Proposed tour of South Africa voted out, 1984

MCC and South Africa

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The summer of 1983 will mainly be remembered as a time when cricket people could forget their troubles and enjoy the game and the sunshine, if only temporarily. The problem of South Africa was never that far away from anyone's consciousness. But its prime manifestation came in a manner that left little damage, and was even rather quaint.

On July 13, the members of the Marylebone Cricket Club voted to support their committee and reject a proposal to send a touring team of their own to South Africa. In the history of one of sport's most intractable crises, it will probably not be regarded as one of the most momentous decisions; in the history of one of sport's most famous and most powerful clubs, it may well have been.

The idea of trying to use MCC as a locomotive to pull South Africa back into world cricket had been conceived a year earlier at a meeting of the six-man executive of the right-wing pressure group, Freedom in Sport: the Conservative MP Carlisle, Jeff Butterfield, Tommie Campbell, John Reason, Edward Grayson and Lord Chalfont. All except Mr Campbell also happened to be members of MCC The club had not been directly involved in the issue since 1968. On that occasion the committee, in spite of the cancellation of the 1968-69 tour over South Africa's refusal to admit Basil D'Oliveira, was still defending, though with growing unease, the principle of continuing cricketing links. It beat off liberal opposition, led by two of the less conventional men to captain the England team, the Rev. David Sheppard and Michael Brearley, by a margin of more than three to one.

In the fifteen intervening years very little had changed in South Africa's general political outlook. But a great deal had changed in cricket since the formation of the multi-racial South African Cricket Union in 1977. The game was integrated in theory, and sometimes in practice. There was a better case for playing South Africa in the eighties than there ever had been in the totally segregated sixties. But even more had changed in the rest of the world: attitudes had hardened and the sports boycott had become a weapon with a wider purpose.

Something else had changed: MCC no longer had that much authority to do anything about it. 1968 was also the year when it surrendered its role as the ruling body of English cricket and moved into a nebulous position of influence without anything like the same direct power - the house of Lord's in this sense being like the House of Lords. It was associated with the policies made elsewhere in cricket, without being able to change them. As far as the boycott went, cricket was in any case forced largely to comply with policies made elsewhere.

None the less, MCC seemed ideal for Freedom in Sport's purposes. Its supporters could get nowhere with any of cricket's ruling bodies, national or international. But, under Rule 43, it takes only 50 members to demand a special general meeting. Finding 50 was not a problem for Mr Carlisle and his friends. They set up their own committee including the evocative names of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich. There were brief but hopeless talks with the real committee to see if an accommodation could be reached. In April, Jack Bailey, the secretary of MCC, stood at the Grace Gates and received a petition proposing that the members of MCC Committee implement the selection of a touring party to tour South Africa in 1983-84. He has been seen looking happier.

The problem Mr. Bailey - and cricket - now faced was a curious one. MCC, in theory, had become merely a private club. Plenty of private clubs had been touring South Africa and dispensing discreet aid and comfort throughout the years of supposed isolation. It quickly became clear, because of the sanctions that would almost certainly be applied to any current first-class players who might make the tour, that, if forced to send a team, the committee would have to despatch players not far above customary club level - the men who habitually raise the flag for Marylebone and cricket in places like Bangladesh or the United States. But the very initials MCC have a special power. Few people with a casual involvement in cricket at home and even fewer overseas have cottoned on to the club's diminished role. The last Test-playing tour party to be called MCC had been in 1976-77. After six years the change had still not permeated the consciousness of much of the world's cricketing public. Thus one of the great dangers of the tour would have been mistaken identity. Indeed the most worried man I met before the vote was one of the likely tourists, who thought South Africa might get it wrong and unleash their fastest bowlers at him.

