When Sri Lanka went to cuckoo land

Tony Opatha led a rebel side to South Africa in 1982 - a tour on which a certain ill-suppressed madness lurked around the edges

Luke Alfred
Ajit de Silva celebrates a wicket, Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Colombo, February 1982

Ajit de Silva (on Test debut here) struggled on the rebel tour after suffering a bad case of nerves  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

Late one weeknight in September 1982, a South African lawyer called Colin Rushmere flew into Colombo. He had flown from his home town of Port Elizabeth up to Johannesburg, then on to Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. The timing of his arrival in Colombo was no accident: the hour was sleepy, and as expected, customs officials were bleary-eyed.
His most important item of luggage was a briefcase, a constant companion. In the bottom of it, disguised by other things, were stacked 14 contracts. He was in Sri Lanka to have them signed. Rushmere was not only armed with his trusty briefcase - he had a story primed, just in case. If asked, he was to mumble his way through a passable Dutch accent and busk for all he was worth. "Tony [Opatha], who picked me up and arranged the ['rebel' Sri Lankan] tour from their side, told me that he was so well known that he'd have to drop me a couple of streets away from my hotel," remembers Rushmere. "He didn't want to be seen because at that stage the tour was very hush-hush. If anyone asked or we got into any difficulties, I was a 'Dutch businessman'.
"Flying home a couple of days later I had my bags thoroughly searched, including my briefcase. As the official was digging deeper and deeper and I was getting more and more concerned, I had a brainwave. I noticed an exchange bureau close by and asked if I could change my remaining money. As I did, she seemed to lose interest. She never got to the signed contracts."
All the clandestine manoeuvring started a couple of months before Rushmere's Colombo nip and tuck. In July, Ali Bacher and Geoff Dakin, the chief executive and president respectively of the South African Cricket Union (SACU) made the hop from London, where they were schmoozing around the edges of the ICC's annual meeting at Lord's, to Rotterdam. They spent the night and were back in Birmingham the following morning to watch Allan Lamb score his debut ODI century for England against Pakistan, in their eyes a timely reminder of what South Africans could do if allowed to strut on the international stage.
"I remember Bacher spotting Opatha in the airport waiting area," says Dakin. 'There he is,' says Ali, to which I replied, 'Very good Ali, well spotted, he's the only black man in this sea of white faces.' We got negotiating and Opatha asks for $30,000 per player. Ali says, 'You think we have that sort of cash, you must be in cuckoo land.' So Opatha comes back, quick as anything: 'So tell me, Ali, how many cuckoos are there to the dollar?'"
Bacher and Dakin's detour to Rotterdam was to gauge the seriousness of Opatha's scheme to bring an unofficial Sri Lankan team to South Africa later that year. They left satisfied, and returning home, sold the idea to their board. Sponsored by South African Breweries (SAB), an English rebel side had toured South Africa the previous season, and while there was political fallout both at home and abroad, the tour was successful enough for something similar to be attempted again.
Although Sri Lanka had only played their first official Test (losing by seven wickets to England in Colombo) that February, that debut didn't appear to be overly significant to either Opatha or the South Africans. Carrying more heft, by far, was the fact that the Sri Lankans were a non-white team. This would help convince a largely unimpressed world of SACU's reform credentials, a sort of cricketing equivalent of both having your game and playing in it. A token handful of black and "coloured" players, like Edward Habane, Omar Henry and Joe Rubidge played in the provincial games, but essentially Opatha's men were playing against apartheid-era white opposition. "By their standards they were going to be handsomely paid," recalled Dakin, "and we needed regular foreign opposition to keep the game healthy. National Panasonic [the electronics manufacturer] were an enthusiastic sponsor. We went ahead and kept it as quiet as we could."
"The lepers who are surreptitiously worming their way to South Africa must understand that they are not playing fair by the coloured world"
Sri Lankan minister Gamini Dissanayake on the rebels
Opatha hadn't played cricket in or for Sri Lanka since the 1979 World Cup, and at the time of the negotiations was playing club cricket in the Netherlands. With his customary larger-than-life flair, he set about assembling a side, the financial temptations of the tour proving too generous to ignore.
