Archive for November, 2009

Beware rebels without a cause

How are we remembering the Noughties? As the decade nears its end the retrospectives are being written. Who was the best player, what is your Select XI, which was the greatest game?

But enjoyable as the old exercises always are, it is impossible to define a decade in these terms. Special moments belong to a certain time and place, as in Headingley ’81. Special players are quite the opposite – Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara or Shane Warne might just as easily be crowned ‘Player of the Nineties’ as ‘Player of the Noughties’.

In the long term a decade is as likely to be defined by off-field events, issues that cannot compete with a moment of on-field brilliance but which influence the future to a far greater degree. So it is that the Packer affair foreshadows any reflection on the Seventies, and so it will surely be with the Noughties.

It has been a decade for the professionals. Just as the game changed forever on 9 May 1977 so it did again on 24 September 2007. India’s T20 World Championship win produced the Indian Premier League and various other oddities, not all of which required action from the US Securities & Exchange Commission. More will follow, whatever the BCCI have to say about it.

For the first time in history the professional cricketer enjoys full emancipation, earning income comparable with that in other leading sports and without the patronage of his national board. While they do not compare to Tendulkar, Lara and Warne as cricketers, it may be Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Chris Gayle or Andrew Flintoff who come to characterise this decade.

In concluding this Cricket365 series there is a point worth making on this theme of ‘remembering history’.

The rebel tours themselves are scarcely remembered. The players who wanted to take part have generally ignored our calls, demanded money or insisted they would write their own account. In one sublime instance, a prominent former rebel and media personality said, ‘I don’t want to talk about them. And you can’t mention that I don’t want to talk about them.’ Andrew Marr eat your heart out.

Rebel tourists and their supporters have argued it is impossible to be judged impartially, that the ‘rebel’ tours cast them unfairly as villains. But this is a semantic distraction – as with those who protest Tony Greig’s Packer ‘defection’. East German refugees were defectors; those who support Aung San Suu Kyi are labelled rebels. Context is king.

The reality of the tours explodes the notion that this was a simple business proposition. Although the players had been free to accept the offers as bankers and jewel-traders were, the source of their income might have given pause for thought. Professional sportsman, it turned out, was not a job like any other.

As alluded to earlier, this is not an episode that cricket recalls so gladly as Packer – or as gladly as it undoubtedly will freelance professionalism. But the rebel tours remain one of the most important episodes in the game’s modern history.

They are a reminder that sport occupies a privileged position and that the game’s new freedoms bear serious responsibility. Giles Clarke declared cricket to be like any other business and was soon throwing his arm around Sir Allen Stanford. Others who also ignore history’s lessons will suffer the same chronic embarrassment – and worse.

This is the end of a decade and the start of an exciting new era, one in which leading professionals will enjoy unprecedented freedom and earning power. Still though, money isn’t everything. Graeme Pollock, the greatest cricketer to compete in the rebel series, played his entire career as an amateur.

  • A version of this article was first published by Cricket365.com on 24 November, 2009. The ECB first refused and then ignored requests for interviews with David Graveney and Mike Gatting, who now occupy senior strategic roles at Lord’s.

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Giles Richards reviews The Rebel Tours in today’s Observer.

It is shameful and immodest to go into details but what else are blogs for? He writes:

Distasteful, unpleasant and a stain on cricket’s reputation as the tours were, it’s absolutely right that Peter May’s book ensures they are not forgotten … a book which is fascinating, well-written and an essential addition to cricketing literature.

Read the full review here.

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From the very start of reading and writing The Rebel Tours, the cricket itself has been a source of great fascination to me. As we have seen in previous weeks, the strength of the home side was easily equal to most Test nations and some great names visited the republic.

True, the matches were not the most important thing amidst the global outrage. But to my mind they are made more intriguing by the wider context. The volume of criticism outside South Africa was matched by the hype inside the country. What was the nature of the sport played in the eye of the storm?

The early tours were famously certainly modest. The first, in 1982 by an English squad, produced an on-field spectacle that made a mockery of the immense publicity. Despite the presence of four players who reside in the highest echelons of English cricket history – Graham Gooch, Geoffrey Boycott, Alan Knott and Derek Underwood – the tour was a lesson in preparation and cohesion. Pulled together at the last minute, they didn’t win a game although the South African Cricket Union, the government and the newspapers were relentlessly enthusiastic in championing authentic ‘international’ cricket.

The next series, South Africa versus Arosa Sri Lanka, was even worse. Under Test captain Bandula Warnapura and with internationals sprinkled through the side, the visitors were humiliated. For the home side Barry Richards took to getting himself out deliberately, so embarrassing were the claims to ‘international’ cricket. Still SACU fined those Springboks who publicly questioned their ‘international’ status.

