1998 February 23, 2013

When Lara led a players' strike

West Indies cricket hit a new low in November 1998 when the captain and his squad refused to travel to South Africa

By the late 1990s, West Indies were no longer the all-conquering side they had been over the previous two decades - defeats at the hands of Australia home and away as well as an emphatic 3-0 series whitewash in Pakistan had seen them slip to No. 4 in the ICC Test rankings - but they were still a major force. There was real anticipation surrounding their first tour to South Africa in the autumn of 1998, with little between the two countries, on paper at least.

As it turned out, it was one of the most one-sided series in Test history. Given what happened in the days before the tour it was hardly surprising that West Indies were humiliated.

Their preparations were overshadowed by the kind of dispute that was to undermine their game so many times over the next decade, and one that had been a perennial issue for years - players' pay. Most people assumed it was another argument that would rumble on until the squad landed and then be put aside until the eve of the next event. But this time player unrest and board incompetence combined to leave West Indies cricket in the gutter.

The tour party were heading to South Africa in November 1998 from different places, a few from the Caribbean while most were going straight on from a one-day tournament in Bangladesh. But on November 5, nine of them, including Brian Lara, the captain, told tour manager Clive Lloyd during a stopover in Bangkok that they were heading to London not Johannesburg, after a row with WICB board officials. A bemused Lloyd and entourage headed south while the players flew to Heathrow Airport.

The players were not so much unhappy with their tour fees - up to £35,000 each - as much as peripheral issues such as training and meal allowances, and these proved the catalyst in a row that had been brewing for months. They were also uneasy with security arrangements following incidents earlier in the year when Pakistan had visited the republic.

As soon as Pat Rousseau, the WICB president, heard what was happening he called a board meeting, and by the time Lara and Carl Hooper, the vice-captain, arrived at their London hotel a fax was waiting informing them they had been fired and the other squad members fined 10% of their tour fees.

Rousseau, whose relationship with Lara was strained, seemed to believe this would break the back of the strike but the action backfired badly, only serving to make the players more determined.

It later emerged that Rousseau had instructed the president of the Jamaican Cricket Board, Jackie Hendriks, to sound out Courtney Walsh to see if he would take over as captain. Walsh was having none of it and the plan was quietly shelved. The selectors had also chosen Keith Arthurton and Sherwin Campbell to replace Lara and Hooper in the squad, but that did not happen either.

In Johannesburg, where seven of the West Indies squad had arrived and were kicking their heels, Ali Bacher, the South African board's managing director, offered his support to his West Indies counterparts while privately fearing that the tour could be off, with a resulting loss to his board of millions of dollars.

A day later, despite pleas from Lloyd, those of the side who were in South Africa flew back to London - "to show solidarity" - increasing the chances of the tour falling apart. Publically the players insisted they wanted the series to go ahead, but not at any cost. For its part, the WICB was at pains to point out that it had recently lost a major sponsor and was heavily in debt.

Lara took a back seat, telling reporters: "I'm on the outside. I'm not a member of the West Indies cricket team at the moment. But I still want to go to South Africa." The spotlight fell on Walsh, Lara's predecessor and now president of WIPA, the players' association.

Bacher, meanwhile, had been working feverishly behind the scenes, and on the advice of a cricket lover and anti-apartheid activist, Professor Jakes Gerwel, had made an approach to Nelson Mandela, at the time South Africa's president, to intervene. "Jakes said he had a simple solution, one that no sportsman could refuse," Bacher said. "He drafted a letter imploring the players to go ahead with the tour, stressing the importance of their visit to the new democracy. He took the letter to Madiba [Mandela], who read it and signed it."

That night, with talks not going anywhere, Bacher and Lloyd jumped on a British Airways plane for Heathrow. "I flew to London for the crisis talks with the players [with] the letter in my back pocket," Bacher said.

The pair landed at 5am on Friday, November 6, and Bacher headed to the Excelsior Hotel, where he was kept waiting in the foyer by the players for more than an hour. While there, Bacher showed reporters the letter from Mandela. One of them cracked a joke about him resembling Neville Chamberlain and his "peace in our time" speech.

After an hour Walsh appeared, read the letter, spoke briefly with Bacher and withdrew to chat with his team-mates. Bacher repeated his claims that he was confident the tour would happen. "If the African National Congress and the National Party can sort out their differences in our country, I'm sure the people of the West Indies can come to some understanding to resolve theirs," he told the media. "I assured the West Indies players that if there were any undue fears over safety, we would provide them with the necessary security to make them feel comfortable in South Africa."

