Archive for the ‘Talking points’ Category

This will likely be my last post on this blog. The cycle of research, writing and reception is at an end, and it is time to start thinking about something other than South African rebel tours for at least small portions of the day.

With regret, I am going to end on an antagonistic note. There is little glory or dignity in this at the best of times; less still when the antagonism is aimed at two much-admired figures in English cricket. But false accusations have been put on the record against myself and my colleague Tristan Holme, and this is the only opportunity to refute them.

To our great pleasure, The Rebel Tours has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Where there has been negative reaction, this has mostly been fair-minded and reasonable. In particular, the lack of first-hand rebel testimony is the book’s biggest weakness and this is a source of regret. It is obvious what impact such improvement would have had on a book that in any case received widespread critical praise including numerous four-star reviews.

Of course, even where I disagree with criticism there can be no argument if it is subjective. This comes with the territory of writing a book.

But in two cases the criticism was objectively wrong; unjustifiable and professionally insulting. For my own peace of mind I want to refute these pieces on the record.

Two authors made the same indefensible judgement – that rebel players were not invited to talk, or that we did not try hard to get them to do so.

For the Wisden Cricketer Matthew Engel ridiculed me for not “picking up the phone”, citing Ali Bacher as a crucial interviewee whom we had failed to contact.

This is a bizarre error. Ali Bacher was asked – and declined – more than once to be interviewed for The Rebel Tours. He was one of only two key South African figures to do so (two-and-a-half if you count Kepler Wessels).

For the Wisden annual Robin Martin-Jenkins acknowledges the Springbok input but concludes that we can’t have tried very hard to match this with input from the rebels.

That totally misunderstands how reluctant South Africans of a certain age are to discuss their fame during the apartheid era. Despite living in an environment hyper-sensitive to apartheid history, a Who’s Who of cricket in the republic contributed. That is a testament to bloody hard work.

It also tells you something about the rebels’ aversion to discussing the topic. The rebel tourists are mostly the only people left who think the tours a good idea but, as when they signed the contracts, they are generally unable or unwilling to engage with the arguments against.

There are two logical explanations for these two reviewers making the same misjudgement.

Explanation 1: Matthew Engel – an outstanding sports journalist by any measure – and/or Robin Martin-Jenkins – son of a legendary cricket writer and an experienced one himself – made ignorant armchair assumptions without any attempt to check the facts.

Perhaps their own familiarity with cricket stars of the era is at the root of this complacency. Both probably find it difficult to imagine not having easy access to those at the top, particularly in England. In such cases the club usually sticks together. If, say, Engel is in the same pilates class as Bacher while RMJ has a weekly game of canasta with Mike Haysman, Hartley Alleyne and Mahes Goonatilleke, then it may be natural to assume that these guys will talk easily to anyone, even those outside the establishment circle.

Explanation 2: Engel and/or Martin-Jenkins did half of the work necessary to write their reviews and asked a few old mates who were involved in the rebel tours.

And these upstanding members of world cricket assured the Wisden lads that they’d had no opportunity whatever to contribute to a book on the topic. Who would you believe? A famous and powerful old acquaintance, albeit with a record for duplicity and greed, or an independent journalist of whom you’ve frankly never heard?

Of course, the second of these is the more interesting but it is more trouble than it is worth to find out. My only point here is to record that we understood perfectly the professional necessity to gather rebel input and worked endlessly to get it. If a former rebel tourist denies having been asked to contribute to the book, statistically he is probably lying.

By quick guestimate over half of the surviving 70-odd rebels either declined in person or through an official representative (such as the ECB press office for Mike Gatting and David Graveney, who repeatedly turned down requests before eventually ignoring them altogether). Many more failed to respond to approaches I am confident reached their ears.

In the book’s acknowledgements I thank those who agreed to talk while chiding those who didn’t, citing the (100% genuine) response of one rebel: ‘What’s in it for me?’

My reasoning for keeping it brief and light was to avoid framing the book in a hostile or self-pitying tone. But I regret now not providing a detailed breakdown of approaches made and rebuffed. More than once rebels not only refused to be interviewed but asked that their refusal not be made public; a kind of informal super-injunction. Such evasiveness was commonplace. Perhaps I should even have made the rebels’ cowardice a part of the narrative.

It is debatable whether this tactic would have improved the book, since it can hardly lack authority if every effort has been expended inviting contributions and the resulting analysis is careful and rigorous. But it would at least have stopped complacent reviewers from ill-informed criticism. I do not know how hard Matthew Engel and Robin Martin-Jenkins tried to verify their false assumptions but it cannot have been very – neither I nor the publisher heard from them before reading their reviews.


Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

bk_rebeltoursThe Rebel Tours began with a desire to read a book, not to write one.

Neither I nor my brother have knowingly allowed a birthday or Christmas to pass without adding to a formidable collection of cricket paraphernalia: board games, videos, gloves, wickets, bats, balls, and books.

Books about professionals and books about amateurs. Biographies and autobiographies. Compendiums of Wisden and collections of ‘wit and wisdom’. Books that were entertaining, insightful and important, and others that were less so.

Yet when the subject of the rebel tours came up in conversation three years ago, neither of us had even the basic information. Graham Gooch had gone over early on, my brother thought. And I knew that Mike Gatting led a tour at the exact moment FW De Klerk was releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, unbanning the fiercely anti-tour ANC and allowing black protest. That had to be an awkward moment.