Only in 1983 did things get interesting. It was then a popular view that the second and third best teams in world cricket were the West Indies 2nd XI and South Africa. So when Lawrence Rowe captained a team of Caribbean rebels the standard was ratcheted. The Springboks got a shock – after the facile successes against English and Sri Lankan opposition, the West Indians edged them out over two series. South African batsmen who had never before worn helmets changed their minds facing Colin Croft, Sylvester Clarke and Ezra Moseley.

By the time Kim Hughes’ Australians arrived in 1985/6, laying waste to Allan Border and the official side’s Ashes hopes in the process, the SACU hype machine was more or less out of control. Ali Bacher spluttered, ‘The public think Donald Bradman and his Invincibles are arriving.’

These two series were notable for a changing landscape in Cape cricket. Omar Henry made his Springbok debut. Amateur umpires went on strike in protest at Clive Rice’s hard-nosed “professionalism”. And South Africa experimented with fireworks and floodlights, not so much embracing the modern era as prodding it uncertainly. At one day-night ‘international’ an Australian batsman’s request to turn the floodlights on was met with official confusion. By the time the groundsman had been located at a car park braai, Rice had used his pacemen to skittle the Aussies in the half-darkness. The lights came on for the ‘Boks to claim an easy win.

A beacon of dignity throughout these latter series was Graeme Pollock. Where his contemporaries Richards, Mike Procter and Vince van der Bijl had retired, he endured. Ten years’ isolation had not harmed his position in the all-time averages. Nor had they weakened his immense power or hunger for runs. Aussie rebel Mike Haysman reported fielding a Pollock drive on the boundary and being knocked over the rope by the force of the shot. The left-hander was 42 years old.

Jimmy Cook, who with Peter Kirsten was alone in playing all 19 rebel ‘Tests’ says, ‘It’s sad that the kids of today don’t know how good Graeme Pollock was. I do a lot of coaching and I talk to kids about the good batsmen and they talk about Jacques Kallis and Herschelle Gibbs. And I say to them, “Guys, with all due respect, they’re not Graeme Pollock.”

‘Graeme Pollock was very, very special. He was just incredible, prone to getting out early but if you didn’t get him early on then you knew you were in huge trouble. He was just an amazing player, he hardly moved his feet – he had such an unbelievable eye and a sense of touch.’

Pollock accumulated 1376 unofficial ‘Test’ runs at over 65 – an average some 20 runs better than any team-mate including Cook, Kirsten and Rice. For better or worse the new challenge of rebel cricket provides an extra dimension to a career diminished by fate.

In truth there is no argument that the matches were at least first-class standard. A ‘Rebel Tours Select XI’ illustrates the strength of talent on display: Gooch, Richards, Alvin Kallicharran, Pollock, Rowe, Procter, Knott, Clarke, Underwood, Croft, Allan Donald.

That battle is wholly political and if the nay-sayers have a point they must acknowledge a discrepancy here: SACU-approved Currie Cup cricket is remembered in the first-class books (not to mention South Africa in Tests before 1970….) so why not SACU-approved ‘international exhibitions’?

However the claim to international status is utterly false. For one thing most of that Select XI is well past its best: only Gooch, Clarke and Donald would be better after the tours than before them. For another it is not enough to say that forgotten rebel stars such as Ajit de Silva, David Murray or Steve Smith might have had 50 Test caps. That is not how it works. They didn’t, and that is the end of it.

Most tellingly, nearly every leading player in the series recognised rebel cricket as a poor imitation of the real thing. The exceptions, such as Colin Croft’s demands for full international status for the rebel games, are praying for a forgiveness that will never come. Van der Bijl, one of the few leading South Africans not to get at least one cap before or after isolation, compares the rebel ‘Tests’ unfavourably with Currie Cup matches.

Nevertheless, beyond their status as statistical curios the 1980s rebel ‘internationals’ are worth remembering for at least three reasons:

1) Matches featuring so many illustrious names are a legitimate source of interest in the game’s history. They have not been detailed anywhere else and any self-respecting cricket tragic needs no bigger reason to take an interest;

2) At its best, the rebel cricket makes for a great story. In particular the series between South Africa and the West Indian XI, punctuated with brilliant on-field battles and off-field disputes, are games worth remembering;

3) “The cricket was not the point of the rebel tours” rather misses the point. Yes, much of the rebel cricket made a mockery of the off-field attention. But where it was farcical or futile, this is itself insightful and often wryly laughable. Compared to the immense hype South Africa afforded the rebel tours, the reality of the matches helps to explain the real reason for their taking place.

  • A version of this article was first published by Cricket365.com on 17 November, 2009.

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The rebel tours of South Africa that took place between 1982 and 1989 are events which, almost three decades on, still reflect badly on the game in general and those involved in particular.