The case put by the 50 members and sent out on their behalf by MCC was that a tour would recognise the progress made by SACU, halt the slide of international sport towards total political influence and possible disintegration, and allow long-suffering sports people to get on with sport. MCC's rebuttal acknowledged that the resolution would appeal to many members and talked about hypocrisy and double standards among South Africa's opponents. But it then argued that such a tour would achieve nothing in cricketing terms, breach the Gleneagles Agreement, which the British Government was pledged to support, and endanger the club's remaining positions in the game; as custodian of the Laws, as owner of Lord's, which the black countries might refuse to visit, and in ICC, for which MCC still automatically provided the president and secretary. Since a number of overseas officials regarded this as an anachronism anyway, Mr Bailey and the incumbent president, Sir Anthony Tuke, were aware that they might be the first casualties.

The meeting was fixed for the night prior to the first Test - well after the World Cup and the annual ICC meeting. The World Cup was conducted amid constant rumours that the South Africans, having bought their own teams of English and West Indian rebels in successive years, were now trying to sign anything that moved. A SACU delegation, led by Joe Pamensky, paid its annual, now ritualised visit to the ICC which in an equally ritualised way refused to see them. Mr Pamensky's visit was very public but he said little about the impending MCC vote, beyond saying that any team it sent would be very welcome.

The postal votes began to pile up at MCC's solicitors in the City. There were rumours about these too, most of them saying that the proponents were not far short of the two-thirds majority they would need to carry the motion and well above the simple majority that would be regarded as a huge moral victory and a humiliation for the club's establishment. Everyone Mr Carlisle met at Lord's, he said later, told him they were voting for him. Since his majority at Luton West had gone up from 200 to 12,000 at the June General Election, he may well have been feeling invulnerable. His only moment of discomfort came when the Prime Minister (ineligible to join MCC owing to her sex) came out against the tour in the Commons.

The evening of July 13 turned out to be one of almost unbearable heat. The committee had hired Central Hall, Westminster, the largest available, in the expectation that around 2,000 of the 18,000 members would wish to come. But it was no night for attending meetings voluntarily. Only 1,000 turned up. The meeting was also a little overshadowed. By coincidence, a few hundred yards across Parliament Square, the newly elected House of Commons was debating whether or not to bring back hanging. Some thought that MCC was debating whether or not to hang itself.

Mr Carlisle proposed the motion. His speech - cogent and well received - made much of the argument that it was unfair to treat sporting and business links differently. He was seconded by John Pashley, a former Yorkshire League cricketer, who emphasised the importance of not being pushed around in a speech that was passionate and effective until, for a hot evening, it went on too long.

The motion was opposed by Hubert Doggart, a former President of MCC, who, as in the committee's written argument, conceded part of the case before putting over the official view of the realities of the situation and implying that Mr Carlisle's motives were political rather than sporting. He was seconded, in similar vein, by Colin Cowdrey who, fifteen years earlier, had been prominent in the bridge-building school of thought. Both went down well, assisted by their known love for the game and their gentle demeanour which enabled them to disguise some sharp debating points. The floor speakers included another Conservative MP Andrew Hunter, Denis Compton and Brian Johnston (a popular BBC commentator), all for the motion; the antis included two churchmen - David Sheppard, now Bishop of Liverpool, and John Stacey.

But the debate did not matter. As Mr Bailey knew (though he says he did not tell a soul) the Carlisle forces were already beaten. They had lost the postal vote 6,069 to 3,935; they lost the vote in the hall 535 to 409 - an overall total of 6,604 to 4,344 against the resolution, or 60.3 percent to 39.7.

The expectations that had built up in the past few days now worked heavily against Mr Carlisle and his supporters. The focus was on the committee victory rather than on the perhaps more remarkable fact that 40 per cent of those who voted and almost a quarter of MCC's traditionally docile membership had repudiated the committee on a matter on which it had fought furiously to enforce its point of view. This suggested that MCC's rulers might have many more uncomfortable nights, over all kinds of issues, in the years to come.

Mr Carlisle felt later, in view of what everyone had told him beforehand, that he must have been defeated by the votes of people who never go to Lord's. He thought too that it had been a mistake to pin down the committee by putting a date to the tour, when the important thing was winning the principle. Mr Bailey thought the exercise had cleared the air and enhanced the reputation of the club. Everyone agreed that, whether or not MCC debated the matter again, cricket was not going to be able to forget South Africa.

© John Wisden & Co