Omar Henry December 1, 2004

'I considered myself a pioneer'

Omar Henry was nearly 41 when he made his Test debut against India at Durban in 1992-93, after representing South Africa in a few rebel Tests in the mid-1980s

Omar Henry was nearly 41 when he made his Test debut against India in 1992-93, and he bowed out in the fourth match of that same series, having managed just three wickets at 63 apiece. Born in Stellenbosch in 1952, Henry was a left-arm spinner of undoubted ability - 434 wickets at 24.97 - who played out the bulk of his career in the isolation years, representing South Africa in a few "rebel" Tests in the mid-1980s. Now their chairman of selectors, he talked about the changes that have transformed the face of South African cricket, and also of how he kept his own dreams alive:

Omar Henry: 'I think I was luckier than most' © Western Province Cricket Association

For most of your career, you couldn't even play for your national team. Now, you're helping to chart a new course for South African cricket. Do you wake up some mornings and have to pinch yourself?
Well, when I was a youngster, you knew the law. You knew what you could and couldn't do. I played cricket because I had a passion for it, because my family had a cricket culture. I found enjoyment within those parameters. When Basil D'Oliveira wasn't selected for that controversial tour [1968-69], he came down to South Africa to do some coaching. He found me, and planted the seed in me that I might be good enough to play as a professional. But I knew I would never play for South Africa unless the law changed, so I found satisfaction from within.

How different is it now?
Well, so much has changed. We've revamped the domestic structure completely so that there are only six professional franchises at the highest level. And Bakers Mini Cricket has taken the game to every part of the country. So many kids have taken to it.

Your transformation policy has also caused some unease, hasn't it?
Of course, there is always a reaction when people are jolted out of their comfort zone. It's human nature to fear change.

What do you think of someone like Kevin Pietersen, who left saying he wouldn't get a fair go within the new framework?
I can only assume that he lacked self-belief. Maybe he didn't back himself to make it through the system.

What would you say to a white cricketer who felt hard done by?
I'm sure there are players who will think that way, and I can tell you that 20 years ago, there were many coloured cricketers who felt the same (smiles). But the reality of South African cricket now is that you will be picked if you're good enough, irrespective of colour.

Will poor results make you take a second look at the transformation policy?
Look, all teams go through bad phases. Australia did in the 1980s. So did West Indies later. England have just emerged from a slump. What we're trying to do goes beyond winning matches. It's about being part of the new South Africa.

Last year, South African rugby union disgraced itself with what went on at Kamp Staaldraad, and accusations of racism against one of the players. Can you see something like that happening in South African cricket?
It won't, because we are very careful about those we involve in the team structure. We will employ only those who can comprehend the ethos of the new South Africa.

What's your take on Ray Jennings?
Well, in the three months he had in charge of the A team, he brought along six players who are now in the senior side. You can see for yourself how the energy levels have improved. I've had various players come to me and tell me that. There are times when every player - no matter how great - needs a kick up the backside. I think they've got that from him, albeit with a lot of care and attention thrown in. In hard times, you need a strong presence in charge.

Going back to your own career, didn't frustration set in as the years went by?
There came a stage when you sensed that the country was changing. The government was relaxing laws, and that's when I dreamt that maybe one day all things would be equal, and I could play for South Africa.

When it finally happened, what was your main emotion?
I regarded myself as very fortunate because players who were possibly better than me never got the opportunity. I was privileged, and I also considered myself a pioneer. I think that last part was the most important. Even today, I know that I need to play a pivotal role in taking South African cricket forward.

Could you tell us about a couple of these players who you say were better than you?
Well, there was Saayit Magiet, and his brother Rushdi [later, a chairman of the selection panel himself]. There was Sidick Conrad ... and many others.

And talking of pioneers, what do you think Hashim Amla's debut in this match will do for the development of the game in South Africa?
I think it's hugely important that we get pioneers from all the different cultures that play cricket. The Afrikaaners looked up to Peter van der Merwe in the 1950s and '60s. Even though he wasn't one, strictly speaking, they looked up to him - as they did with Kepler Wessels and Hansie Cronje later. Other communities also need such role models. It's impossible to estimate how many kids have taken to the game after being inspired by someone like Makhaya Ntini.

Henry was a supporter of Dr Ali Bacher's rebel tours © Getty Images

How did you feel about the rebel tours that Ali Bacher organised?
At the time, there were mixed views - those who thought they were important for the game to survive, and those who felt they should never have happened. I found myself on the side that was in favour because I was banned from the other side.

How did that happen?
I went and watched a game at a white cricket field.

Well, the game I was playing for a non-white side in Durban was washed out. On our way to the hotel, we had to come past Kingsmead. It was just after tea and there was nobody at the gate, so we sneaked in so that we could see what the ground was like.

As someone of colour, did you feel a sense of guilt about playing in those rebel games?
There was a lack of clarity and direction at the time. From the players' perspective, no-one knew what was going on as far as unification talks between the two rival boards was concerned.

What do you feel when you think of all the players whose careers were destroyed by the isolation?
When I was 15 or 16, cricket on both sides [white and non-white] was very strong. Those who played with D'Oliveira could only play against Kenya, and in the same era, the whites only played against England, Australia and New Zealand. They never played India and Pakistan, and I can't help but think how strong a side we would have been if cricket had been normal [representation for all races] at the time.

What are your feelings about Indian cricket?
I think there are a lot of common denominators. The Asian community in South Africa has also had a strong cricketing culture, and the politics of Apartheid meant that they suffered too. And when you talk of the political struggle, you cannot forget Mahatma Gandhi and the work he did in South Africa. On our return from isolation, India was the biggest ally, and from a spinner's point of view, the subcontinent is heaven.

Talking of spin, who were the players that inspired you?
Mostly local people. There was Lefty Adams, and Owen Williams. I watched them, and was fortunate enough to play with them as a youngster. Going back a little further, there was Trevor Goddard. And when I went to England in 1977, I watched guys like Bishan Singh Bedi and Derek Underwood for the first time on television. They certainly influenced the way I bowled and the way I thought about spin bowling.

What was the highlight of your career?
To represent my country in an official capacity. I never thought that it would happen in my lifetime.

And the regrets?
Well, the game taught me that there are no guarantees. It's so unpredictable that you enjoy your successes and try to learn from your disappointments. Like I said, I think I was luckier than most.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo.