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Twenty-four years ago 18 West Indians made history when they ventured into apartheid South Africa to play a series that went down in legend. A look back at the rebel tour of 1983
August 2, 2007
Talk to him and you would be convinced that the whole world has conspired to finish him off. He vividly describes the murder of his son, talking you through the whole plot, miming the bullet ripping through his temple. Three people nearby overhear and are quick to caution that none of it is true.
When Jerome Taylor, a fellow Jamaican, gets a standing ovation for his five-wicket haul, Danny cannot control himself. "I could have done that," he sobs. He begs for money at the end of the conversation and hugs you when he sees the 500-Jamaican-dollar note. He blushes when asked what he will do with the money. "A bit of booze, a bit of crack."
Richard "Danny Germs" Austin, who played two Tests and a solitary one-dayer for West Indies in the 1970s, was at one time known as the "right-handed Sobers". Locals still talk fondly about Austin's talent - he could open the batting, play in the middle order, bowl canny offspin and sharp medium pace and keep wicket as well. Austin last played competitive cricket in 1983. Today he is a wreck, begging on the streets of Kingston, taking refuge in cocaine. Herbert Chang played one Test for West Indies on the 1978-79 tour of India and had a distinguished first-class career. He was not allowed to play after 1983. They say he lives in Jamaica but nobody knows where. They say he lost most of his money to a woman he trusted. They say he is mentally unstable. They say he is dying.
Lawrence Rowe, one of the finest batsmen to have played for West Indies, was a national hero in Jamaica ... until 1983. He then decided to emigrate to Florida to become a businessman. Locals remember him being severely ostracised, hiding in the Kingston Club to watch Tests at Sabina Park, not wanting to attract the public gaze. Franklyn Stephenson is widely regarded as the greatest allrounder never to have played for West Indies. At the peak of his career, when he replaced Richard Hadlee at Nottinghamshire and managed a staggering 1,018 runs and 125 wickets in a season, he could not make the cut. Even today, despite his expertise and vast experience, nobody wants his coaching services. Why? "It's all because of '83. Nobody has forgotten it still."
In Station Hill, a middle-class locality of Bridgetown in Barbados, you are likely to run into David Murray, son of the great Everton Weekes. Murray, a brilliant keeper and stylish batsman, was one step away from being a part of the legendary side of the 1980s. Sadly it proved a bridge too far. Things went downhill for Murray after 1983. These days he is almost a pariah in his home town. Skeletally thin, he is often spotted on the beaches, providing foreigners with "stuff". He refuses to speak initially but opens out freely once he has wangled $20.
The common thread linking all these cricketers is the summer of 1983, when 18 West Indian 'rebels' undertook a path-breaking tour to South Africa. On January 15, 1983, under the shadow of Cape Town's Devil's Peak mountain, with a cloud of racial tension hovering, in an intensely oppressive political climate, began one of the most controversial series of all time. The 16,000 eager spectators who filled Newlands were not just watching a West Indies "rebels" side play their opening game on South African soil, they were witnessing the breaking of a barrier.
Before South Africa's sporting isolation politics had dictated that the only international cricket teams allowed to tour the country were from England, Australia and New Zealand. In late 1959 plans had been almost finalised for a West Indies team, under the captaincy of Frank Worrell, to tour. That tour was eventually scrapped because of public pressure in South Africa. But, even if it had gone ahead, Worrell's side had been scheduled to play against non-white teams in South Africa. Here at Newlands it was much more than just Western Province v West Indians. It was White v Black, something novel to most South Africans.
Within 18 overs of the one-day game the West Indians, led by Rowe, had slumped to 42 for 4. Ali Bacher, the former South Africa captain who was the architect of the tour, began to fret. The recent tour by a Sri Lankan side, who had struggled to match up to the might of the South African opposition, had seen poor crowd response and had led to heavy financial losses.
The West Indians, though, were a far stronger outfit. In Rowe and Alvin Kallicharran they had two of the finest West Indian batsmen; in Bernard Julien, Stephenson, Collis King and Austin, four world-class allrounders; in Sylvester Clarke, Ezra Moseley and Colin Croft, a trio of devastating fast bowlers; and in Murray arguably the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the Caribbean.
Enter King, the swashbuckling Bajan allrounder most famous for his dazzling 86 in the 1979 World Cup final. Tall, lithe and brilliantly athletic, he instantly captured the imagination. As David Dyer, writing in World Cricket Digest put it: "His execution is so inventive, so full of flair and so astonishingly powerful that he became a South African hero within 90 minutes of reaching the crease." He made 101 in the Johannesburg 'Test' against South Africa, prompting four young (white) fans to charge on to the ground bearing a banner "Coll is King".
For a side that was initially wary of the public reaction the sense of acceptance was overwhelming. Stephenson, then a 23-year-old fast bowling allrounder for Barbados, recalls the opening game vividly. "The majority of the fans were white, the blacks were mainly cleaning the stands. When we walked out on to the field to defend 204, I remember the guys talking about having nine slips because nobody wanted to stand near the boundary. We feared we would get objects thrown at us, maybe get beaten up. I was very tense because I had been asked to field at third man.
"Then a little white kid ran on to the ground and offered me a Coke. I refused. He came back at the end of the next over and I thought, OK, let me try. I took the bottle, had a little sip and gave it back to him. You should have seen the sight at the end of the next over. There must have been about 15 kids around me, offering me drinks. It was so touching."
It was just the first of several memorable incidents on the month-long tour, one where the West Indians, with their naturally aggressive brand of cricket, were the toast of South Africa. In a milieu where a white man risked being jailed if found entertaining a black one, in cities that had distinct areas where blacks were forbidden, the West Indians were embraced. No amount of opposition seemed to matter. Hassan Howa, the leader of the South African Cricket Union, reaffirmed his policy of "no normal sport in an abnormal society" and endorsed advertisement hoardings that screamed "Don't watch television". But nothing could hold the sky-rocketing interest in check. The third one-dayer attracted what is thought to be the biggest crowd ever to watch a cricket match at Berea Park in Pretoria, widely regarded as the heartland of apartheid. It was an astonishing sight. Bacher, unable to control his tears, stated emphatically: "If you've won over Pretoria, you've made it."
Murray remembers the reception during a visit to Soweto, the country's largest black urban complex: "The kids had never imagined they would meet any cricketers. Seeing us and being coached by us, they were completely ecstatic."
Croft had to endure the ignominy of being ejected from a whites-only carriage on a train but even he ended the tour "so impressed it ain't funny". One of Stephenson's experiences in particular was indicative of the social change that the cricketers were instigating. "In Port Elizabeth a tall, white guy, also named Stephenson, took me to a [whites-only] supermarket and a lot of heads turned. I got to the counter and the lady asked me to sign something. At that moment everybody stopped their work and rushed towards me for an autograph. To actually walk into a white supermarket and stop business was quite something."
Dyer encapsulated the South African mood: "One thing is certain: the interest which the tour generated is immeasurable. Take a drive past any school and you'll see children not playing their traditional game, soccer, but cricket - taking turns to be Collis, Sylvester or Franklyn."
Cult status in South Africa was in stark contrast to the outrage back home. The 18 West Indians had not just undertaken a tour but defied their governments, the United Nations and the cricket authorities to enter the forbidden land of apartheid. There were ominous precedents in this regard. In 1970 the Guyana government had declared that Garfield Sobers, then West Indies' captain, would not be allowed into the country unless he apologised for a visit to Rhodesia on which he had been photographed having lunch with Prime Minister Ian Smith. In 1974 an international team sponsored by the British financier Derrick Robins were not allowed to include Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago on their itinerary because Robins had also sponsored a similar team to South Africa. In 1981 the Georgetown Test was aborted because England picked Robin Jackman, who had played as a professional in Rhodesia and South Africa.
Now a West Indies team were actually playing in South Africa. It would no doubt serve as a PR coup, indicating that the country had indeed broken down the barriers of apartheid, even though the system legally enforced was to the disadvantage of the black majority. The players were doomed once they went against the various governments that strongly supported the anti-apartheid movement.
Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, echoed the sentiment in his famous A History of West Indian Cricket: "To the members of the black diaspora the oppression which continues unabated 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."
On January 6, 1983 Allan Rae, president of the West Indies Cricket Board, publicly praised Rowe and Croft for turning down an offer to go to South Africa. Five days later Rowe and his band furtively flew out to Miami, using a British West Indies Airways flight as a decoy and boarding an American Airlines flight three hours earlier. As they exited the Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg a crowd of about 100 clapped and cheered. In one corner three black men held up a poster: "Freedom First - Cricket Later".
On January 12 an editorial in the Barbados Daily Nation lashed out at the rebels. "Perhaps, as they make their long journey to Johannesburg, the players can reflect on the fact that, had they been born in Soweto and not St Peter, Cape Town and not Spanish Town, their sporting talent would never have seen the light of day," it said. (Incidentally the Nation was the only paper that did not boycott the tour; it even sent a journalist, Al Gilkes, to cover the games.)
Joining the large section of critics were the West Indian captain, Clive Lloyd - "I know that some of them are out of work and the money is very tempting but that is not all in life" - and fast bowler Michael Holding. Money, no doubt, was the clinching factor. It was reported that the Test cricketers who went on the rebel tour would be paid $120,000 (£60,000) for two seasons while the others would get $100,000. Finding a place in the all-conquering West Indies side of the time required almost superhuman ability and, unlike first-class cricketers in England, those on the fringes were financially crippled.
Writing in the Nation soon after the tour began, Tony Cozier unravelled the link between the seven Bajan cricketers who undertook the journey, articulating their monetary positions. None had worked in Barbados during the off-season for some years preceding the tour. Clarke, who had three daughters to support, was a carpenter by trade but had not worked as one since he began his cricket career in 1978. Moseley had been a waiter at a south coast hotel before he signed a contract to play in one of the English leagues. King's father was a foreman at a sugar factory. Emerson Trotman occasionally worked in a car rental firm but had no permanent job in Barbados. And Alvin Greenidge had no professional employment since he began playing overseas. In fact, one of the rebels, Albert Padmore, in a letter to the Barbados Cricket Association on behalf of the island's players, spelt out that economic considerations were the chief reason.
E Lawson Bayley, a columnist for the Sun Herald, was one of the few who empathised with the players: "Something is seriously wrong when men who live in glass houses, drive air-conditioned Mercedes, eat lunch at a hotel every day, vacation in Paris and keep two wives can tell a poor man that he must emotionally turn away money in a society that makes money its god."
At the end of the tour the West Indians, who won the "Test" series 2-1 and the one-dayers 4-2, successfully negotiated a 15% bonus. Every game of the tour was a sell-out and South Africa also gained revenue through the sale of souvenirs and tokens. Gilkes delivered his verdict in the Sunday Sun: "Rowe and his rebel team had become not the mercenaries they were being labeled outside South Africa but 18 black missionaries converting and baptising thousands and thousands of whites into a religion of black acceptance and respect from Cape Town to Johannesburg, to Durban and right into the throne room of Afrikanerdom itself, Pretoria."
Heroes in one part of the world, they were outcasts in another. Unlike their English counterparts, who were banned for three years, the West Indians received life bans in all forms of the game. It was only in 1989 that the Commonwealth heads decided to wipe out the past and the bans were revoked. The only one of the rebels who got a chance to play for West Indies was Moseley, who was well past his prime when he made his international debut at the age of 32.
Nine members of the side of 1983 currently reside outside their home countries. Rowe remains a legend but will be forever remembered with, in Manley's words, "a flaw at the centre of his character". Everton Mattis, Rowe's stylish Jamaican team-mate who, according to observers, came extremely close to national selection, and Ray Wynter, the promising Jamaican fast bowler, also shifted base to the United States.
Kallicharran and King settled in England, where they continue to play league cricket. Croft, one of the most destructive bowlers to have come out of the Caribbean, moved out of Guyana and settled in Trinidad. Julien, an integral member of the World Cup-winning side in 1975, had to endure the humiliation of being treated as an outcast in his native Trinidad and struggled to find a job. It was only much later that he found acceptance.
Greenidge, Moseley and Stephenson decided to stay on in Barbados and currently coach youngsters. Stephenson was ignored by the West Indies selectors even after the ban was lifted, though he turned in some fine performances in the County Championship. The high point of his career came in 1991 when he chose to play for Orange Free State in the heart of the Boer country, a one-time Afrikaner bastion; he went on to inspire them to seven title triumphs. Murray and the two Jamaicans who stayed back, Chang and Austin, were reduced to wrecks. Clarke, whose international career was limited to 11 Tests, spent nine productive seasons at Surrey and was as clinically fearsome as any of his West Indian colleagues of the time. At the end of his professional career he came home to Barbados, played some club cricket and took up carpentry again. He collapsed and died at his home in 1999.
Twenty four years ago 18 men left their country as villains and became heroes in another. With hindsight it can now be said they were neither.
This article was first published in the August 2006 issue of Cricinfo Magazine
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of CricinfoFeeds: Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
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