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The Racist History of South African Cricket Must Be Written Into the Record

Richard Heller and Peter Oborne set out how the past injustice of non-white players being excluded from the country’s Test cricket matches should be re-evaluated in the light of powerful new discussions about the legacy of white supremacy

Basil D’Oliveira playing for the MCC against Yorkshire at Lord’s in 1966. Photo: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

The Racist History of South African Cricket Must Be Written Into the Record

Richard Heller and Peter Oborne set out how the past injustice of non-white players being excluded from the country’s Test cricket matches should be re-evaluated in the light of powerful new discussions about the legacy of white supremacy  

Johannesburg, a former gold mining settlement which is today a global megacity embracing the sprawling Soweto township, will this week host South Africa’s 441st official Test match.

Alongside England and Australia, South Africa was one of the three founder members of the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909. The country has been playing Test cricket since 1889 and its team has included many of the greatest players the game has known – from Aubrey Faulkner at the turn of the 20th Century, to Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards in the final years of Apartheid, to Allan Donald and Jacques Kallis in the modern era.

Although it is awkward and in many ways unfair, the question must be asked: should these fixtures be struck from the Test Match record?

Not all of them. Just the 174 matches played under racist and Apartheid conditions between 1889, when South Africa played an English team (including the future Hollywood actor Sir Aubrey Smith) and March 1970, when an outstanding all-white South African team won every match over Australia in a four-Test series.  

Thereafter, a global sporting ban excluded South Africa from world cricket until a multi-racial team representing Nelson Mandela’s South Africa lost by 50 runs to the West Indies in April 1992.

The Black Lives Matter movement has led to a reconsideration of many aspects of white supremacist history. The statue of British slave trader Edward Colston was hauled down last summer in Bristol, while the US Confederate leader Jefferson Davis has been belatedly toppled in Virginia. The case to reclassify South African Test Matches emerges from a reading of Pitch Battles, a newly published history of racism in South African sport by the former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain and the great South African cricket historian Andre Odendaal. 

They demolish the fond notion that the Boers rather than the English were racist and trace segregation in South African sport to its earliest days when, under the malevolent influence of Cecil Rhodes, the English colonial authorities decided to exclude non-white players from representative teams, including the superb fast bowler Krom Hendricks.

Though strict apartheid laws were not introduced until 1948, the fact is that racism in South African sport was well entrenched under English dominance – Hendricks was the first of many brilliant non-white cricketers denied the chance to represent their national team. Many other non-white cricketers (and other sportspeople) followed in his footsteps. Without exception, they were denied the right to represent their native country. 

But it wasn’t just that. White South Africa was blind to non-white cricketers and denied their existence. They had no access to the best schools, clubs, pitches and training and practice facilities. Almost all whites, particularly white sportspeople who benefited from racially segregated sport, claimed that non-white people had no interest in competing with them and could never be their equal if they tried to.

Then along came a so-called Cape Coloured cricketer named Basil D’Oliveira, born in Cape Town in 1931. ‘Cape Coloured’ was not his description or his family’s – it was a label stuck on him by apartheid laws enforced by degrading personal tests.

But D’Oliveira plunged the system of sporting apartheid into crisis. 

Denied the opportunity to play at the level he deserved in South Africa, he escaped to England to become a professional cricketer. He was so talented that, in due course, he was chosen for England, thus smashing the central apartheid myth about the superiority of the white race.

D’Oliveira’s cricketing genius created an international crisis when he was selected as part of the England touring party to South Africa in the winter of 1968. The tour was at once banned by the then South African Prime Minister Vorster – a move which ultimately plunged South Africa into 25 years of sporting isolation. 

The governing body of English cricket, the MCC, ignored its humiliation by Vorster and invited South Africa to tour in 1970 as if nothing had happened. That tour was stopped by Peter Hain’s threatened campaign of non-violent direct action, which was rehearsed with protests against South Africa’s white-only tennis and rugby teams. 

