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Mercenaries, Missionaries or Rebels?

Lawrence Rowe, thirty years on.

South Africa’s exile from international cricket began in 1970. At that time apartheid prevailed at all levels of the game, and multi-racial cricket was simply never played. The ICC explained that the ban was as a result of …the effect of South African racial policies on the right of individuals anywhere and of any colour, race or creed, to play cricket together. Four years later that statement was reiterated, and the additional observation made that The Conference repeats its hope that there will soon be effective changes in South Africa which will enable a single body truly representative of all cricket in that country to take its place at the conference.

Cricket administrators throughout South Africa went about the task of dismantling and rebuilding their sport with great energy and committment, and by 1979 were able to persuade the ICC to send a delegation to take a look at the progress made. Those who visited noted that huge progress had been made. Cricket had got its house in order, the game was multi-racial, as were some of the grounds. The delegation recommended that an ICC team made up of players from all the Test playing countries should be sent to the Cape as soon as possible.

The 1970s was a time of hardening attitudes towards South Africa with, understandably, India, Pakistan and the Caribbean nations, some more than others, being particularly vocal. So in 1979 despite the views of their own delegation the ICC felt they could do no more than note the progress that South African cricket had achieved. Initially the South Africans swallowed their disappointment and went back to work, but similar knockbacks in 1980 and 1981 were met with dismay and the growing realisation that nothing cricket could do in isolation would change anything. The consequence was inevitable. With no prospect of Test status being achieved again money that might otherwise have been spent in developing the sport was instead diverted to the recruitment of players for “unofficial” Test matches.

It is worth noting that despite the disapproving rhetoric all governments and sporting bodies threw in South Africa’s direction economic sanctions were limited. Indeed as if to coincide with the first rebel tour in early 1982 the International Monetary Fund was content to loan a billion dollars to the South African government, without asking for any committment to change anything in the way the white-only government treated its majority non-white population. In Australia trade with South Africa was worth AUS$236 million in 1981/82, yet less than two years later West Indian wicketkeeper David Murray, a son of Everton Weekes, faced the possibility of deportation from the country just for plying his trade in the Republic.

The March 1982 tourists were an England side. The biggest names, David Gower and Ian Botham, were missing but Graham Gooch led a strong side with plenty of well-known names, albeit most of them, like Dennis Amiss, Alan Knott and Geoffrey Boycott, in the twilight of their careers. Their was widespread condemnation of the England players and save for their captain none of them played consistently well, but the South African team and public treated the matches like they were full blown Tests, and were delighted to win the three match series 1-0. The following season a Sri Lankan side were South Africa’s guests in December, but their team of “honorary whites” were beaten by an innings in both “Tests”. Five of the Sri Lankans had won official Test caps, but the nation that had only just been admitted to the exclusive club of Test playing nations was palpably not good enough. Interest in the series was minimal and a good deal of money lost.

A few weeks after the unlucky Lankans left, by then banned from their domestic game for 25 years, a rather different opposition arrived. The official West Indian side that Clive Lloyd led were the dominant force in the world game, and the South Africans were desperate to recruit a team from the Caribbean, and by January 1983 they had succeeded.

The tour had taken time to put together. The issues that white Englishman had to face up to in deciding whether to take the Rand were easier than those faced by the Lankans. But at least they didn’t have black African forebears. Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, author of what remains the definitive book on the history of West Indies cricket, spoke for the overwheming majority of the region when he said to the members of the black diaspora the oppression which continues in South Africa has become the symbol of more than a tyranny to be overthrown. Apartheid points like a dagger at the throat of black self-worth in every corner occupied by the descendants of Africa.

All of the leading West Indies stars were approached, but the really big names were the most dismissive. Fast bowler Michael Holding, then at the peak of his powers, was offered GBP125,000. Had he not dismissed the offer out of hand he might well have been offered a lot more. His opinion on those who did go was uncompromising; These men are worse than slaves. If they were offered enough money they would probably agree to wear chains .