Martin Williamson’s article for Cricinfo looks back to the ‘Dirty Dozen’ with the help of The Rebel Tours.

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God - awfully busy.

As we saw last week, the 1970 Springboks were among the very best teams the world has known.

They were also among the most frustrated but could take two consolations: first, there were bigger issues at play. The South African team had to be picked on merit and a ban until that was achieved was fully deserved; secondly, the ‘Conquerors’ at least had their chance, albeit too brief.

As Barry Richards told us: ‘Isolation was a big disillusionment because your opportunity to prove yourself on the international stage was taken away. But I managed to get in four Tests – there were a lot of guys behind me who didn’t manage to play any.’

For the next generation, neither consolation stood firm. From the mid-1970s onwards the South Africa team was officially picked on merit. And if many non-white players would’ve refused the opportunity, cricket still remained far ahead of the rest of society. Most leading players felt the game had done all it could and that isolation was nothing more than political interference.

Nor could they take the consolation of even a few international caps. By 1981, a decade after isolation began, only three men with Springbok colours remained at the forefront of the game: Richards, Mike Procter and Graeme Pollock. The uncapped remainder were known as “God’s forgotten cricketers”.

Yet the strength of South African cricket was still inescapable. Richards and Procter had become legends in England, excelling in the county championship for Hampshire and Gloucestershire respectively. In 1977-79 the pair had also enjoyed the unexpected bonus of World Series Cricket – an arena where Garth Le Roux, Clive Rice and 30-Test veteran Eddie Barlow had all excelled, as they did for Sussex, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Never was this strength shown more vividly than in the case of Vintcent van der Bijl. A school teacher who played as a Currie Cup amateur through the 1970s, he was virtually unknown upon joining Middlesex for a one-summer swansong in 1980. Aged 32, and with no experience outside South Africa, he took 85 wickets at under 15 apiece in a title-winning side. Suddenly his record-breaking domestic record merited consideration.

Asked about the outstanding players eclipsed by isolation, one name stands out for Richards: ‘Vince van der Bijl is one outstanding example of somebody who would have been a wonderful international player.’

By 1981 South Africa were surely inferior to the West Indies (although no-one would ever find out for sure) but fancied their chances against any other side. Neither India nor Pakistan could replicate their home form abroad while England and Australia were ravaged by Packer splits.

It was a popular view at the time that the second best team in the world was Barbados (Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Collis King, David Murray, Franklyn Stephenson, Malcolm Marshall, Ezra Moseley, Sylvester Clarke, Joel Garner……). But the Currie Cup offered its own provincial challenger: the Transvaal ‘Mean Machine’, which won seven titles between 1978 and 1988.

‘I think Transvaal in 1981/2 could have taken on almost any national team,’ says van der Bijl. ‘I mean our team was Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham, Alvin Kallicharran, Graeme Pollock, Kevin MacKenzie, Clive Rice, Alan Kourie, Ray Jennings, ‘Spook’ Hanley, myself and Neil Radford. And then Sylvester Clarke took my place for the next year and probably even strengthened the team.

‘If you go back to what could be regarded as South Africa’s greatest gift to Test cricket – the 100-run partnership in an hour against Australia in Durban between Pollock and Richards in 1970, that was just an extraordinary hour, and we would have had lots of those.

‘And “Prockie” would have got lots of seven-fers, and Ray Jennings would have been an amazing wicketkeeper, and Peter Kirsten… Ah man we had some great players.’

One of the few leading South Africans not to be tempted to Johannesburg by Ali Bacher was Western Province paceman Le Roux, but he has no hesitation in backing up those sentiments: ‘South African cricket at that time was of a particularly high standard I thought. There were some names there that could play. And I was lucky enough to play county cricket in England and that Packer series so I’d seen what the best in the world looks like and I’d bowled at it.

‘I’d bowled at Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge and Ian Botham and whoever else, so I had a pretty fair idea of what the best in the world was like and our cricket didn’t have to stand back to anybody at that particular time. That Mean Machine and our Western Province team that challenged… and all the Currie Cup teams were highly competitive with some fantastic cricketers.’

After ten years in isolation South African cricket was desperate to test itself: overseas their players laid triumph upon triumph, breaking record after record; at home, any South Africa team would be picked on merit so they saw exclusion as the height of hypocrisy. Many fans, players and administrators knew their would-be Springbok team off by heart: Cook, Richards, Kirsten, Pollock, Rice, Procter……

But the ICC had said that they could never return to Test cricket until apartheid was dismantled. It seemed impossible to all but Bacher. The former Springbok skipper had other ideas. He knew the arguments that “God’s forgotten South Africans” were neither white nor cricketers but felt his responsibility was to the game. If the ICC wouldn’t allow his men through the front door, he’d have to find a way through the back.

