Beyond a Windmill

Former Australian PM Bob Hawke recently told Ashley Mallett about an exchange he had in 1970 with Don Bradman. Bradman was then a senior cricket administrator, and, of course, the uncrowned king of Australia. Hawke, in contrast, was a labor union leader, quite far from the Prime Minister’s office. He was then trying to persuade the Australian cricket establishment to stop playing against South Africa. When Bradman greeted Hawke with the familiar shibboleth that sport should not be sullied with politics, Hawke retorted that it was the apartheid regime that had done the sullying by blocking non-white players from representing their country. Bradman, apparently, was both startled and persuaded by the argument: the forthcoming South African tour of Australia cancelled, and replaced by a Rest of the World team that included individual South African players. The result was a magnificent series, with legendary performances by an aging Garry Sobers and a young Dennis Lillee. The result was also a two-decade period when South Africa became a sort of twilight zone of cricket: missing, but present at the other end of a wormhole of race, money and gambled careers.

Hawke may have overstated his own role, and that of Australia, in the boycott of apartheid South Africa. The Basil D’Oliveira crisis (in which South Africa refused to accept the presence of the colored, South-Africa born, D’Oliveira in the England team) had already moved England closer to a boycott. The non-white Test-playing countries – India, Pakistan and the West Indies – had of course not played against South Africa at all: their boycott was existential as well as ideological, and it is telling that we don't use the term 'boycott' until England, Australia and New Zealand came on board.

Within Australia, anti-apartheid sentiment was not unknown in 1970. The country was, after all, a part of the global half-revolution of 1968, with its student radicalism and protests against the Vietnam War, in which Australian troops fought. All that informed the agenda and methods of the South Africa campaign. Nevertheless, there was something heroic, almost quixotic about Bob Hawke’s stance. Bradman’s surprised innocence was by far the more typical response, and not just in Australia. In England, the D’Oliveira affair had generated more irritation than real outrage: it was as if D’Oliveira had ruined a perfectly good thing, otherwise known as the apolitical purity of sport and the solidarity of the white Commonwealth. We tend to forget that organized sport in modern societies is nearly always a reactionary edifice, aligned with the interests and identities of those who take privilege for granted and associate the presumption of authority with banalities like purity and innocence. Administered from closed circles of feudal, Tory and then corporate power, cricket is more reactionary than almost any other spectator sport. Bradman was hardly a bad guy: he remains, in many ways, one of the most sympathetic greats of the modern game. It had simply not occurred to him to push the comfortable envelope of whiteness, until Hawke pushed it for him.

It is in that light that we might see the years of the South African boycott. It was one of the most extraordinary, and successful, instances of political boycott in recent times, laying the groundwork for the divestment campaign of the 1980s and substituting for the diplomatic isolation that Western governments refused to deploy. It was extraordinary because it was always the agenda of a minority: the English, Australian and New Zealand cricket establishments, including the cricketers, never really believed in it. They went along with it because of a peculiar convergence of pressures, some emerging in their own radicalized backyards, and some coming from outside. Those external pressures – the opinions and attitudes of a non-white world of cricket – were vital, and they were not fully acknowledged in their own time. Had the Anglo-Australian establishment not acknowledged a South African problem when it did, the fiction that world cricket could be represented by an imperial council made up of pink dinosaurs, even in 1970, would have cracked like an egg. As it happened, it did crack, albeit gradually. Since the 1990s, and especially since Jagmohan Dalmiya’s abrasive tenure at the head of international cricket (and a host of related issues, including match-fixing, ball-tampering, chucking, umpiring and on-field behavior), there has been much grumbling in England and Australia about the rise of the ‘Asian bloc,’ with its apparently genetic tendencies towards corruption, touchiness, money and disregard for tradition.  But arguably that rise began earlier, over South Africa.