Star batsman Viv Richards was offered more than double the lure for Holding, but he was no more interested, writing in 2000 It was suggested to me that if I went I would be called an honarary white. That is as low as you can get in selling your soul …… I would rather die than lay down my dignity.

Lloyd himself was more measured, simply stating that he was offered the sort of money that would have made me comfortable for the rest of my life. But money is not all. The leading stars already earned a good living from the game, so considerations were different. The fringe players earned much less, and without any sort of security were inevitably going to be tempted. At this stage Desi Haynes was a regular but, just 25, could not yet be confident that his Test career would necessarily extend to its eventual 116 Tests and 238 ODIs. He said later There is so much hypocrisy in the world. Why stop me going there and not the businessman? Why stop cricketers when the rest of the world was still trading with South Africa? There should have been a total ban. The sad thing is that we couldn’t look at it as a means of helping black and white.

In understanding the difficulty of the choice the players had to make it is necessary to look closely at their situations. The West Indians did not have any guaranteed income from cricket in the Caribbean. If they did not play for their islands or West Indies they earned nothing, and being a First Class cricketer outside of the inner circle of top class players meant nothing in the search for employment outside the game. Bernard Julien, an all-rounder good enough to be selected for 24 Tests, had been unable to find any work at all since leaving Kent at the end of the 1977 English season – he had not even been able to find a regular place in the Trinidad side. His remaining savings were exhausted by the time the South Africans came knocking on his door. Sylvester Clarke was a carpenter by trade, but had not been able to find any work other than cricket since first playing as a professional. The story was the same for all the other Bajans in the party, and there were seven of them altogether.

According to Ali Bacher both Haynes and Malcolm Marshall had assured him, just days before they were due to fly to the Cape, that they would join the party. The Caribbean was rife with rumours by now and when that one reached the ears of the Board they made arrangements to meet the pair as they flew in to Bridgetown Airport from Melbourne where they had been playing. The Chairman of the National Sports Council greeted them by saying I’m so glad you boys had the good sense to turn down the offer and to come home to your own people. You will not regret this. You will be able to live with yourselves, which may not be the case some of your countrymen

The Board’s tactic worked. Both Haynes and Marshall decided not to go after all, and although both later received substantially increased offers they stuck to their decisions and neither played in South Africa until the new regime took control.

The South Africans ended up with very much a second string West Indies side but, as befitted the world’s best, they were still a strong combination. Alvin Kallicharran and Laurence Rowe were the two main batsmen. Kallicharran had already played in South Africa for Traansvaal in 1981/82 with considerable success. He had been disillusioned with his treatment by the Board from whom he felt, as a Guyanese of Asian extraction, increasingly remote as the development of black consciousness in the region gathered pace. Rowe was of a similar vintage and had been described by Manley as more talented than Viv Richards. But the man who scored a double century and single century on debut, and then got a triple against England, had seen his career stall amidst question marks over his mental strength. Conventional injuries as well as eye problems and hay fever affected him too. Like Kallicharran his international career seemed over.

‘Keeper Murray had just lost his Test place to Jeff Dujon, a better batsman. Holding nonetheless believed Murray to be the best ‘keeper he had ever bowled to. The other major names came amongst the fast bowlers. Colin Croft was the first man recruited and had a fine record. But he had serious back problems, and was doubtless influenced by the offer of free medical treatment in addition to the generous payment. The treatment didn’t work. There were just three matches in South Africa before Croft’s career ended at 30.

Also persuaded to go to South Africa was Clarke. He might not have been quite the best of that rich West Indies crop of fast bowlers of the period, nor the fastest, but most contemporary batsman agreed he was the most frightening. Skipper Rowe also had at his disposal two fine young fast bowlers in Ezra Moseley and Franklyn Stephenson. Moseley was the one man who, once the life bans were lifted, did play Test cricket for West Indies. Stephenson was a gifted all-rounder, without doubt West Indies best since Garry Sobers, who was just 23 when he decided to go to South Africa.

