott going even if we went multiracial.”
A baneful political influence is still felt in South African cricket. When it was recently proposed that a stand at Newlands cricket ground in Cape Town be named after Basil d’Oliveira this was vetoed on the grounds that d’Oliveira had refused to follow the ANC party line.
As usual with cricketers, it’s the symbolic things that count. In the corridor leading to the Long Room at the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg, effectively the headquarters of South African cricket, there was a famous Honours Board on which the names of all the Transvaal players to be selected for their country were inscribed. Alongside there hung photographs of famous home and touring teams of the past. Once Majola took over CSA the official view taken was that none of the past South African teams had been properly representative, since blacks had been excluded, and that therefore all those teams and all their games had been illegitimate. So the Honours Board and all the old photographs were taken down and vanished. This happened at all the major grounds.
This insult was more than many could bear. Graeme Pollock remonstrated with Majola about the hurt done to many who had simply been sportsmen doing their best for their country. In front of several old members Majola dismissed him with the words: “You guys had your day. Now get lost.” This was made no easier to bear when Majola had South Africa’s national schools’ cricket week renamed after his own brother who, he claimed, might have played for his country but for his colour. Majola followed that up by going to Lord’s to ask (in vain) that all previous Tests involving an all-white South African team be expunged from the records, an act which outraged many old Test players. Majola kept lobbying Lord’s on this issue for two years but was finally told: “We can’t pretend those Test matches didn’t happen.”
“Part of the problem,” says Ray White, “is that if after 1992 anyone said, ‘We ought to look after our old Test cricketers’, others would, quite reasonably, say, ‘What about the black cricketers of that era who ought to have been in the team but weren’t picked because of apartheid?’ There was no way to settle that. How do you decide retrospectively who might have been picked decades before? It made everything rather insoluble, so it was just easier to draw a line and forget about the former era and its greats.”
Yet the oddity always was that cricketers usually got along as cricketers. “When I first came across Basil d’Oliveira I thought he might dislike me on principle,” says Irvine, who was playing for Essex at the time. “I would even have understood that. But he was much too nice a man. Dolly and I became great pals.”
It is certainly very striking that none of the greats of that era — not even the incomparable Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock — has ever been asked to coach or advise the current teams in any way — a bit like Australia ostracising Bradman. Similarly, the great fast bowler Allan Donald (“White Lightning”) was long ignored as a bowling coach and got the South African job only after he had been offered that post by both England and New Zealand. This ostracism extends even into the media. Supersport, the main TV sports channel, got rid of Richards as a commentator after he was said to have spoken out of turn on the vexed subject of racial quotas in the team. Similarly, the SABC got rid of Irvine as a commentator, replacing him with someone with no experience of first-class cricket. “I have no doubt that political influence was brought to bear,” says Irvine. Richards says much the same of his arbitrary banning from the airwaves. Instead, broadcasters now rely on Mike Haysman (ex-Australia) and Robin Jackman (ex-England), even though the latter played in the sanctions-busting “pirate” cricket tours of the apartheid era. Kepler Wessels is allowed his say, although he also played for Australia, because he was still captain of South Africa when the team re-entered world cricket in 1992. Clive Rice, perhaps the world’s greatest all-rounder in the 1970s and 1980s, has effectively been banned from all South African media because he is a vocal opponent of affirmative action in cricket. This is a completely taboo subject on South African radio and TV commentary although everyone knows it has been a major factor in team selection. The result is sometimes comic, as when a visiting foreign commentator like Geoffrey Boycott brings the subject up on air, only to be met by a steely silence from his colleagues. Rice has, typically, made some withering comments about this political censorship of cricket commentary.
Not all the old Springbok cricketers are bitter. Trevor Goddard says: “I refuse to get upset. You get knocks in life and being treated as we are now is one of those knocks but you can’t dwell on that. We played as amateurs and now they make lots of money but you know I think we had the best of it. We had a great sense of fellowship with one another and I sometimes think that gets lost amidst the money. In any case we were all made Life Members of Lord’s and they can’t take that away from us.”
Barry Richards is more indignant. “Not once have I ever been invited to a South African cricket function and they have even taken our numbers away from us [every player gets a number when first selected]. They just started the numbers from one all over again in 1992, which is to say we are no longer recognised as having played for our country. And the fact is that there’s nothing that annoys the present administrators so much as the kudos of that great 1970 team. SAB-Miller, one of the key sponsors, are always trying to involve people like me and Graeme [Pollock] and Procky [Procter] but the administrators won’t have it: they even threaten SAB that they’d call for a boycott of their products if they went ahead and invited us. It’s just absolute revenge. I’m entirely in sympathy with disadvantaged cricketers but our guys were disadvantaged in their prime by not being allowed to play the West Indies, India and Pakistan and we’re sure as hell disadvantaged again now.”
This certainly seems to be true. Mike Procter took off for England for this summer’s Proteas tour in the hope of picking up speaking engagements and other commitments. “I have to seek work there because no one will offer me work at home,” he says. Graeme Pollock is in the same boat, negotiating to go to India to do speaking functions at much lower rates than those taken for granted by the likes of the top Indian batsmen Sashin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid. Pollock, now 68, faces an uncertain financial future in old age. It is an amazing situation: in all Test cricket history only two men average over 60-Bradman and Pollock, iconic status which, one would have thought, would guarantee financial security. But the problem is, again, that he played in the apartheid era. “Naas Botha, the rugby player, wanted to start a Hall of Fame for Springbok sportsmen but Cricket South Africa would have nothing to do with it because it would have meant commemorating us,” he says. “The fact that we used to argue for selection on merit, not on racial grounds, doesn’t matter. The current players would, I know, like to have people like Barry [Richards] and Mike [Procter] involved but they have to be careful too: their political situation is still difficult. So it’s best that they just concentrate on making runs and taking wickets. I entirely accept that. The real tragedy is that all South African cricketers have been walking a political tightrope for 50 years and they still are.”
For the last few years South African cricket has been paralysed by the Majola affair — and even now Majola insists that his supension is temporary and that he will be back. Much of the trouble derives from the fact that there’s serious money in cricket these days. Back in the apartheid era Dr Ali Bacher, for long the South African Cricket Union supremo, made famously liberal use of his chequebook to bring “pirate” foreign teams to play in South Africa, effectively a sort of sanctions-busting campaign. Even now, some bitterness lingers over the pirate tours: Viv Richards, for example, said he would die sooner than accept Bacher’s money (which meant that Ian Botham quickly said the same) while West Indian players like Alvin Kallicharran, who did accept Bacher’s money, have still not been fully forgiven either in the West Indies or black South Africa. As with so many others, Bacher did a quick 180-degree somersault when the politics changed and became an outspoken advocate of picking more than half the national team from blacks. Indeed, Bacher was so determined to win political applause with such promises that he left his successors an impossible job. Although many mixed-race Coloureds and several Asians have made it into the team, interest and participation in cricket by black South Africans has grown far more slowly.
South Africa’s return to international cricket in 1992 coincided with the game’s increasing professionalism and commercialisation. Almost immediately South Africa became one of the world’s top teams and its players began to earn the sort of money that those from the previous era could only have dreamed of. Such money brought its own problems. Sure enough, before long cricketing South Africa was horrified to find the national captain, Hansie Cronje, owning up tearfully to taking bribes and match-fixing. The trouble had begun on a tour of India during which bookmakers had offered Cronje a fortune for his compliance. He put the matter to a team vote, to the utter fury of the manager, Bob Woolmer, who only discovered this later. “Bob was old school,” says Dr Tim Noakes, director of Cape Town’s Sports Science Institute, a co-author and close friend of Woolmer’s. “Mention bribes or match-fixing to him and he would see red. To him it was sacrilege against the game he loved.”
When the Cronje affair broke many wondered how high the rot had gone and whether Cronje had really been the sole sinner. Dr Bacher quickly issued a statement saying how horrified he was and that this was the first time he had ever heard about attempted match-fixing. “Bob was livid,” says Noakes. “He was always careful to send in a full report of any tour he managed and he had certainly reported in full on how upset he’d been about Cronje and the match-fixing incident. So he went tearing off to Wanderers to check the archives for that report. And of course, that report alone was missing.” When Cronje confessed, the prosecution wanted further details about exactly which matches had been affected. Cronje’s lawyers said enough was enough: he had confessed. When the prosecution insisted, Cronje’s lawyers said that if he was forced to testify further he would implicate people mucher higher up in the game. The prosecution immediately desisted. There are many in South African cricket who do not believe Cronje’s death in a flying accident soon after was an accident at all, and nor do they believe that Woolmer’s subsequent death in the West Indies was accidental either. All manner of allegations have been made, involving bookmakers and corrupt officials.
No one doubts that the money washing round the game was the key to the Majola affair, which centred on illegal bonuses Majola and others had awarded themselves after helping the Indian Premier League arrange its Twenty20 games in South Africa. But the very fact of this money makes the plight of the older cricketing generation harder to bear. Men like Ray White feel strongly that the game ought to look after its own and that those good enough to represent their country in any era should qualify. But the problem is that in South Africa the sport has not only changed professionally, commercially and in the amount of one-day cricket played. The cricketers themselves have kept up with those changes. But in South Africa the game has also changed, racially and politically. There has been much naiveté, greed and cynicism. Neither side in these changes has covered itself with glory.