  • A version of this article was first published by Cricket365.com on 10 November, 2009. It is part of a series explaining how the rebel tours came about. It is certainly not a validation of the ludicrous phrase “God’s forgotten cricketers”.

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“An engrossing book…..difficult to put down”

Peter Wilson has reviewed The Rebel Tours for the Sports Journalists’ Association. He writes:

That Peter May should write such an accomplished first book is pretty much on par with scoring a century on your Test debut.

Who are we to argue?

Well….there are criticisms as well, and quite right too. We might respond to those at a later date. In the meantime the full review can be read here.

PS No, the author is not (and never has been) a member of the SJA.

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1970-teamIn August this year the ICC rated South Africa the number one Test team for the first time. And while defending rankings from that august body often makes Radovan Karadzic’s job look easy, that is one most will agree on.

Graeme Smith’s side are the leading Test team – and for the first time in seven years (the rankings only began in 2002). All of which makes them the best South Africa team since……?

Until the Proteas finally seized the mantle this year, there was little doubt as to the strongest team South Africa has produced.

‘I think the 1970 side we had has to rate among the top four or five sides the world has ever seen,’ Mike Procter told us.

Alongside Donald Bradman’s Invincibles, the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and modern-day Australia?

That is no small claim but Procter is a man worth listening to after nearly 50 years in the game as player, coach, referee and administrator. Moreover it gains some traction when you consider the records of Procter, Barry Richards, Graeme and Peter Pollock, Eddie Barlow, Denis Lindsey and Trevor Goddard.

Of course, ‘The Conquerors’ never had the chance to prove the point. This was the era of whites-only selection and South Africa had only ever played Australia, England and New Zealand. Isolation followed, ultimately a two-decade exile that ended the careers of all 1970 Springboks and overshadowed many more including Jimmy Cook, Clive Rice and Vintcent van der Bijl.

You might argue, then, that Ali Bacher’s team benefited from the same reputational legend as Duncan Edwards or Bill Hicks: stopped during or even before their prime, they never had the chance to disappoint or fall short of their potential, and so their legend grows unstoppably.

But you will not get far with South African internationals of the time in arguing such a case. After isolation began, South Africa remained the de facto world leaders as Australia, England, India, Pakistan and the West Indies took series off each other.

Only in winning the 1975 World Cup did the Windies decisively claim the crown. And although they would inevitably have taken that position by the early 1980s, when they became unstoppable, Procter feels the two teams would have been evenly matched at the inaugural World Cup.

‘I think in ’75 we would have been right up there with the best, there’s no doubt about that,’ he says. 

‘We weren’t tested but we had some fantastic cricketers. I think it would have been a good contest – we would have been one of the few teams able to take the West Indies on. We played the West Indies in World Series Cricket in 1977/78 and beat them by an innings and we had five or six South Africans in that side. That’s certainly not the same though – and the West Indies probably got a bit stronger after that.’

Van der Bijl, arguably the best bowler never to play Test cricket, is of a similar view. He says: ‘I chatted to one of the great West Indian cricketers a few years ago at the 2003 World Cup and I said how disappointed we were not to have played against them, because we felt we would have beaten them. And he had an apoplexy.

‘I felt that would have been one of the great contests of our time and been comparable to the 1961 West Indies-Aussie contest where [the Australians] gave them a tickertape parade even though the West Indies had lost. And I reckon that would have been our contest because, God, we had a good team: batting all the way down, we had a variety of bowlers… And they had a brilliant team with four of the quickest in the world. We missed playing Test cricket.’

The biggest question on the 1970 Springboks is not whether they were the best in the world (yes) or whether their expulsion was correct (more than yes – it was long overdue). It is instead how good they would have been doing things properly.

They were top of the world despite the fact that two world-class players, Basil D’Oliveira and Tony Greig, were playing for England (some things never change). No-one will ever know how many other South Africans might have strengthened Bacher’s hand further if the country had been democratic.

None of this is to suggest that the politics of the time didn’t matter. Van der Bijl was one of the first Springboks to support isolation and most of his team-mates have since come to agree it was the correct action. But that doesn’t change the professional pride, frustration and regret that circumstances denied them.

Barry Richards, limited to four Tests yet selected in many All-Time World XIs including that of Bradman, says, ‘There was a whole void of guys who were potentially good Test cricketers who never got the opportunity to represent their country.

‘It’s just a very, very sad part of South African history, and some of those players will never be recognised. But that’s life. There are people who are worse off than you, and you’ve got to just take it in your stride.

‘Twenty years in the history of your cricket career is everything. But 20 years in the history of a country is very, very little.’

  • A version of this article was first published by Cricket365.com on 3 November, 2009.

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