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In 1985, South Africa was pariah of the world. The government's policy of apartheid was despised. Anti-apartheid groups were outlawed. The infamous "pass laws" limited the movements of people based on their skin colour. The toilets were divided so that those with different-coloured backsides could not warm each other's seat. Nelson Mandela was in jail, a "terrorist".
Into this political and social maelstrom came 16 Australian cricketers, a near-Test-strength squad imported by Ali Bacher to "keep the game alive" in South Africa.
The Australian squad that turned up in November of 1985 was: Terry Alderman, John Dyson, Peter Faulkner, Michael Haysman, Tom Hogan, Rodney Hogg, Trevor Hohns, Kim Hughes (c), John Maguire, Rod McCurdy, Carl Rackemann, Steve Rixon, Greg Shipperd, Steve Smith, Michael Taylor and Graham Yallop.
While none could be considered "greats", all bar Faulkner, Shipperd, Haysman, Taylor and Hohns (who went on to play seven Tests in 1989) had played for Australia. The defections left a massive hole in Australia's cricketing stocks and in successive Ashes series Australia were given hidings. Even New Zealand gave them a touch up. The ones who went to South Africa were labelled mercenaries and pariahs. Prime minister Bob Hawke called them "traitors".
Added Hawke: "On the issue of South Africa and sporting contact with South Africa, I and this government will not change our view about that obnoxious system of apartheid. We will not change our position as to it being not right for people to collect themselves and deem themselves an Australian team, to give aid and comfort to that regime in South Africa… which is so blatantly and desperately seeking international legitimacy via the medium of apparent international competition."
Competition? Men like Garth le Roux, Clive Rice and the inimitable Graeme Pollock - who came out of retirement aged 41 and carted 108 in the first "Test" - had long ached to prove themselves in international competition. And the years in isolation meant the public were hungry to see how their heroes measured up against the world.
"On one side were people who believed we shouldn't be touring because of the apartheid regime," Graham Yallop told this journalist. "And on the other side, people were arguing you should never mix sport and politics. We were torn between the two. But in the end the desire to play against an international team of their caliber was pretty great. South Africa was still one of the best teams in the world. They were very competitive with all the sides that toured there. Plus I'd never been there; it was an opportunity. Of course, there was the possibility of being banned. It wasn't a decision I took lightly."
Helping the decision was the $US200,000 the players were paid for two three-month tours. In days when Len Pascoe still worked for the local council to supplement his income, it was a truckload of cash. Especially for players who'd been told their use-by date was up.
"A number of us were given the word that the selectors didn't see us as having any future as Test players," said Yallop. "We were told - quietly, of course - that our futures weren't exactly rosy. So when the approach came, we were interested."
Opening bat Steve Smith was a 24-year-old who had played three Tests in 1984. You'd think he would have been worried he wouldn't play for Australia ever again.
"Getting a baggy green cap was obviously something I wanted to do," said Smith. "But the other thing was, the international ban went for three years and I knew I could come back from South Africa a better player. So the tour gave me the opportunity to improve. And then if I played well enough, I believed I could get back in the team. Obviously the money was good. But it was more about playing in another country against Test-standard opposition. There was also that curiosity factor. We'd be playing against blokes like Pollock, Rice, Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham - household names in South Africa."
But how did he reconcile the belief that touring was tacit approval of the apartheid regime? "I looked at it that I was a professional cricketer going over there to play cricket. I didn't mean I was agreeing with any of the government's policies or apartheid. I was a pro sportsman there to play a game."
The tour's first three-day game was against Free State, a side captained by Englishman Chris Broad and featuring a young tearaway named Allan Donald. The main games were no less competitive. In the first "international", in which Pollock notched his ton, Fotheringham scored 100 not out, the match drawn after Rackemann and Hogg took 15 wickets between them, and Mick Taylor - who would score 668 first-class runs on tour - made 109. The second match was also drawn (Pollock 79; Rackemann 8 for 222) and the teams headed to Wanderers in Johannesburg with the series level.
In an astonishing match, Rackemann took 8 for 84 and rolled South Africa for 211. Australia took a first-innings lead of 56 after a Smith ton, before South Africa blasted 305 (Rackemann 4 for 106). Then, chasing 250 to win, Australia was rolled for 61, with Rice (3 for 8) and le Roux (3 for 11) both taking hat-tricks.
"It was very hard, tough cricket," said Smith. "It wasn't about just walking out into the middle and playing. You really had to earn your stripes. They had some great players. Graeme Pollock, I was just in awe of the bloke. We had certain plans against him but he combated those pretty easily. In that last match in Johannesburg, Carl Rackemann came round the wicket and got one to rear off a length which broke Pollock's hand. He went off, got his hand strapped up and came back out and played us one-handed. He eventually stayed there long enough for Kevin McKenzie to get to a hundred. Phenomenal player."
When the tour finished and the players had served their two-year state cricket bans, Smith and Yallop had different experiences. Smith says he was welcomed back into the fold, no one ever having an issue with him "and if they did, that was their problem." He opened an indoor sports business and has "no regrets whatsoever" about touring. "It was an excellent tour. I learned a lot about cricket and myself." But he never played for Australia again.
Yallop and the other Victorians, however, were "shunned by the Victorian Cricket Association," according to Yallop. "That's why Mick Taylor went to Tassie, Rod McCurdy stayed in South Africa, and Rodney Hogg and myself [eventually] went back to club cricket. But we knew the VCA wouldn't pick us. It was disappointing, we could've given a lot to the game at that stage; we weren't that old. But we were certainly shunned by the association."
And regrets? Yallop today has "mixed emotions". "Knowing now what it was like there, there were certain things they kept from us, certain things we weren't meant to see but did. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Certainly we enjoyed it while we were there. But reflecting on it, there's mixed emotions. Disappointing thing, politics."
Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets hereFeeds: Matt Cleary
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Matt Cleary reckons he watched more of the 1978-79 Ashes series than any eight-year-old. Despite this punishment - Geoff Boycott batting for days - Cleary was hooked. As a journalist he's written about sport, travel, beer, wine, swimming with stingrays in the Alice waters of Bora Bora, and touring Australia on a four-month lap, playing golf. Yet he counts doing ball-by-ball commentary for ESPNcricinfo as the most fun he's had with a keyboard. He writes for several of Australia's sports and travel magazines, notably Inside Sport, Inside Cricket, Golf Australia and Rugby League Week. @JournoMatCleary