The Silencing of South Africa’s Greatest Cricket Side

Terrible treatment of SA’s greats.

The Silencing of South Africa’s Greatest Cricket Side
Standpoint Mag September 2012

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.)

“I saw Roy Maclean not long before he died in 2007,” [Ray Gripper, Zimbabwe batsman] 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.

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.

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.

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.


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