It is still useful to ask about the ‘nature’ of pro-boycott sentiment in the non-white Test-playing countries. That there was nothing uniform, predictable or reliable about this sentiment becomes evident as soon as we look at India and the West Indies. It would be going too far to say that South Africa was immediately relevant to most Indian cricketers, fans and administrators: many, I think, would have shrugged and accepted ‘normal’ sporting relations, and gone to see Barry Richards, Mike Proctor and the Pollock brothers play against Pataudi, Prasanna and Gavaskar. The position taken by the Indian board reflected the apartheid regime’s own misgivings about playing against non-whites, and the heroic, quixotic foreign policy initiated by Nehru, in which anti-colonialism, non-alignment and boycotting South Africa found a new but surprisingly natural mutual compatibility. It was, in other words, a top-down, state-guided idealism. Foreign policy tends to float slightly above public opinion in most large countries, and India was no exception. But in India, cricket was a largely middle-class affair, and that middle class was genuinely – if casually – hostile to racism of the sort represented by the South African regime. That hostility, moreover, was integrated with the politics of the organized Left, and its imprint on policy: it is difficult to imagine South Africa being allowed to play in Calcutta in the years of ‘Amar nam, tomar nam, Vietnam’ (‘My name, your name, Vietnam’) demonstrations.

In the West Indies, the politics of the boycott had deeper soil. Through a combination of writing, activism and play in the 1950s and ‘60s – the overlapping phenomena of C.L.R. James and Learie Constantine, Griffith and Hall, Frank Worrell and Garry Sobers – racial self-assertion and dignity in cricket had become the basis not only of a politics of justice, but of a sport-based nationhood found nowhere else in the world. Yet the West Indies, along with England, Australia and Sri Lanka, provided apartheid South Africa with a steady dribble of ‘rebel’ cricketers in the years of the boycott. These included not just those on the margins of the big time, like Sylvester Clarke and Collis King, but those who were sought out by the South Africans precisely because they were stars: Colin Croft, Alvin Kallicharran. In South Africa, they faced predictable racism, tried to come to terms with the dubious privilege of being classified as 'honorary whites,' and accepted the unreliable affection of white crowds that appreciated this remarkable complicity of pariahs. One of the ironies of the South Africa boycott is that the same white nation that contemptuously refused to share a field with Basil D’Oliveira suddenly became eager to play against Lawrence Rowe, and would have given anything to have Viv Richards.

There is, in this reverse supply of black bodies from the New World to Africa, one of the barely acknowledged tragedies of modern sport. Even after Packer and World Series Cricket, the rewards – counted in the tens of thousands of dollars in the 1980s – were modest in comparison with what professional cricketers stand to earn today. The contracted periods were limited not only by the shelf-life of athletic ability, but also by the endgame of apartheid and the politics of world cricket. It was never enough to compensate for the destroyed careers and reputations. None of this concerned South African plotter-poachers like Ali Bacher, or players like Proctor, whose lives were not adversely affected by their innocent games. They remained respectable even after the end of apartheid, shielded by the aura of sport itself.

For Caribbean players, however, South African cricket was like a dangerous drug that left a trail of moral ambiguity and real damage. It is, after all, difficult to blame professional athletes in an economic backwater for responding to the cash available in South Africa. This is especially true of those on the margins of the phenomenally strong West Indies squad of the 1980s: they had not benefited from Kerry Packer’s circus, and their reward for not joining the circus had been snatched away by their own cricket board when the Packer players returned to the West Indies fold. They cannot be easily compared with English and Australian players who joined ‘rebel tours’ or signed up to play domestic cricket in South Africa; their earnings in their own country were precarious, and the enticement of financial security more compelling. And unlike the middle-class milieu of the Indian game, Caribbean cricket included the poor, who had skills to sell and mouths to feed. Not going to South Africa came with the danger of sliding into squalor. Ironically, going to South Africa and then being ostracized for having gone often had the same effect. Caribbean cricket, C.L.R. James pointed out many years ago, is played within a powerful class-based code of propriety. Breaking the boycott was highly improper, and the repercussions are unsurprising.

In the 1970s and 1980s, cricket was not yet played in a weirdly skewed universe in which a Third World country was also the goldmine and power-center of the sport. It was an embattled imperial order, and the poorer, relatively vulnerable, black scabs paid the price: white players who went to South Africa were, by and large, rehabilitated far more easily into the cricket establishments of their homelands, and faced little in the way of earnest opprobrium. Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and the inappropriately-named Geoff Boycott were imbedded within populations that generally saw the boycott of South Africa as a trivial bit of political correctness: an artificial agenda promoted by uppity natives who do not understand the innocence of sport, especially cricket, with its mythology of village greens, spotless whites and permanent hegemony. Unlike the West Indians, they were fundamentally innocent.

April 28, 2014