Of the others most had played a handful of Tests whilst the big names were away with Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, so their prospects for recalls were limited. There were a couple of other “names” though, veteran all-rounder Julien and one of the heroes of the 1979 World Cup final, the big hitting Collis King. Outside the top stars West Indian players did not earn a great deal and their employment was inherently insecure. Lloyd did suggest central contracts were the answer, but his was a lone voice.

As for the South Africans there were a couple of veterans of the all-conquering side that had been banished more than a decade before, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. There were also a few who, another decade on, had short careers in official Test cricket; men like Peter Kirsten, Jimmy Cook and Adrian Kuiper. In the main though the home side was made up of those who never had the chance to play in real Test cricket, and there were some magnificent players amongst them; Clive Rice, Vintcent Van der Bijl, Garth Le Roux and Ken McEwan to name just four.

So what of the cricket? The 1982/83 series consisted of two “Tests”. The first began after the tourists had played just three one day games. Not yet used to the conditions they lost by five wickets, Pollock rolling back the years with a vintage century in the first innings and steadying the ship as the home side showed some nerves in chasing a victory target of just 107. It was 1-1 after the second as Clarke took 12-100 in a 29 run victory, but the home side enjoyed a 4-2 success in the ODI series that followed.

The South African public’s reaction to the tour was everything it had not been against Sri Lanka, and far exceeded the reception Gooch’s men had received. The grounds were full and many non-whites, all supporting West Indies of course, were there. In fact there was a considerable groundswell of support for the visitors from the white sections of the crowd, particularly the young, and despite their massive outlay the South African Cricket Union turned a profit. The Republic looked forward to a longer tour the following season. This time there was to be nearly three weeks before the first Test, a four Test series, and six ODIs. The West Indians were a little stronger this time as well, Faoud Bacchus and Monte Lynch adding depth to the batting, and Hartley Alleyne giving Rowe the option of a four pronged pace attack.

The second “Test” series began with a high scoring draw, Rowe and Kallicharran both scoring fine centuries. The home side then recorded a resounding 10 wicket victory before the West Indians took the series by winning the final two Tests. The first was a titanic struggle that eventually saw Clarke with the willow make a telling contribution at the end as his side crept home by one wicket. The final Test was a more comfortable win, and this time Sylvers main discipline was decisive, as he took 5-36 and 5-32. Between the third and fourth Tests Rowe’s men also took the ODI series 4-2.

The West Indian players had all made good money from the tours, but for them the hard work was not in the earning of their fees, but in living with the consequences. Attitudes amongst their countrymen were dead set against them. This wasn’t a case of the sort of sniffy disapproval that the English “rebels” had to live with, but a case of at best being held in contempt, and at worst facing full on hostility. Manley summed up feelings when he wrote of the players they compromised a cause, which, deeper than ethnicity, went to the very heart of human values.

In some cases the aftermath was little short of tragic. On Manley’s own island, Jamaica, the lives of Herbert Chang and Richard Austin have been governed by alcohol, drugs and poverty for years, and in 1999 Austin was given a suspended prison sentence for illegally possessing ammunition. Murray was ultimately able to stay in Australia with his wife and child, but when he returned to Barbados a few years later his life went the same way as the two Jamaicans.

Croft and Rowe settled in the US after the tour. Bacchus, Everton Mattis and Ray Wynter were to join them there later. Kallicharran divided his time between South Africa and England whilst Clarke and Emmerson Trotman continued to play in South Africa. Clarke also continued to ply his trade in England, as did King, Alleyne, Stephenson and Lynch, the latter ultimately playing three ODIs for England against West Indies in 1988. I vividly recall being at the Lord’s game, not because of the cricket, which was wholly unremarkable, but for the fearful abuse, racial in nature, that Lynch picked up from a group of black Afro-Caribbean men who were sat not very far from me.

At the time it was difficult to gauge the impact of the tours on South Africans. The players themselves told stories of visiting the townships and being treated like heroes by the local blacks, and some observers agreed. Others however reported exactly the opposite, and there was certainly graffiti in the black areas that implored West Indies traitors go home.