Rushmere flew back from Colombo with 14 signed contracts in his briefcase, but literally on the eve of the Sri Lankans' arrival in South Africa he needed to dash up to Harare, where they were in the closing stages of a tour against Zimbabwe. "It was very important for us that we get confirmation from [Roy] Dias and [Duleep] Mendis that they were prepared to make it, because we'd heard that they were vacillating," said Rushmere. "Joe [Pamensky, then the treasurer of SACU] promised that if we could get the signatures of those two, they could come back for another tour the following year."
In the event, the parties got bogged down in financial negotiations. Despite not being available for the entire South African tour, Dias and Mendis demanded the full fee. Rushmere was unable to reach agreement with them, and after a heady few weeks in which there were press rumours of the Sri Lankans' passports being withdrawn, a group of sundry tourists from Colombo arrived at Jan Smuts airport in late October.
Unlike the fanfare that preceded the arrival of the SAB England side the previous summer, there was no media fandango. "They were expressly told to pack a small suitcase with a change of clothes and a toothbrush," says Dakin. "They were 'tourists', dressed in civvies. Kitting out took place here in South Africa. We wanted to draw as little attention as possible to their arrival."
If there were any quibbles from the hosts about the quality of the tourists without Dias and Mendis, who had batted at three and four respectively in Sri Lanka's official debut Test in February, Opatha did his best to keep them in check. With characteristic swagger he dubbed the team the AROSA Sri Lankan XI - the "ARO" in AROSA standing for the Antony Ralph in Antony Ralph Marinon Opatha - the "SA" being a self-explanatory doffing of the cap at his hosts.
The tourists were in all likelihood kitted out by Adidas (the photos are indistinct) and they were shadowed at all times by Piet Kellermann, a South African government representative, who saw to it that there were no official incidents. The tourists were described as "charming ambassadors" but were required to toe the petty apartheid line. There was to be little venturing outside of their hotels, or "see-for-themselves" furloughs into the townships for a little chisa nyama (grilled meat) and a couple of Black Label quarts at a local shebeen.
Seeing South Africa's darker side soon faded into insignificance, as the tourists realised they had a looming crisis of credibility on the field. Although they held out for an early draw against a gun Western Province side, they lost their opening match, to a Transvaal Invitation XI (by six wickets) and also lost to Boland (by five wickets) in an early two-day game at Oude Libertas in Stellenbosch. The wide strength of South African cricket was confirmed after the first one-dayer, at the Wanderers, where they could only patch together 102 in reply to South Africa's 291 for 4 (Jimmy Cook 120, Barry Richards 71), losing by 189 runs. Vince van der Bijl took 2 for 9 and Garth le Roux 2 for 16.
While South African cricket was formidably powerful at the time, it was also in the midst of a prolonged changing of the guard. Senior statesmen like Graeme Pollock (38), Richards (37) and van der Bijl (35) were being gently challenged by a younger generation of players like Peter Kirsten, Stephen Jefferies and Lawrence Seeff. The elbowing for places made for a mutually watchful, competitive environment within the South African squad. Internal competition plus local hunger equalled abject Sri Lankan misery. On their 14-match tour they didn't win a game, frequently losing by an innings.
The Sri Lankans, meanwhile, were beginning to fray, no more so than Ajit de Silva, their left-arm spinner, who, like Dias and Mendis, had played in Sri Lanka's debut Test. In the first unofficial Test, at the Wanderers, he bowled five overs for 33 in a manifestly anxious spell. Colin Bryden, the long-time South African cricket writer, was seconded to SACU at the time as their press liaison officer. He remembers de Silva's performance: "I do recall that it was one of those horror situations where as a spectator you were just willing him to bowl a regulation delivery. He seemed to be really nervous and sweating a lot. He had been regarded as the team's leading bowler, based on his Test, ODI and first-class record, and he simply wasn't a factor."
