Omar Henry - Cricket in his blood (21 December 1998)

21 December 1998

Omar Henry - Cricket in his blood

By Tony Becca

Omar Henry, the coloured left-arm spin bowler who broke the colour barrier during the years of Apartheid and represented South Africa in three Test matches and three one-day internationals in the late 1980s, is now a television commentator who spends some of his time coaching young non-white cricketers and motivating them to achieve even more than he did.

According to the first non-white to represent his country, it was tough going, and his dream is to see more people like himself - coloureds, blacks, Indians - playing for South Africa and doing well.

QUESTION: How did you, as a non-white, get involved in cricket in a country where those who play are predominantly white?

Omar Henry: First of all, I come from a sporting family. From my mother's side, her brothers, my uncles, and her father were good rugby players and cricketers, my father was a good rugby player, not so good at cricket, and they brought me up on cricket - and a little rugby. I never saw my one uncle - on my father's side. He died at age 21, but he bowled left-arm spin and the people who saw him reckon he was better than I. Apparently it runs in the blood.

Q: How do you feel when you were selected for South Africa - as the first non-white?

OH: It was a great achievement, it was also exciting, because I knew there was mixed feelings. There was something in me which urged me to play cricket for South Africa. I wanted to show them that I was good, I wanted to show the world that non-whites in South Africa could play cricket, (Basil) D'Oliveira showed it when he played for England, but I wanted to do it from here. It was hell breaking through the mind-set here, however. The feeling was that people of colour could not play cricket.

Q: Did your family, your friends, support you?

OH: It was tough. On one side, the whites did not think you could play cricket, and when you showed them that you could, they did not believe you are good enough. On the other side, my people did not want to play with them (the whites). They believed I should stay with my own, play with my own, and when I started playing in white sides, they believed I had sold out. All I wanted to do was to break the barrier - to make the whites know that non-whites could play cricket.

Q: Did you feel, when you did gain selection for South Africa, that you should have played earlier?

OH: Oh yes, but you must remember that I played for the non-white body - South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) - until I was 24, that it took me two years to break into the Provincial side, and it was not until the rebel tours that I got a chance. By that time, I was 34. But yes, I believe I should have played earlier.

Q: Having got there, how did you as the one non-white fit into the team. How did you and the others get along?

OH: There were a few obstacles in my way. One was the Apartheid laws whereby I couldn't stay in the same hotel as them, I couldn't go in the same eating place as them, etc, etc. I decided I was going anyway, I was physically chucked out. That was the humiliating factor, but I knew it was there and I was quite prepared to do it in an effort to removing those barriers. They also attempted to use the liquor law to stop me, but I told them that was stupid. Because of my religion I did not drink then, and I do not drink now.

Q: What was the liquor law?

OH: It said that no non-white should be served liquor in a public place.

Q: Did you feel that you had to perform, not only for yourself, but also for those like you, coming behind you?

OH: No and yes. No, because there were those who felt that by representing South Africa as it was then, I had betrayed them. Yes, in the sense of showing to young cricketers like me that you don't have to feel inferior to a white man - and the better you perform, the better the lesson.

Q: How was it on the field. Did you get a fair break - say in terms of when you bowled?

OH: I learned the politics very quickly. I was never afraid, once I understood and I saw through their game, to question the captain. Once I got over that barrier, there was always a good relationship between me and the captain. I was allowed to have my input - to have my say, and if I was unhappy we moved on from there.

Q: What was your most memorable moment playing for South Africa?

OH: Obviously, when I first took the field for the official South African team. That was a dream come true, something that I worked very hard for.

Q: How long do you think it will take for non-whites, not one or two, but more than that to move into the South Africa - not because of the quota system but on merit.

OH: Five years ago, in my book, Man in the Middle, I said it would take five years. May be another two years or so, but a few have played since and there are many knocking at the door.

Q: Are you helping the youngsters to achieve what you did and more?

OH: I concentrate on the quality young players, not on the mass. Where I come from, you don't have to market or sell cricket. It is a cricket country, so I look at them, and I help the promising ones. I really help them, I spend a lot of time with them, some are playing Provincial cricket, and one, Roger Telemachus, has played for South Africa.

Source :: The Jamaica Gleaner (