It was the case of D’Oliveira (who himself stayed resolutely out of politics) which demonstrated to the world the iniquity of apartheid in cricket and made it unacceptable for South Africa’s white opponents to go on playing her. 

So should anything be done about South Africa’s 174 racist Test matches? Should they be wiped out of the record?

‘South Africa Should Have Been Leading the Way’

So far the discussion has been ignored – and no wonder. 

Some of the greatest players the world has known played against white South Africa. Don Bradman, Keith Miller, Dennis Compton, Len Hutton. So did dozens of lesser players from the white cricket countries of England, Australia and New  Zealand, including some who had their only Test matches against South Africa. 

Why should their achievements be struck down? They thought they were representing their country as sportsmen. Particularly for those who played in the early era it seems unreasonable to demand that they should have met the standards of political awareness we are coming to expect of sportspeople in modern times. 

For English professional cricketers, subject to almost feudal servitude by their employers, it would have been hugely damaging to refuse selection for England on moral or political grounds. Significantly, the major cricketer who did boycott white South Africa – David Sheppard – was an amateur who had already begun his vocation. 

But the reality is that every single Test match played against South Africa up to 1970 legitimised and consolidated the total exclusion of non-white players from its team. To call these Test matches raises the same kind of issues as the memorials to slave owners and slave traders: should non-white cricket lovers today be compelled to acknowledge them and applaud their participants? That’s why we feel that this matter cannot be left alone. 

For one thing, racism in South African cricket has not gone away. Astoundingly for a country with South Africa’s racist past, Black Lives Matter is under attack there, especially from white former Test players. One of them, Boeta Dippenaar, branded it as “nothing more than a leftist political movement” started by Marxists whose aim was to break down family life. “All lives matter,” he added.  

Another former white player, Pat Symcox, responding to some measured comments on Black Lives Matter by the current black South African player Lungi Ngidi, said: “What nonsense is this. He must take his own stand if he wishes. Stop trying to get the Proteas involved in his belief. Besides the fact that right now Cricket South Africa should be closed down. A proper dog-and-pony show with cricket being dragged through the mud daily. Buy popcorn and watch. Now when Ngidi has his next meal perhaps he would rather consider supporting the farmers of South Africa who are under pressure right now. A cause worth supporting.”

As for a third, Brian McMillan, he dismissed the whole issue as “a load of crap”.

This kind of language echoes in a frightening way the language of the racist right in the United States.

When we asked Peter Hain about this reaction, he said: “I would have thought that, of all the teams, South Africa, with its thorny and vicious history of apartheid in cricket, would have taken the lead, white and black, in supporting Black Lives Matter. Apartheid stained South Africa for half a century and before that there was racism in cricket, with the exclusion of Krom Hendricks. South Africa should have been leading the way, and white cricketers, with their black international colleagues, should have been the ones to say to the world ‘we should all do this together.’”

We believe that it would be wrong to obliterate white South Africa’s Test match history from the record. It would pass a retrospective judgement on too many cricketers who held no personal responsibility for the evil system which disfigured cricket itself. But we also believe that all Test Match records should reflect the fact that, until 1992, the South African cricket team represented only a minority of the population. 

Cricket statisticians love asterisks, daggers and other textual marks. It would be a simple matter to place a dagger against all pre-1992 Test matches and re-classify them as played against White South Africa. 

We propose one other simple reform: all two-innings matches played by non-white South African cricketers before 1992 should be retrospectively designated first-class. That would give many fine players the status which they were cruelly denied through their race. 

Peter Hain was recently interviewed on the ‘Oborne & Heller on Cricket’ podcast. Peter Oborne is the author of an award-winning biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of ‘Wounded Tiger’, a history of Pakistan cricket since its beginnings. Together, they wrote ‘White On Green’, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket. ‘Pitch Battles’ by Peter Hain and André Odendaal is published by Rowman and Littlefield International

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