De Silva unravelled as the tour progressed, possibly finding the tour's clandestine status too much to bear. The second Test was at Newlands, with local boy Seeff taking the place of the injured Richards at the top of the innings. Seeff, who nowadays works as an angel investor in Palo Alto, California, when he isn't amiably discussing the international game with half of Silicon Valley's Indian community, remembers his call-up clearly: "I received a call from Ali [Bacher] one afternoon. I was only too happy to be Barry's understudy."
Seeff and Cook both plundered centuries in an opening stand of 250. Pollock scythed his way to 197 before Kirsten declared the innings closed on 663 for 6, scored at more than four runs to the over. "I remember Ajit couldn't land a ball - he just had a complete breakdown emotionally," says Seeff.
Around the same time in faraway Brisbane, Kepler Wessels had scored a century for Australia on debut, against England.
Opatha clearly saw South Africa as a land of riches and boundless opportunity, because he asked Bacher if the tourists could be paid either in part or whole in Krugerrands
Returning to the pavilion after his 188, Seeff had a shower, and as he sat down in the players' enclosure to admire the view, was questioned by an enterprising journalist. "The press enclosure was next door, and I remember the Cape Times' Frank Heydenrych popping his head across and asking how it now feels to hold the record for the highest Test score on debut. Not really thinking, I replied that my 188 hardly compared with Kepler's 162 in an Ashes Test, but the following day there was the headline in the morning edition of the paper saying that I'd called the Sri Lankans a substandard Test team. That's how it all blew up."
Seeff was later summoned by Pamensky, wearing his "we-are-not-amused" face. "So I went to the library and immediately I could see that he wasn't in a good mood," remembers Seeff. "'You've caused problems and made it very difficult for us,' Joe said. 'Your comment made it difficult for us to promote the tour and give the right impression.' I apologised and was fined my match fee and that was the end of it. I never felt that I was punished or neglected after that. I was 12th man for the matches during the West Indian tour the following season."
The idea has been advanced that the Sri Lankans helped pave the way for the West Indies rebels of the coming seasons, demonstrating that it was possible for a non-white team to tour the Republic without incident or undue hindrance. Bryden doubts this was the case. He points out that the tour was "a flop" simply because the tourists were missing some of their best players, like Dias and Mendis, and lacked a rounded team. Their opening bowling was weak (accounting for the high number of centuries scored by openers against them) and de Silva's breakdown cost them dearly. The conditions in which they lived and travelled were often artificial and the hidden emotional costs of the tour profound.
To this day, the South African administrators of the time remain unrepentant - the expression, perhaps, of men who were more out of touch with the game than they cared to admit. Dakin admits that the reception given to him and Bacher by Doug Insole on the fringes of the ICC's 1982 meeting was frosty: "He more or less intimated that we as the South African delegation had a bloody cheek to even come to London."
The South Africans didn't, however, lack completely for a sense of humour. After Bacher had shared the anecdote about his haggling with Opatha in Rotterdam airport, Pamensky took to calling it the "cuckoo tour", an appellation suggestive of a certain ill-suppressed madness lurking around the tour's edges. Opatha clearly saw South Africa as a land of riches and boundless opportunity, because, according to Dakin, he asked Bacher if the tourists could be paid either in part or whole in Krugerrands. Cloud cuckoo land, indeed.
The reception faced by the returning Sri Lankans was vitriolic. The non-aligned world was outraged by their antics and all 14 were given life bans by the Sri Lankan board, a setback the fledgling cricket power could ill afford. "The lepers who are surreptitiously worming their way to South Africa must understand that they are not playing fair by the coloured world," cabinet minister Gamini Dissanayake is quoted as saying in Peter May's excellent book, The Rebel Tours: Cricket's Crisis of Conscience. The unusual use of the verb "worming" tells us all we need to know.
As worms in cuckoo land, history has judged neither SACU nor the Sri Lankan rebels well. The verdict is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg