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August 15, 2021 Sunday 11:42:51 AM IST

The Unforgiven

Expert Counsel

Apartheid was one of the worst forms of discrimination that modern world had known. It was a system where people were discriminated based on the colour of the skin, with those born with a dermal coat of darker shade being denied basic human rights. Despite the abolition of slavery and stoppage of practice of segregation even in the conservative southern states of United Sates of America (USA), the practice of discrimination continued in South Africa till the last decade of the twentieth century. It took the rest of the world a whole lot of measures ranging from gentle persuasion to imposing of economic sanctions to finally convince the South African authorities to end this policy and start treating all citizens as equals.

One important component of international pressure on South African government was the severing of sporting ties with this country. This resulted in South African athletes not being allowed to take part in Olympics from 1964 onwards. Many other countries, including India, chose the policy of not allowing their national sides play against the South Africans in international tournaments. Thus, when India qualified for the finals of Davis Cup in tennis in 1974 and South Africa were the opponents, we decided to forfeit the contest rather than playing against that side.

Induction of D’Oliveira

In cricket, South Africa used to play test matches only against Australia, England and New Zealand, countries whose team members possessed the same colour of skin as theirs. However, an incident relating to Basil D’Oliveira, a member of England side having mixed race origin, led to their expulsion from Imperial Cricket Council (ICC). D’Oliveira was born in South Africa but moved to England early in life to pursue his cricketing career there. A prolific middle order batsman and useful medium pace bowler, he was selected to the England side in 1966. D’Oliveira was initially not chosen to be part of the England side to tour South Africa in 1968-69, despite having a successful run with bat, which led to widespread protests. But when one of the players pulled out of the tour, England authorities had no choice but to induct D’Oliveira. This decision led to cancellation of tour by South Africa, whose government was firm in their stand that they would not allow their white teams to pay with teams comprising of mixed race persons.


This development led to virulent anti apartheid protests in England and Australia and finally led to South Africa being banned by Imperial Cricket Council (ICC), predecessor of present day International Cricket Council from international cricket in 1970. The ban affected South African cricketers badly as they were left with no platform to showcase their talent and denied avenues for making a living out of this sport. They were allowed to play county cricket in England, where Barry Richards and the Pollock brothers- Pater and Graeme- scored heavily with the bat, while Mike Proctor, Vincent van der Bijl and Garth Le Roux picked wickets by the dozens.

However, soon the South African authorities realised that the prolonged ban was affecting popular interest in the sport and fewer youngsters were taking to it. Hence, they decided to organise tours by current and past players to the country to play “tests” and one day games with their national side. The first such “rebel” tour to South Africa took place in 1982 and “rebels” were a bunch of English players led by Graham Gooch. The players who took part in this tour faced widespread criticism, forcing English authorities to ban them for three years from all forms of the game. This was followed by a side from Sri Lanka, whose cricket board reacted with more severity imposing a 25 year ban on the players. Even worse, from the South African point of view, these tours failed to live upto the hype created around it as the tourists were, for the most, over the hill cricketers and no match for the fit and raring to go hosts.

Luring the Windies

At this juncture, South African cricket authorities recognised that the only side that could generate spectator interest by competing with the home side on equal terms were the West Indians. During the late 1970’s and first half of the 80’s West Indies were the uncrowned champions of the cricketing world. Led ably by Clive Lloyd, they had a side that in its ranks the most explosive batsmen and fastest bowlers that the game had known. The side was so strong that there was hardly any room for spinners and even world class batsmen and pace bowlers found themselves languishing in the sidelines after a couple of modest performances. Since West Indian players depended on cricket for their livelihood, losing a place in their national side was a great setback as that virtually shut the doors on lucrative contracts with English counties as well.

Thus, when scouts from South Africa started approaching West Indian players, response from most of them was positive. The major catches included Lawrence Rowe, the only batsman to score a triple century in test cricket during the 1970’s, Alvin Kallicharan, a former captain and one of the top batsmen in world during the 1970’s, Colin Croft, a fearsome fast bowler who was part of the pace bowling quartet but had suffered a serious back injury, Sylvester Clarke, another top drawer fast bowler not able to cement his place in the test side, Collis King, an explosive all rounder who turned the game around for his side singlehandedly in 1979 ICC World Cup final and David Murray, a gloveman whose work behind the stumps was rated very highly. Given the sensitivity of the matter, the news about the tour was kept a tightly guarded secret till the date of their departure for Johannesburg in January 1983.

Missionarier or Mercenaries

The news of cricketers from their countries touring South Africa to play cricket with “whites only” sides there aroused widespread indignation and ire in the nations comprising West Indian islands. The various cricket associations of individual nations announced ban on the players and there were statements from the political leaders decrying their actions. They were seen by the proud non white community inhabiting the West Indies islands as having been lured by the Rand (South African currency) into selling their honour and supping with those who discriminated against their brethren. The news that the players were granted “temporary white” status so that they could be given all the benefits reserved for the white skinned population in South Africa upset the brown and black skinned populace in these countries. Members of West Indies team also issued statements criticising the actions of the rebels and they soon ended up as virtual pariahs in their own motherland.

Meanwhile, South Africa laid out a red carpet welcome for the tourists, who were dined and feted wherever they went. The matches were well contested and drew big crowds. The success of the tour prompted South African authorities to conduct one more such visit the following year. For the record, the two test series of early 1983 was squared at 1-1, while the four match one in 1983-84 was won by the visitors by a 2-1 margin. Issues came up during the second tour regarding payments to the players and dropping of some of the cricketers from the squad of 1982-83. The ensuing bitterness and the hostile attitude of public in their home countries ensured that no other West Indies team toured South Africa till their readmission into ICC in 1991.

The rebel players vanished from public mind following their ban. Some of them were contracted for playing provincial sides in South Africa. While doing so, Collis King was once asked to move out of the “whites only” coach in which he was travelling by a conductor who did not recognise him. Though South African Prime Minster tendered an apology to King for the mistake on the part of the conductor, there were no sympathies for the player concerned from the rest of the world. The fact that English players who took part in similar tours were handed over only three year suspensions also created heartburn amongst the West Indians who felt being discriminated against, even on the quantum of punishment. The respective cricket administrations lifted the bans on individual players only after the readmission of South Africa to International cricket.

Monetary Gain Vs Social Stigma

Ashley Gray, a Sydney-based cricket correspondent, did the remarkable work of trying to trace all the West Indian players who took part in the two rebel tours. He chronicled the details gathered by him in his eminently readable book titled The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries? The author has also done well to pose the question that portrays the dilemma of professional cricketers- why should politics make it a sin to earn from the only profession you are equipped with in life? None of those who were part of the touring party supported apartheid nor did they wish to do anything that added to discrimination practised against the non-whites in South Africa. They were professional cricketers trying to maximise their earnings from the game during their playing days though some might have harboured fond hopes that their presence would help to bring down the extent of discrimination.

This work is a collector’s item for all cricket buffs who followed cricket through the 1970’s and 80’s as well as those who studied the impact of sanctions and sporting bans to bring pressure on  the recalcitrant South African administration to start treating non-whites as equal citizens. The book informs the cricket enthusiasts that Rowe is presently running a profitable vacuum seal business in Miami while Kallicharan runs a cricket academy in North Carolina and Colin Croft has moved ahead in life as a cricket commentator and journalist. Two of them- Sylvester Clarke and Herbert Chang- died and some squandered the money on good things of life, while the remaining few survived the ostracism and rebuilt their lives in the places of their birth. In the final analysis, the tour helped all the cricketers financially but it will remain a question whether it compensated for the social stigma they suffered on this score.

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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