June 7, 2014

The other rebels

Not many remember the International Wanderers teams who visited apartheid South Africa to play cricket

AAP journalist Neil Dibbs thought it strange that officials and spectators in South Africa believed that the isolation period was going to be over in 1976 following the Wanderers tour © Australian Cricketer

One of the great things about cricket history is that the more you learn, the less you realise you know. I've always been fascinated by the "rebel tours" to apartheid-era South Africa, an understandably touchy subject in the annals of cricketing lore but one that has probably been under-explored in the decades that have elapsed since.

As is so often the case, it was while searching for something else this week that I came across an article discussing the International Wanderers tour of South Africa in 1976. Beyond a vague knowledge that it had occurred, I never really spent any time looking into it or the other unsanctioned tours of the apartheid years, but I soon found myself searching all over for more material, of which there's some but probably not enough, given its historical significance to both South Africa and to cricket.

Somewhat lazily and also as a result of the neglect in telling these uncomfortable stories, it's usually the 1980s Australian, English and West Indian "rebel" tours that we think of most readily when considering cricket in apartheid-era South Africa.

In any case, the shame and revulsion surrounding the sports isolation issue and the varying degrees of reputation stain on the players who participated obscure a harsher and somewhat inconvenient truth; so many Western countries hypocritically continued meaningful trade relations with South Africa during the same period in which they refused to send sporting teams there. If sport can and does occasionally play a role in diffusing racial tensions, it also sometimes acts as a smokescreen by which we're made to feel better about our political and business classes than we should do.

The 1980s rebels weren't the first, not in cricket and not in other sports. The All Blacks rugby team toured South Africa in 1970. Arthur Ashe openly suggested that tennis and other sports should seek to foster sporting links with South Africa. Less official were cricket's first forays into rekindling "international" competition.

In January 1973 came the first of a number of tours by the Derrick Robins XI, a collection of players (including internationals of the calibre of Bob Willis, Robin Jackman and John Lever) put together by Robins, the millionaire businessman and Coventry City football club chairman.

The Robins teams played South African XIs comprising the greats of the era. Under the captaincy of Brian Close, the Robins XI also played again in '73, and this time included the Australians Bruce Francis and John Gleeson. By the time of their 1975 and 1976 tours, players of many more Test nations turned out.

They weren't alone. September 1974 saw the first and last Datsun Double-Wicket Competition, which pitted teams of both black and white players against each other in a format we tend to forget - possibly with good reason. The Chappell brothers were Australia's entrants. Keith Fletcher and Tony Greig represented England, and Glenn Turner and Bevan Congdon New Zealand. Mike Procter, Barry Richards and Eddie Barlow took part, and against the wishes of their boards so did a number of players from India, Pakistan and the West Indies. In truth, it was that small group of players from the latter three nations who were the first rebels of all. Pakistan officials were particularly condemnatory of the competition and their West Indian counterparts followed through on domestic bans for their own players.

During those 1975 and 1976 Robins XI tours, the touring teams started to go by the name of the International Wanderers. The concept would be repeated, but on neither of those first two journeys did they play a first-class length game against a South African representative side. It was when led by Greg Chappell and his brother Ian that the Wanderers ventured to South Africa in March-April 1976 for "internationals" and this time, under the management of Richie Benaud, they took a host of other top international players with them.

Fellow Aussies Dennis Lillee, Max Walker, Ashley Mallett, Alan Hurst, Martin Kent and Gary Gilmour made the trip. Englishmen Mike Denness, Derek Underwood, Phil Edmonds and Bob Taylor also joined the party, as did Turner, John Morrison (NZ) and West Indian John Shepherd, who would never again play domestic cricket in his country of birth as a result. Whatever vision remains of the Wanderers games must be pretty scarce, though this indicates that it did exist at some point. It'd be worth seeing if only for the unlikely scenario of the Kiwi team of Congdon and Turner outscoring Barry Richards and Eddie Barlow 69 to 14.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing obviously, but it's remarkable now to consider the naivety in some sections of South African officialdom that these tours would be a bridge to South Africa's immediate return to full international cricket. According to Australian Cricketer, Springbok expectations throughout the period were "unrealistic" and the hope of a swift return "almost non-existent". The Springboks were optimistic but as AAP journalist Neil Dibbs noted in his withering dismissal of the window-dressing on display during that second tour of '76, "reasons for this line of thought are strange indeed".

Ian Chappell used an editorial of his own to push for South Africa's re-introduction to international competition and claimed that "multi-racial cricket is almost a reality", but his appraisal of the abilities of black players picked during the Wanderers series was less enthusiastic. "But that is no reason to despair," he qualified, "only reason to go in harder." Chappell's view was not unique for the time; many other players also subscribed to the thinking that cricketers ought to be cricketers and that politics be left to the politicians, but Chappell also took a good look around at what he saw off-field and felt that racial tensions were easing.

Benaud was diplomatic but didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement when he summed up an address to the Cape Town cricket club by bluntly noting, "I'm going back to Australia. What you do now is your own concern." Still, even he later stated, "I have not the slightest doubt that in 35 days there we achieved more for coloured South African cricketers than 20 years of boycotting of cricket tours could achieve." History tells us that his long-forgotten tour of duty was among a number of false dawns in the period of isolation.

From a South African perspective, it was the former president of South African Cricket Board of Control ("the non-white controlling body") Hassan Howa who cut through all of the noise in the most quotable manner. He called multi-racial sport in South Africa a "window-dressing" sham to please visiting sports administrators from FIFA and other bodies. To him the Wanderers tour was "abnormal cricket". "I do not use the term 'multi-racial cricket,'" said Howa, "I use the term 'normal cricket' - and that is cricket played by all races at all levels with equal facilities and opportunities."

These were painful lessons for sport and society but ones we mustn't disregard or allow to gather dust in archives. I reignited my own interest by taking a wrong turn down the alleyways of research. I might just hang around for a little while longer now.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 8, 2014, 1:51 GMT

    when u say "so did a number of players from India" please mention names.there is no news article or any other evidence available anywhere which suggest any indian player was ever a part of rebel tours in the seventies. we indians take pride in saying that none of our players got sold for the money of rebel tours to south africa or the packer circus during that era. if u want to land a blot on that record, mention names or be prepared to be considered a liar by all of us. or even lamer, non allowing this comment to be published! sorry, didnt actually mean to be rude.. we just want the names!

  • KRISHNA on June 7, 2014, 13:41 GMT

    This is a very apt article and nicely researched piece - unlike the earlier tours which gained headlines due to participation of non white players like Younis Ahmed, the 76 tour was well covered due to the plethora of Aus players in the team like Chappels , Lillee , Walker etc

    the most notable cricket event was a hostile spell from Lillee to destroy a strong Springbok lineup and the first time people got to hear about Clive Rice and Vince Bijl and a window into South African cricket

    It was also a first attempt at multi racial cricket inegration and i still have a 3 page article from the Cricketer on the tour - but a nice piece of nostalgia Russell

  • Dummy4 on June 7, 2014, 9:46 GMT

    when u say "so did a number of players from India" please mention names.there is no news article or any other evidence available anywhere which suggest any indian player was ever a part of rebel tours in the seventies. we indians take pride in saying that none of our players went to the packer circus during that era. Sorry, didnt actually mean to be rude.. we just want the names!

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