They had been controversial and difficult and were occasionally still brought up in Private Eye if Gooch, Gatting or Geoffrey Boycott criticised others for disloyalty. But the details were almost entirely obscure to those of us who are old enough to remember but were too young to understand.

Never mind, we thought. There would be a book or two on the tours. We’d pick them up second hand, have a read and have a chat. And yet……(and you may be ahead of me here)……. there wasn’t a book on the rebel tours.

Where cricket’s other great crises, Bodyline and Packer, have received extensive analysis the rebel tours have scarcely been examined.  In particular the cricket itself, despite featuring some colossal figures, has received virtually no attention at all.

Having researched and written The Rebel Tours, my incomprehension has only grown. They are a unique sporting phenomenon. Even without the sport itself, just a handful of the ingredients are fascism, locusts, a boycott, G Boycott, greed, secret codes, covert international travel, media hysteria, political corruption, death threats and the fall of apartheid. The ferocity of the controversy beggars belief looking back now.

So what exactly has put people off?

The most obvious explanation is regret. The cricket itself is a source of curiosity rather than admiration. Many politicians, administrators and writers – particularly in the UK – have good reason to stare at their hands if their children ever ask, ‘What did you do to oppose apartheid, Daddy?’ Ali Bacher himself has admitted he didn’t understand the full South African context until 1990. Two decades on it is rare to hear a defence of the tours from anyone but a former tourist.

But the fact that not everyone emerges from the story with a medal on their breast and a song in their heart is hardly reason not to tell it. Many protagonists were wary of involvement in the book, no doubt fearing a scandal-ridden polemic handed down from a moral high horse. However I’ve resisted the urge to show everybody in the worst possible light without shying away from the often awkward and sometimes awful truth of the tours.

If nothing else you will hopefully be astounded reading The Rebel Tours that no-one has done this before. I know I still am.

Read Full Post »

Burn out or fade away?


‘Is it better to burn out or fade away?’ – Barry, High Fidelity.

Bloody postmen. Country’s gone to the dogs. If people cannot send and receive key medical supplies, Hallowe’en greeting cards and new cricket books then revolution will soon be at our door.

A week on from the official Rebel Tours publication date, no copy of the book has been sighted. And without evidence of its existence, I am beginning to wonder whether I’ve been hustled – conned into writing 80,000 words that will never see the light of day or the dark of the Poundsaver ‘reduced to clear’ bin. Except I’ve not given any agent or distributor any money so it’s difficult to work out the motivation for such a scam.

So impotent am I, so bad has the listlessness and paranoia become, that I am reduced to sitting on the sofa, sipping weak lemon drink and thinking about Peter Hain.

As anyone who has ever heard Mr Hain speak will know, he was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement. And while it is easy to despair at his endless self-promotion (he treats the phrase ‘when I was fighting apartheid….’ as a sort of punctuation, beginning every sentence this way) his pride is wholly justified.

As recounted in The Rebel Tours, the AAM faced ridicule from many around 1970 but were generally proven correct over the next 20 years. And more than standing up to public opinion, Hain showed remarkable courage in the face of government intimidation. The South African secret police framed him for armed robbery in 1975 and there were violent attacks by unidentified opponents in the UK and the republic.

But even at his moments of greatest triumph, the high-mindedness was often undisguised. Hain criticised Basil D’Oliveira for his role in the, er, D’Oliveira affair, a vivid illustration of his self-assurance to the exclusion of all else. And this attitude is back in the news this week as Hain takes the lead in denouncing the BBC for allowing BNP excrescence Nick Griffin onto Question Time.

Too much has been written about the affair already and acres more newsprint will be given over to the post-match but suffice to say Hain is wrong about the BBC. I will limit myself to protesting the incessant anti-apartheid name-drop, which grates for a couple of reasons. First, his position of supposed authority on this issue relies on false parallels between the BNP and South African National Party. They may possess similar ‘philosophies’ but there are important differences: 40 years and 6000 miles for starters, and the gulf between a lunatic fringe and despotic government for main.

More generally, it is genuinely dispiriting to see the mighty fallen. Hain merits only passing reference in The Rebel Tours, but his cameo is in the courageous vein discussed above. One person who reviewed the manuscript then wondered, ‘Is it worth mentioning he reached the heights of Secretary of State for Wales?’ It would have been an ironic misjudgement.

Peter Hain is destined to “go down in history as the man who made apartheid a national issue in Britain”. This is an esteemed position, and one hard earned. Four decades on his accomplishments ‘from the heights of Secretary of State’ include: approval for the Iraq invasion during which his invaders have not been counting the bodies of those they kill; a disreputable role in a donations scandal and subsequent resignation; and a prominent position in the New Labour project that leaves us with a bankrupt political class and the BNP popular enough to be invited onto Question Time.

Hain gives the impression that his very opinion on the topic ought to be enough to convince all concerned. But, like a fading middle-aged rocker, he is a forlorn shadow of his angry, principled younger self.

  • This is a blog-only entry in honour of (a) having too much time on my hands, and (b) the biggest UK political story of the year bearing some relation to this rebel tours business. Once copies start reaching punters and reviewers we can focus on writing relevant to the main topic, including an exclusive series of interviews with leading figures in South African cricket.

Read Full Post »