Inevitably to a certain extent people saw what they wanted to see. Former South African all-rounder Mike Procter wrote Cricket was helping to break down social barriers in South Africa and those West Indians had inspired enthusiasm among groups which had never before been interested in the game. On the other hand Alan Cobley, a Professor of South African History, took the view that these tours did little or nothing to develop black cricket in South Africa, and in fact have harmed the development of the game among blacks by further alienating potential players and supporters, since cricket was now seen to be linked politically and idealogically to the defence of apartheid.

The South African regime kept a low profile but were caused great embarassment when the story broke that Croft had been required to leave a whites-only carriage in a train. Some felt the incident served only to reinforce why the tourists should never have entered the country, others that the adverse publicity the government picked up as a result was a big plus for the tourists. As for Croft he maintained that his “transgression” was accidental, although there were some who believed that he deliberately set out to break the “net blankes” rule and engineer the adverse publicity. If he did then surely that was to his credit?

What did the South African public make of it all? As noted they packed the grounds out, and thirty years on one man, a teacher named Gareth Evans, just nine years of age at the time, wrote of the enormous pleasure he derived from watching Rowe’s men I know I didn’t see their colour, I don’t think most kids did, they were just cricketers ……… each of their names is entrenched in my memory, and of all of those who saw the matches. They became part of my upbringing and that of thousands of South African fans …….. I don’t know if they changed us as a society but I’d like to think so

The West Indian players were frequently accused of being mercenaries. But is that what they were? A mercenary is defined as “a person who takes part in a conflict, who is not a party to the conflict and is motivated to take part in the hostilities by the desire for private gain”. The struggle of the anti-apartheid movement to overcome the South African government was undoubtedly a conflict, but I cannot see that playing a game of cricket really counts as part of “the hostilities”, although I do accept that it was in some ways symbolic of the bigger picture. But the real reason it is not an appropriate word is that the West Indians, because of their race, were a party to the wider conflict, and while many would argue that the belief was as a result of flawed and selfish thinking there is no doubt that a goodly number of the tourists genuinely believed that they were taking part in something that was going to help bring down apartheid.

So were they missionaries after all? The definition here is “a person sent by a church into an area to carry on evangelism or other activities, as educational or hospital work”. The religious aspect is wholly missing of course, but in many ways I consider “missionary” to be a more apposite word than “mercenary”, but then missionaries don’t go where they go for the promise of many times the income they would have received had they stayed put, and indeed are not meant to be motivated by financial gain at all, so that description falls down as well.

Which leaves the other popular label, that of simply being rebels. Using the definition “To refuse allegiance to and oppose by force an established government or ruling authority” seems again to be misleading. I suppose Rowe’s tourists did refuse to align themselves with ICC policy, but mere disobedience cannot in my book amount to opposing by force.

Did the West Indian tourists of 1982/83 and 1983/84 achieve anything positive? In terms of bringing about the end of apartheid it is difficult to imagine how they might have had any tangible effect on that. Ten years on that most repugnant of ways of running a society did fall, but sport played no direct part in that. But the issue isn’t completely straightforward, and as the words of Gareth Evans make clear, Lawrence Rowe’s tourists did introduce to many South Africans their first glimpse of how a normal society should look and work, and showed them that there was everything to be gained by it. At the time I was as disappointed as anyone with all the players from England, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia who took the substantial payments on offer to tour South Africa, but with the benefit of hindsight it seems to me that the West Indian tourists are best described not as mercenaries, or rebels, or missionaries, but simply as cricketers.


Good article.

I think they probably shouldn’t have gone, but the decision to go or not to go, was obviously very difficult for many of these players. Also showed the hypocrisy of the world with regard to apartheid South Africa.

Comment by Marius | 12:00am GMT 18 March 2014

Yes I thought it was a bit too easy for the likes of Richards and Holding to pour scorn on players of much lesser ability who were making a very insecure living from the game. But it’s curious how the fortunes of the tourists have differed in the years since – some, hopeless drug addicts and vagrants, others like Coft and Rowe, seemingly doing very well for themselves. Incredibly one, Ezra Moseley, even went on to play for West Indies!

Comment by stumpski | 12:00am GMT 25 March 2014

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