Saturday, November 7, was a day of talking without any breakthrough. Meetings were held, broke up and restarted. Joel Garner, there to help on behalf of the players' association, looked bemused and said: "We're nowhere near resolving this."

By the time Rousseau had realised the only way he would be able to hold face-to-face meetings with the rebellious players was to fly to London, the players' demands had increased to include the reinstatement of the captain and vice-captain. "That's part of the condition," said Walsh. "We want the entire 16 the way they were selected. The boys want Brian as captain."

At midday on Sunday, November 8, Rousseau landed at Heathrow, and that afternoon he met for a long time with Walsh, Lara, Hooper and Jimmy Adams. At an informal lunch with a few journalists Bacher joked: "If this isn't over today, I pay. If it's resolved, the British press pays." Bacher had to cough up when a weary Walsh appeared at 8pm and said no progress had been made.

The complexity of the affair grew when it emerged a sponsor had been found for the tour, which would apparently help meet the players' demands for better pay and conditions, but it was dependent on the reinstatement of Lara and Hooper.

By Monday, November 9, there were so many journalists milling round the hotel that the Excelsior management provided a special room for them ("to stop them clogging up the foyer") and there they waited. Only one player turned up to represent the players in ongoing meetings - Adams - and by 7pm the journalists were back in the foyer, as they had had to vacate their makeshift base, which had been booked for a wedding reception.

At 8.35pm a press conference was finally called in a basement room and Rousseau announced that the tour was back on. While there was widespread relief, what followed was an unconvincing exercise in trying to save face.

Rousseau denied the shambles had been a PR disaster and that Lara had in effect held them to ransom. "Both sides acknowledge that the dispute originally stemmed from a misunderstanding," he said, also insisting that there had been no increase in the players' fees. "Again, that was a misunderstanding," he said, "not between the players and ourselves but between the players and their association." If he was to be believed, the board had not caved in at all.

"It looked as if the impasse was never going to be broken," a relieved Bacher said, "but, in the end, common sense prevailed."

The squad made the five-minute bus ride to the airport terminal that evening and caught the late flight to Johannesburg, arriving in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Even then there was one more twist. On the flight Adams severed tendons in a finger following an altercation with a knife as he tried to cut some bread. What initially seemed a minor injury proved serious enough to rule him out for the remainder of the tour.

Lara faced inevitable questions about the standoff when he landed in Johannesburg but refused to be drawn other than to say talks had been "confidential" and that "the letter sent individually to each player by President Mandela had given them food for thought".

Only years later did Rousseau reveal that Mandela had expressed "disappointment with how the matter was handled". He said: "Lara never even acknowledged the letter and I know that Mandela was a little peeved, because I got that from Bacher. Can you imagine? Brian Lara, a black man, ignored a request from Mandela? There are guys who would jump off buildings for Mandela, bigger heroes than Lara. He never answered Mandela, and I don't think he has ever answered him since then."

Rebel cricketers used to get into trouble for visiting South Africa. This time the rebels have decided to stay away from the republic
Paul Newman, the Daily Telegraph

The media reaction in the Caribbean was less relaxed. "The WICB owes the people of the region an apology, either for the manner in which they dealt with the players' protest, or for buckling under pressure and sacrificing discipline on the altar of expediency," wrote the Jamaica Gleaner, while the Nation said: "The lessons of the last week, an experience which might well have led to the death of the spirit of West Indian cricket at the highest level, will be salutary, and those who played major parts in salvaging it may have already begun to appreciate the narrowness of its escape."

As it turned out, it was less of an escape than a reprieve. And on the field West Indies were a shambles, becoming only the sixth side in Test history to be whitewashed in a five-Test series. "Certainly, there was a divided air about the West Indies party for much of the tour," Wisden noted. "Lara admitted after the fifth Test that 'we are not together as a team'. That appeared an understatement, and, for that lack of unity, Lara had to bear some responsibility."

What happened next?

  • The opening tour game - against the Nicky Oppenheimer XI at Randjesfontein - was cancelled
  • Lara himself continued to underachieve with the bat, extending his sequence of matches without a Test hundred to 14. On his return home the tour report noted his "weakness in leadership", and he was told he had to make "significant improvements in his leadership skills"
  • After reassuring the West Indies players about safety arrangements in South Africa, Rousseau was held up at gunpoint in Soweto on November 26

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa